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Detoxification diets – lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks – are popular among celebrities who want to shed pounds or boost energy. These diets typically involve some kind of restricted eating regimen and sometimes require special supplements or products. With such a profile, it’s no wonder many people view the diets as marketing gimmicks. Even so, it would be shortsighted to classify all detoxification regimens as the same and completely dismiss them, said Sheila Dean, a registered dietitian and owner of the Palm Harbor Center for Health and Healing, in Palm Harbor, Fla.

THE REAL DEAL

“Everyone detoxifies 24/7,” Dean said. “If you were to stop detoxifying, you’d be dead in about four hours.” Detoxification is the body’s way of getting rid of foreign molecules that we pick up from the air we breathe, food and water we consume, and medications we take, as well as toxins the body generates in normal bodily processes. A buildup of toxins not only contributes to poor overall health and low energy, but it may also increase risk of certain diseases, such as obesity and cancer. Our liver is the real workhorse when it comes to detoxification. The liver converts foreign substances into compounds the body can eliminate, primarily via urine or stools. “Although you don’t necessarily need a special detox diet, everyone benefits from supporting the body’s detoxification processes through good nutrition,” she said.

DETOX HELPERS

“Certain nutrients can aid the body’s natural detoxification processes,” Dean said. “For example, if you take a B complex vitamin supplement, you’re supporting detoxification, because all of the body’s detoxification pathways require B vitamins. And, the simple act of eating better – such as getting more fruits, vegetables and legumes – also supports detoxification because these foods supply nutrients needed to drive detoxification.” Plant-based foods also supply antioxidants, which are helpful in ridding the body of free radicals created during detoxification.

MODIFIED FASTING

Although many studies have shown that moderately restricting calories can improve health and prolong life, a 2010 Nutrition Journal review of the health effects of religious fasting suggests that simply improving the quality of your food choices may provide similar benefits. For example, eating cruciferous vegetables, or a smoothie made with whey protein concentrate, can help increase glutathione levels, Dean said. “Glutathione is the most powerful antioxidant in our bodies, and it’s profoundly involved in detoxification,” she said.

EXTRA SUPPORT

Some of us have genetic variations in our liver enzymes, which decrease our ability to detoxify substances, such as caffeine and medications, Dean said.

“That’s why some people get horrible headaches from caffeine, and it’s why certain people have adverse reactions to drugs, whereas others do just fine on the same medication at the same dose,” she explained. “What’s more, medications themselves sometimes cause depletion of important nutrients needed to detoxify the drugs.” Nutrition supplements may help correct deficiencies in such cases. Your health care provider can request testing for specific genetic variations that may impact liver enzymes, as well as blood tests to evaluate for nutritional deficiencies.

EVALUATING PLANS

Ultimately, what’s most important is making healthy choices every day to support detoxification – not just a few days a year. If you’re contemplating a special detox regimen, consider these important factors:

• Avoid plans that eliminate most food groups, especially if for more than a few days. Nutrient deficiencies can interfere with detoxification and can starve out helpful gut bacteria.

• Steer clear of drastic calorie reductions. Losing weight too rapidly increases risk of gallstones, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

• If you’re prone to dips in blood sugar, avoid diets that don’t provide regular balanced meals.

• Avoid detox diets if you have a health condition, such as heart or kidney disease or if you’re pregnant or nursing.

• If taking medications, consult a qualified health professional before taking detox supplements to avoid potential interactions.

NATURAL DETOX SUPPORT

Simple dietary tweaks can go a long way in aiding your natural detoxification processes, including:

1. Eat whole, organic foods: The fewer chemicals you take in from pesticides, chemical additives, and other food contaminants, the less your liver has to detoxify.

2. Love garlic and onions: These and other allium family vegetables contain phytonutrients that help drive detoxification.

3. Fill up on flavonoids: These natural plant nutrients in citrus fruits, berries and green tea increase the activity of liver detoxification enzymes.

4. Boost fiber: Roughage in beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts helps reduce absorption of toxins and helps sweep them through the digestive tract.

5. Eat green: Cruciferous (broccoli and Brussels sprouts) and leafy (watercress and dandelion greens) vegetables contain special components that support detoxification.

6. Spice it up: Herbs and spices, such as rosemary, cilantro and turmeric, supply antioxidants and trigger the liver to make more enzymes needed in detoxification.

7. Consume probiotics: Foods such as yogurt and kefir that supply beneficial gut bacteria help keep down toxins produced by harmful bacteria.

9. Drink plenty of filtered water: Water is needed to help flush out toxins through urine and sweat.

Marsha McCullough is a registered dietitian