What does it all mean? A diner's guide to detox
Date Published : 28 May 2018

Fruit, green tea, raw vegetables, grains and legumes… there’s a long list of detox foods which are claimed to ‘flush toxins from your body.’ But how does this flushing process actually work and what are these toxins anyway? Let’s begin with a real example; there’s some impressive-sounding science behind the detoxifying power of broccoli; the vegetable has been demonstrated to stimulate increased liver function, thereby removing toxins from your system. Plus, the stuff is packed with more vitamin C per gram than oranges...

But how does the detoxifying power of broccoli actually work? The answer is not what you may expect. Broccoli, along with all cruciferous vegetables, contains a small amount of allyl cyanide. Allyl cyanide is metabolised by the liver to produce toxic cyanide. That’s right, broccoli contains toxins. And that’s why it stimulates the liver and kidneys to do the job they evolved to do; filtering out toxins.

All this points to the big problem with claims that certain foods can help you to detox. Your body is perfectly capable of detoxing itself without the help of special diets, that’s what it has evolved to do. Contrary to the health food marketing spiel that will tell your body is at risk of becoming an uninhabitable Chernobyl, you probably don’t need a special detox diet. If your liver and kidneys stop working due to illness, that’s bad and you’ll need serious medical intervention. If you’ve just overdone it at the Cheesecake Factory or woken up with a stinking hangover, you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re not making a habit out of it. So sure, eat some broccoli as part of a balanced diet (think of all that vitamin C!) but exciting-sounding health claims about any one particular food should be taken with a pinch of salt. Not a literal pinch of salt, too much salt really can be bad for you (more on that below.)

Oh, and about that cyanide. Don’t worry too much about it. Broccoli contains it in such small concentrations that you’d need to eat so much of the stuff that you’ll die of boredom before you experience broccoli-induced cyanide poisoning.

Anyway, if you really feel the need to detox, it's best to arm yourself some cold hard facts about what you're actually trying to achieve...

What to look out for

Salt is a perfect example of another problem with the idea of detoxing; many of the substances that act as ‘toxins’ when we eat too much of them are vital nutrients in small quantities. There are loads of different types of salt, but usually when we’re talking about food, the salt we’re talking about is sodium chloride. Sodium chloride is an essential part of your diet; sodium keeps your nervous system running and keeps muscles (including your heart) working. That is why we have evolved a taste for the stuff. If you cut sodium from your diet entirely, the health effects are pretty severe. But your body only needs a few grams per day to stay healthy. Things get more complicated because there’s no universal ‘safe’ level of salt intake - everybody’s needs vary according to their physical makeup. The long-term effects of excessive salt intake include weight-gain, stroke, heart disease, kidney disease and high blood-pressure. If you’re worried about any of these, a basic check-up with a doctor is a better solution than a diet plan you’ve found on the internet.

Refined sugars are metabolised quickly by the body, meaning that they tend to leave us not feeling full, which encourages us to eat more. Plus the stuff tastes really good. Excessive sugar consumption can lead to heart disease, diabetes and weight gain, which in turn can lead to a whole raft of further health problems. Here's how it works; when you eat sugar, your body converts it into glycogen and stores it in the muscles and liver as an energy source. The hormone insulin plays a vital role in this process. But excessive consumption of sugar can lead to your body developing resistance to insulin, hampering your body's ability to regulate the amount of sugar in the bloodstream and leading to diabetes. When you consume more sugar than can be stored as glycogen, the excess gets converted into fat. Storing excess energy as fat is an evolutionary adaptation that humans developed in response to times when food supplies were irregular and unreliable. Your body can burn fat as a source of energy, but your glycogen stores are usually the body’s preferred energy source. The average person’s body stores more than enough glycogen to run a half marathon.

Some people try to cut sugar from their diet entirely. But adopting a radical new diet is very hard to stick to, meaning that few people maintain it for long. Furthermore, strict diets come with health risks of their own, particularly if done without the supervision of a medical professional. Radical dieting can lead to malnutrition in the long-term and they are rarely medically necessary. You’re much more likely to stay healthy by regularly exercising to burn off the calories you consume while sticking to a varied diet, including things that you know are healthy as well as things that you enjoy. Unsurprisingly, fruit, vegetables and grains make up part of the solution. These foods may not give the immediate gratification that a nice slice of cake will, but they keep you feeling fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to grab a sugary snack later.

Even if you cook your own food at home from scratch, it is difficult to be certain exactly how much salt, sugar and fat you’re consuming. However, there is a large amount of evidence that people who eat freshly cooked food - whether it's prepared at home or in a restaurant - are far healthier than people who eat food prepared in factories, where salt and sugar tend to be used in far higher quantities. On the other hand, detoxing offers a quick-fix solution based on promises that are simply not backed up by the available evidence. The truth is disappointingly boring; there’s no big secret to eating healthily. Just look at that list of detox foods we started the article with; fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and grains. If you’re getting a bit of each of these in your diet, you’re probably doing ok.

Finally a caveat, at WOM Guide we're food enthusiasts, not professional dieticians. So the above is based on our love of food, if you want real, reliable advice speak face-to-face with a qualified professional. Any articles you find on the internet advising you to eat a certain way should always be taken with a big spoonful of scepticism.

READ NEXT: What does it all mean? A diner’s guide to truffles

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