Do detox diets really work?

PHOTO: Do detox diets really work?

There are all kinds of detox diet out there for those who feel that their digestive system is in need of some cleansing. But do they really work? Jaime Ee looks for answers.

When it comes to food, gourmands and nutritionists attack it from completely opposite directions.

One lives to eat, the other eats to live and ne’er the twain shall meet until the former lands in the latter’s office with a screwed up digestive system collapsing under the strain of rampant hedonism.

But the time will come when prolonged over-indulgence must come to an end, and the solution becomes inevitable: you need to detox.

The next question is, of course, how, and then, how difficult? When your palate is more attuned to the complex flavours of smoky wok hei noodles or a thick wagyu burger with cheese and truffle fries, how is an undressed salad or steamed fish going to find a place in your culinary vocabulary?

If you check around your circle of friends, invariably you’ll find someone who has been, wants to be or is being forced to be, on a detox diet.

It’s just a matter of what kind. A Thai spa retreat complete with massage, spa cuisine and tinkly music? A maple syrup and lemon juice detox quickie? Or an off the shelf cleansing regime that lets you eat whatever you want but makes you poop it all out three times a day?

You name it and someone would have tried it.

Chef Vivian Pei, for one, tried to go on a 10-day Master Cleanse diet – having nothing but a concoction of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper – but lasted only three days on it.

“I need a more nutritional detox, one that allows you to eat,” she says. So she opted for a 21-day Clean Program – a combination of “clean” foods supplemented with protein powders and digestive enzymes.

“I felt okay, though perhaps a bit hungry in the evening,” she says.

“I got used to it after just a few days, though, and I stuck to the whole three weeks. I had a couple of minor hiccups along the way but just carried on. Because it was food I was preparing (and I'm a pretty good cook if I do say so myself!), the food was not boring.”

Media consultant Lynn Yeow went through two extremes of detox – a slow and easy retreat at the famed Chiva Som resort in Hua Hin, and a hardcore home detox programme that required her to reduce her food intake steadily till she was eating almost nothing except a mixture of powder and apple juice with detox pills.

The Chiva Som programme was a walk in the park – gourmet spa meals, massages, juices, yoga and gym sessions. “After the experience, I did feel generally healthier and happier,” she says.

“I learnt to watch the quality of the food I put inside my mouth and also started reading up and buying more organic produce.”

More intense, more unhealthy?

More intense, more unhealthy?

The home detox programme was more “intense”, with no food intake for almost two weeks apart from the prepared drink and a special soup. “It was very tough for the first three to four days. It took a lot of perseverance especially with my job which requires me to entertain quite a bit.”

During the no-food phase, “I went to the toilet three to five times daily. But I did feel that my skin looked better after that. I have friends who lost 3kg to 5kg but I lost about 1.5kg. Still, the main objective isn’t weight loss but to cleanse your system.”

Even then, before you think about embarking on a cleanse, it really makes sense to consult a nutritionist first.

Pooja Vig, founder of The Nutrition Clinic in Camden Medical Centre, is dead against any detox programmes that involve drastic measures.

“For most people, detox equals starvation,” she says. “Programmes like the Master Cleanse which ask people to only have a few ingredients are harsh and extreme."

"It is not something that a person who enjoys good food and respects her body would do. Another trend that I see is that people think they can buy a ‘detox in a bottle’ – take this for a few days and all will be well.”

What people often don’t realise is that “detoxification is what your body does all the time, and a sound programme takes the approach that our food and lifestyle either supports that or hinders it. The wrong way to detox is, of course, anything that is extreme or harsh”.

Most over-the-counter products, she reckons, don’t achieve much. “They don’t have long lasting effects. Spa treatments, as nice as they are, also won’t have lasting benefits but could supplement a detox programme nicely.”

Which is why a more realistic approach involves a long-term change in the way one looks at food, supported by a short-term plan to kick start new eating habits by phasing out bad foods and introducing good ones.

Obviously, your favourite burger and fries will have to take a back seat, but if someone said you could replace that with a nice piece of grass fed steak accompanied by roasted vegetables and still be on a detox diet, wouldn’t it be easier to take the plunge?

This article was first published in The Business Times.