“I’m going on a detox.”
You’ve heard friends announce it; you’ve probably considered it yourself. And like many trends that have garnered excitement in the health industry, so comes the skepticism. Google “detoxing,” and you’ll find hundreds of fevered judgments, some well-researched, others full of opinionated gibberish:
Low-carb is the way to go! / No, you want to try the grain-rich Mediterranean diet! / It’s all lies! Just eat whatever you want, and count your calories. Calories are all that matter.
But then, my friend did a detox and swore by it. Better skin and hair, a stronger immune system—oh and ample weight loss, too. I was grappling for more energy (and who doesn’t want to reach a healthy weight?). I was sold. I bought the products, downloaded the recipes, and told my husband that I was going to kick my restaurant habit for a full four weeks.
Once I saw everything I couldn’t eat, I panicked. For twenty-eight days, I couldn’t have nineteen foods, including dairy; gluten; coffee; sweeteners; fruit; non-free-range poultry, beef, or fish; white potatoes; corn; and vinegar.
Part of me thought, “Yeah, bring it on!” while the other part was thinking, “Are you insane? What the heck is wrong with vinegar?” Moreover, my detox rules said I couldn’t eat after 8 p.m. or before 8 a.m. to give my body a full twelve hours of not eating. This would supposedly encourage my body to “clean” itself as I slept. I would replace one to two of my meals with a nutrient-dense and filling vegan shake of pea-protein powder and a coconut (or almond) milk base as well.
I took a breath and told myself that this was only four weeks. “It’s like hitting the reset button,” my friend said. “Anytime you get hungry, just have herbal mint tea.” Oh, yippee. What was I getting myself into?
What a Detox Really Looks Like
It comes as no surprise that the Internet can’t even come to a clear consensus on what a detox is. Google’s “informal” definition is “a process or period of time in which one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances.” For a set time, you eliminate particular foods that contain typical allergens or caffeine, are high in sugar, or are generally acidic. Then you watch how your body feels. You slowly reincorporate these foods, noting how your body reacts.
The first couple days weren’t too bad. In many ways, they were delicious. I was beginning to think that this “detoxing” thing was just a trick to make us fall in love with vegetables and buy their yummy protein powder. But just as I was getting used to this new healthy rhythm, along came the headaches, with changes in some, um, bowel movements. Even worse, my skin started to break out.
What was going on?! “This is completely normal when you’re just beginning,” I was told. “In a way, your body is going through somewhat of a withdrawal from all those processed foods.” If my body hadn’t actually felt like it was experiencing “withdrawal” symptoms, I probably would’ve been skeptical of what she was implying. Was my semi-healthy American diet addictive?
Fortunately, it didn’t last too long—and quite shortly afterward, the opposite began to happen. After one week, my skin was glowing, my energy uptick was palpable, and my BMs had never been better. I started getting used to eating whole foods. My husband even mentioned that I was in a better mood. I got more work done and had a desire to exercise in the morning. It was kind of spooky; I was actually sold on something I thought would fail me.
The four weeks were over before I knew it, and I actually ended up losing a whopping . . . well, let’s just say, I hadn’t seen that number since high school. Unlike yo-yo diets of my past, this stayed off for more than a year—and the only reason for my weight gain after that was because I got pregnant.
As the weeks passed, I slowly began incorporating the formerly forbidden foods back in one by one. Noting my sensitivity—or lack thereof—I felt empowered. For once, I could pinpoint how certain foods affected my body and in what quantities, while realizing that other foods had zero effect on me.
But It Wasn’t the Same for Everyone
What was more interesting was listening to the experiences of other women and men who did the program with me and seeing how their bodies reacted. Some began shedding pounds within the first week. Others didn’t lose weight until the third or fourth week. Some had an immediate burst of energy. Others felt sluggish for the entire first half of the program. Some easily embraced the lack of sugar. Others struggled with withdrawals after cutting it out cold turkey. When it came to reintroducing foods into their bodies, some could eat dairy without a problem. Others had notable gastrointestinal issues, such as pain, bloating, gassiness, and, er, interesting bowel movements.
Here’s where the epiphany happened. Of course our bodies weren’t all the same. As we all look and behave differently on the outside, it makes sense that our genetic makeup dictates our internal cells in different ways, too, affecting what we eat and how we process those nutrients. In a culture of highly processed, packaged foods, it’s no wonder that we’re all a little out of touch with how certain ingredients make us feel. And it’s no wonder that a one-size-fits-all diet philosophy simply isn’t realistic.
A few months ago, the Washington Post shared that researchers “found that different people’s bodies respond to eating the same meal very differently—which means that a diet that may work wonders for your best friend may not have the same impact on you.”
As one researcher explained: “There are profound differences between individuals—in some cases, individuals have opposite responses to one another.” They share that as they continue to make more studies, they’ll be able to individualize algorithms and, consequently, create “a tailor-made meal plan” for everyone.
In one case, a woman was having a bad reaction to tomatoes, of all things (and interestingly, an item on my list of forbidden foods), making her blood sugar spike at levels associated with heart problems, obesity, and diabetes. Obliviously thinking that this was a perfectly healthy food for her, she kept them in her diet. Finding out her body’s unique reactions was a game changer for her. And to think that some people were telling her she was just eating too many calories!
So, am I an advocate for detoxes? The one I did worked for me. Other things will work for other people. While the Internet jury on “toxins” is still out (do-not-eat food lists vary greatly from program to program), one thing is for sure: Any eating experience that can help you better know your body’s biology at a level unique to you—and only you—is a good thing. That I will happily advocate for.
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