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updated 6/11/2010 4:12:08 PM ET 2010-06-11T20:12:08

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The concept of fasting — drastically reducing caloric intake or following a liquid diet — isn't new. But many modern detox diets can be harmful.
How's this for insane? One in 20 women would rather give up a limb than be obese, according to a study in the journal Obesity. So it's pretty much a no-brainer that hordes of rational women desperately want to believe in the power of a detox diet. "These diets are so popular right now, mostly because people think they're a quick fix for shedding pounds," says Jennifer Ventrelle, R.D., a nutrition counselor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

As nice as it is to think you can simply flush fat away by drinking so much liquid you spend half your day in the bathroom, the reality is that some of these diets are not just literally hard to swallow, but they may also be bad to swallow.

Recipe for danger?
The concept of fasting — drastically reducing caloric intake or following a liquid diet — isn't new. The modern-day detox has existed since at least the 1930s, with the first grapefruit diet fad.

Today, most commercial detox diets tout an unhealthy formula of minimal calories and nutrients along with some key — usually foul-tasting — ingredient that has supposed fat-melting power, like cayenne pepper or vinegar. But no science backs the idea that following a specific diet for a week or eating only one food will get rid of "toxins." Your body has the power to do that all on its own: That's why you have a liver, kidneys, and a digestive system.

What's worse, "most of the so-called 'detox' supplements and diets on the market aren't regulated by the FDA and are potentially harmful, especially if they're very low-calorie or contain diuretics that flush your body of potassium and other crucial nutrients," Ventrelle says.

And with these very real risks come minimal rewards. Much of what you're losing on this kind of extreme diet is water weight, which lasts only until you refill on fluids. If you see a more permanent drop on the scale, chances are it's muscle, not fat, that's missing. Without adequate protein (and a liquid diet doesn't offer much), your body takes it from its most available source: your own muscle tissue.

Not good! Muscle is your built-in calorie furnace, torching those muffin-top makers even when you're not moving. And the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, which is why dramatically slashing calories can actually slow your metabolism in just a few days. "Your body thinks you're starving and panics," explains Marc Hellerstein, M.D., Ph.D., professor of human nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley. "Your metabolism slows way down to preserve your muscle and basic bodily functions." So when you go back to eating normally, you gain weight faster and from fewer calories.

Detoxes debunked
There's no question that detox diets drastically slash your calorie consumption. But research has found that after just a few days of skimping on calories (even a very petite woman needs at least 1,200), your body stops producing a crucial growth hormone called IGF1, and reduces thyroid and other hormones as well as insulin levels. Over time, all of this can lead to problems such as bone loss and menstrual disruptions.

Even fasting every other day, which a 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found may benefit obese men and women, hasn't shown promise for those who are looking to lose only a few pounds.

And then there's the quality-of-life issue. "When you eat that little, your sex drive disappears, you feel tired all the time, and you're always hungry," Hellerstein says. And what good is a hot body if you can't summon the energy to use it?

A healthier head start
That's not to say every cleanse is bad. Done in a healthy (read: sane) way, detoxing "can feel like an intervention, a fresh beginning," Hellerstein says.

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"Most people eat way more food than necessary, which taxes the liver and kidneys," says Ronald Stram, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Health and Healing in New York. Not only does a healthy detox give your digestive system a break, but by eliminating added sugar, saturated fats, and alcohol, it also rids your diet of things that can exacerbate health issues, Ventrelle says. "Plus," she notes, "you'll likely cut calories in the process."

A good plan provides enough calories and nutrients to sustain you (the average woman needs 1,200 to 1,800 calories) and includes fiber and lean protein. With that in mind, Ventrelle created a 1,400-calorie plan exclusively for Women's Health. (Note: Calories given are for a 5'3" to 5'5", 115-to 125-pound woman. You may need to adjust for your own height, weight, age, and activity level.) Following it for at least three days will kick-start weight loss, but it's safe to use as long as you'd like.

Because you'll eat often — at least every four hours — and drink as much water and decaffeinated tea as you want, you'll beat bloat while keeping your blood sugar steady and your energy high. This means you'll be able to cut back without feeling cranky, exhausted, or hungry. And — we pinky swear — you won't have to gulp down a single glass of cayenne-spiked liquid.

Liquid lunch?
It isn't magic: Cleanses that offer few calories in icky-tasting liquid form may shed weight — but it's not sustainable.

Breakfast

  • 8 oz water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • Scrambled egg whites with chopped fresh herbs (such as basil or oregano), topped with a dollop of salsa, and 1 slice whole-wheat toast, dry or 1 cup cooked oats or cooked oatmeal topped with 1/2 cup berries or 2 Tbsp nuts
  • 8 oz decaffeinated green or herbal tea

Snack
Sliced apple with 1 Tbsp natural peanut butter or 1/3 cup natural trail mix

Lunch

  • 1 cup fresh spinach or lightly sauteed spinach or kale, squeezed with fresh lemon or orange juice or 1 cup asparagus with 1 tsp olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice
  • 4 oz grilled, baked, or broiled salmon, chicken, or pork tenderloin, seasoned with spices such as lemon pepper
  • 1/2 cup edamame beans, steamed
  • 8 oz water or decaffeinated green or herbal tea
  • 8 pecan halves

Snack

  • 1/2 sweet potato or one citrus fruit (orange or grapefruit)
  • 4 oz low-fat yogurt

Dinner

  • Large spinach or romaine salad with vegetables. Dress with 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil mixed with lemon juice or vinegar (any variety)
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup asparagus or artichoke hearts, steamed
  • 4 oz lean chicken with spices, baked or grilled
  • 1/2 cup brown rice, barley, bulgur, or quinoa
  • 8 oz water or decaffeinated green or herbal tea

Snack

  • 3/4 cup to 1 cup blueberries or 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 4 oz nonfat Greek yogurt or low-fat organic yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese

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