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What are detox diets?
Other types of fasting diets that have been in the headlines are called "detox diets." Detox is a nonspecific term, but it conveys a sense of cleansing or purifying the body of toxins. Singer and actress Beyoncé reportedly used the Master Cleanse (also known as the Lemonade Diet) to lose weight to prepare for her role in Dreamgirls. But detox diets may actually help your body process the chemicals and exposures that are part of our day-to-day urban lives.
"Cleansing" is difficult to measure, medically, but we know the liver is the primary organ of detoxification. Lab metrics that may reflect cleansing include liver enzymes (ALT, AST), GGT (which is both a liver enzyme and a metric of liver glutathione or antioxidant reserves), and lower triglycerides and increased HDL, which are signs that fatty acids are moving out of circulation back to the liver for processing and elimination.
In my integrative medical practice, I run a two-week Clean and Lean detox program several times per year. People substitute one to two meals per day with an organic pea-based protein smoothie and eat a full meal of vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. They take extra fiber, lots of water, and an herb called milk thistle (Silymarin) that improves liver function and detoxification. During the program, people abstain from sugar, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, gluten, and dairy products. People generally report that they feel fantastic after the first few days (during which some have an initial headache). Most lose weight and inches off their waists. I use the detox program to jumpstart people's weight loss and healthy habits so they can more easily transition into a lifelong healthy lifestyle.
What health conditions benefit from fasting?
Fasting has been shown to improve rheumatoid arthritis, chemotherapy response in cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension. Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve cognitive function and increase neuronal plasticity. Dr. Alan Goldhamer has been supervising water-only fasting at his Santa Rosa, Calif., clinic for more than 20 years and has published data on the outcomes of fasting among patients with hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and cancer. People interested in trying any form of fasting for their chronic health conditions should do so with the input of a practitioner (such as a certified nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, or integrative medicine provider) knowledgeable about the topic.
Are there diets that mimic the benefits of fasting?
A ketogenic diet (a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrates) will shift metabolism into burning fatty acids for fuel instead of glucose (ketosis). This is thought to have all of the benefits of fasting without the caloric restriction.
What are the downsides of fasting diets?
Fasting done inappropriately can lead to losses in muscle mass (rather than fat), headaches, decreased basal metabolic rate, and acidosis. Perhaps the biggest downside to fasting is that people aren't prepared to transition into a healthy diet afterward, and the benefits will be quickly lost. Modified fasting can be a good way to jumpstart weight loss (such as the South Beach diet) as long as there is a good plan to transition into a healthy, low-to-moderate carbohydrate diet afterward.