If you were to look in my kitchen cabinets, you’d find two shelves completely filled with “The Meal Planning Binders.” These organizational tools are labeled, categorized, alphabetized, and stuffed to the brim with food and recipe ideas. The one binder you won’t find in my cabinet anymore is “Anita’s Cleanse Plan” binder. This binder used to make its appearance around this time every year.
Comfort Foods Are Not Toxic
Like most people, I enjoy holiday feasts with family and friends, and indulge a little more frequently in the sweets, treats, and creamy casseroles as the chill of November sets in. However, I used to believe that if I didn’t take committed action come spring, the “toxic sludge” of these heavier foods would build up in my body and poison my future chances at health.
Cleansing Diets Can be Overly Restrictive
Like most diets, “Anita’s Cleanse Plan” was restrictive, and pleaded with me to cut out some variation of the following: sugar, meat, cheese, milk, eggs, grains, chocolate, coffee, potatoes, fruits, beans, cooked food, and/or all food in general. You probably know where this story is going. Trying to follow the “cleanse plan” never worked very long. I’d cut out some of the foods for some number of days, but eventually they’d sneak back in. This whole experience didn’t do anything to change the balance of physical toxins in my body, and it certainly caused me to accumulate a few extra “mental toxins” I didn’t have before: anxiety, failure, discontent, and shame.
I can be forgiven for trying. After all, look on the cover of any popular health or women’s magazine as January rolls in and you’ll find tip after tip for spring detoxification and cleansing, from food lists to supplements to “get-slim detox tea” that “whisks away obesogens” and “flushes away water weight.” 1
The idea that eating a simple and/or restrictive diet will scrub our insides shiny clean of waste would seem to make sense in a world of ever-increasing environmental toxicity, but this concept isn’t new. In fact, there is evidence that the desire to remove internal wastes may have deeper roots in the religious traditions of ritual purification. When we buy a pill or powder that promises to cleanse not only the body, but also the “mind and spirit” of toxins, as some do, are we looking just for regular bowel movements or is a deeper salvation our secret hope?
It’s an important question to ask, because the problem with linking body and spirit in such as way is evident when we look at how complicated eating has become as a result: any foods not on the pre-approved “clean” list are by definition tainted, and by definition we become “bad” for eating them. Follow this prescription for a lifetime, and we lose touch with what actually makes our body feel good.
Aim For Balance
The truth is, a rich bowl of macaroni and cheese might be just the ticket for warmth and satisfaction on a cold winter’s day, while a fresh green salad really does pair nicely with the blue skies of spring. Balance is possible, but led by the body rather than external rules, which feels much more comfortable.
I understand if this idea makes you nervous. After all, you may be thinking that, as I used to, “if I don’t drink my detox tea, won’t the poison build up in my body? After all, we do live in a more toxic world!” To address these concerns, I would ask you to take a deep breath, and then consider the following facts:
A healthy body is really good at performing detox every day of our lives.
Even while we sleep! Our master detoxification organ is the liver, which helps process and eliminate not only external contamination, but also the “metabolic wastes” that naturally build up in every human body through the process of being alive. This beautiful system requires nutrients to work, however, including energy (calories), protein, and vitamins and minerals. Start a complete fast, and liver detox will actually slow down!
There is evidence that certain foods can help increase the rate of liver detox by providing nutrient fuel for the process (especially colorful fruits and veggies, most notably the cabbage family), but there is no evidence that eating these foods in isolation works any better than including them in a balanced diet.
In fact, there is no convincing evidence that any specific “detox diet” plan increases the rate of liver detoxification above and beyond a regular balanced diet. 2
Supporting our “organs of elimination” every day of our life is the best way to ensure that the body keeps processing wastes well, without need to turn to extremes.
Besides the liver, our skin, kidneys, and digestive system (bowels) help us “cleanse” on a daily basis.
If you’d like to support your body’s natural elimination efforts every day, try the steps below. Hopefully you’ll find them easier than surviving on lemon-cayenne water!
Find a movement you enjoy that gets the perspiration flowing, or consider a regular sauna or steam practice (check with your doctor about how to do safely).
Fluids flush extra minerals, medication residue, and more right into the toilet bowl. Drink enough that your urine looks pale yellow to clear.
Eat fiber-rich foods.
Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables promote regular bowel movements, assisted by fluids and daily activity. Consider the impact of stress as well: when we eat in a calm state and soothe the hamster in the mind we enter the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state, which increases gut motility and regularity.
I myself still enjoy a good rainbow smoothie bowl now and again, but if I want to eat a slice of cake in January, I sure do! My “Cleanse Plan” binder is gone, and its former pages lie tucked neatly into “Salads” and “Summer Drinks” where they belong. I have learned that food isn’t clean or dirty, it is just food, and that by gently listening to my body’s wellness signals as well as my taste buds, I can feel much better (physically and mentally) all year long.
1Easter 2015 cover of Women’s World
2Klein AV and Kiet H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2011 Aug;61(2):344-57.