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'Cleansing' Diets May Be Worthless, Dangerous

Molly Davis lives a healthy lifestyle, but she decided recently that she wanted to help her body “perform optimally.”

What she needed, she thought, was a flush of her system. So the Atlanta-based advertising director chose what might be the most popular “detox” regimen, the Master Cleanse.

For 10 days, she ate no solid food. Instead, she drank at least eight glasses a day of a concoction combining lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. In the mornings, she drank two full quarts of salt water. In the evenings, she drank a laxative tea.

The results were as dramatic as would be expected: “I felt like hell,” Davis tells WebMD. She suffered from headaches, acne, and irritability. A strange whitish film covered her tongue.

She also lost 10 pounds.

“My mom said I looked like skin and bones,” says Davis, 25. “She was really mad at me.”

Davis quickly regained the weight, but nonetheless decided to try the diet again a few months later. This time she felt none of the adverse effects and a boost of energy -- though she didn’t lose as much weight and didn’t follow the diet as strictly. She remains a detox fan.

“I think it’s important we let our body heal itself once in awhile,” Davis says.

Dozens of books and hundreds of web sites promote “detox” regimens. Spas invite dieters to spend thousands of dollars to starve themselves in exotic locations. But many dietitians and medical experts say these diets are pointless at best and dangerous at worst.

Like other fad diets, detox regimens promise quick weight losses that are ultimately unsustainable, critics say. They’re based on “junk science” rather than a true understanding of how the body works. Worst of all, extreme diets like the Master Cleanse can cause serious side effects in vulnerable groups.

“These diets can give people a false sense of security, a feeling that they’ve been protective of their health,” Dawn Jackson-Blatner, a dietitian at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman, tells WebMD. “Then, when the diet’s over, they go back to their normal way of eating.”

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Toxins, Toxins Everywhere?

Detox proponents say the body is under constant assault from toxins such as smog, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, sugar, and alcohol. Without a periodic cleansing, these poisons accumulate in the body and cause headaches, fatigue, and a variety of chronic diseases.

But the science behind the detox theory is deeply flawed, says Peter Pressman, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The body already has multiple systems in place -- including the liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract -- that do a perfectly good job of eliminating toxins from the body within hours of consumption.

“There’s no evidence at all that any of these approaches augment the body’s own mechanisms,” Pressman tells WebMD.

Most detox regimens urge dieters to strip down their diets to the basics of water and raw fruits or vegetables. Some diets also recommend laxatives, enemas, or colonic irrigation to speed up the detox process.

There’s a grain of wisdom in detox diets, Jackson-Blatner tells WebMD. It’s true that the average person doesn’t drink enough water or consume enough fruits and vegetables. The problem is most detox diets are so restrictive that they’re ineffective for long-term use. And any weight loss that occurs during the diet is likely to be temporary.

“When people think about losing weight, they think about losing fat,” she says. “But this is water lost and water gained.”

Detox dieters may report a variety of benefits, Pressman notes, but none can be traced to the idea of detoxification. Fewer headaches can be traced to other lifestyle changes such as reduction in alcohol and caffeine intake. Clearer skin can result from improved hydration, and less bloating could be a result of eating less food.

Some detox dieters report a boost in energy and even a sense of euphoria. Pressman says the feeling -- also commonly reported by people who are fasting -- is actually a reaction to starvation. It likely evolved as a way to help a person evade threats and locate food, he says.

“There’s something to be gained from avoiding large quantities of alcohol, smoke, junk food, or anything to excess,” Pressman says. “Moderation is best, but these regimens are anything but moderate.”

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When Detox Turns Dangerous

The Master Cleanse -- also known as the Lemonade Diet -- dates back to the 1970s. But it got a publicity boost recently when pop star Beyoncé Knowles lost 20 pounds in 10 days on the diet to slim down for a role in the upcoming film Dreamgirls. The news caused a sales upswing of the pricey maple syrup that’s used in the lemonade.

But Knowles soon regained the weight after she finished shooting the film. In interviews, she warned ordinary dieters away from the regimen.

A healthy, young woman like Knowles may be able to endure even the strictest diet for a short while, Pressman tells WebMD. The problem is that some groups may suffer severe adverse effects from highly restrictive diets. They include children and teenagers, pregnant or breastfeeding women, seniors, and people with heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions. These groups are especially vulnerable to intestinal and even cardiac problems stemming from malnutrition, Pressman says.

The use of laxatives in detox diets also raises red flags among dietitians, as laxative abuse is commonly associated with eating disorders. The belief that laxatives are useful for weight control is a myth, the National Eating Disorders Association notes. In fact, laxative abuse can cause severe dehydration and heart or colon damage, the association says. Colonic irrigation, another fixture of some detox diets, carries the risk of bowel perforation or infection, both of which can cause death.

Detox diets promise a quick fix, but in fact are just another round on the diet treadmill, Jackson-Blatner says. You can change your life in 10 days, Jackson-Blatner says -- but not through the Master Cleanse. Instead, use those 10 days to make the transition to a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables -- and then stick to that diet for good.

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By Richard Sine, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Peter Pressman, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. Dawn Jackson-Blatner, RD, LD, Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute, Chicago. Dee Sandquist, MS, RD, Southwest Washington Medical Centers, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Molly Davis, Atlanta. "Laxative Abuse: Some Basic Facts," National Eating Disorders Association.