Cleanse Diets 101: Why Trying One May (or May Not Be) a Good Idea

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is extremely complex and scientists believe it to be a vital component of the immune system. The surface lining of the GI tract includes numerous bacteria, immune and nerve cells that largely function to protect us against toxins and foreign invaders. This fascinating gut-immune link makes the foods and beverages we consume and digest matter—the integrity of your gut needs to be protected. We are continually exposed to chemicals and synthetics like herbicides and pesticides, antibiotics, and other toxins in our food. Enter the “cleanse diet.”

To theoretically remove toxins from the body and for weight loss purposes, “cleanse” diets have become hugely popular, despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness. They typically include organic plant-based foods, juices, herbs and spices and exclude animal products, processed foods, sugar and anything that is synthetic. A cleanse diet can range from one that replaces one or two daily meals with organic juices to more extreme types where food is far more restricted. They can also range from one to two days to several months. Any cleanse that lasts more than two days should be supervised by a physician.

Should You Follow A Cleanse Diet?

All short-term cleanse diets aren’t necessarily bad, but before trying one, it’s important to be realistic about any claims and promises. Currently, there is very little convincing scientific evidence to support the health claims made for cleansing diets. Some cleanse diets can cause side effects and the National Institutes of Health warns that some can be harmful. Despite the evidence and warnings, the popularity of these diets have risen in part by celebrities such as Beyoncé, who has advocated a “master cleanse” mostly consisting of lemon juice and maple syrup.

It can be challenging to implement a cleanse diet. In addition to being restrictive, cleanse diets can leave you feeling deprived and hungry. Also, juice cleanses are not advised for pregnant or nursing mothers, those taking certain medications and individuals with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, chronic conditions and others. You should consult with your health professional before trying a cleanse diet.

Cleanse Diet Alternatives

Cleanse diets are not necessarily the answer to weight loss or health woes. There are other ways you can improve the health of your GI tract and immune system. For example, make clean, healthy food choices as much as possible—include an abundance of whole vegetables (particularly green ones) for your much-needed dose of antioxidants, phytonutrients and fiber. Choose organic foods when you can to avoid toxic chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. In addition, choose lean proteins and heart-healthy fats.

Your liver (among other organs) actually plays an important role in protecting you from potentially toxic chemical insults, which are eventually eliminated through the urine. So make sure you’re drinking enough clean and properly filtered water. Water will also help you flush waste out of your bowels. Another consideration is consuming fermented foods, like kefir and sauerkraut, and taking probiotics, which all promote beneficial gut bacteria and maintain the integrity of your GI tract lining.

Cleanse Diet Claims

There are many different kinds of cleanse diets, such as the anti-candida cleanse, parasite cleanse, kidney cleanse, gallbladder cleanse, liver cleanse, and various juice cleanses. There are many health claims made by advocates of these cleanses. Although they are not scientifically supported, here are some of the claims made by those in favor of cleanse diets:

  • They can slow the aging process. Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules that cause damage to our body over time—you can think of them like rust on a car. When we detoxify and increase our antioxidant intake (which fights free radicals) by cleansing, we rid our bodies of free radicals, thus slowing the aging or “car rusting” process.
    What we know for certain: Consuming a long-term wholesome diet that is adequate in nutritious whole foods, vegetables, healthy fats, fiber, complete protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants will support our overall health and longevity.
  • They can help you lose weight. Cleansing leads to weight loss as we eliminate refined sugar, simple carbohydrates and unhealthy fats from our diet.
    What we know for certain: Following a cleansing diet can lead us to healthier dietary choices and short-term weight loss, but ultimately when you return to your regular diet, the dropped pounds (often water) will return! Juice does not contain fiber like whole fruits and vegetables, but it does contain lots of naturally occurring sugar. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that compared to eating fruits and vegetables, drinking vegetable and fruit juice regularly increased the risk for developing diabetes.
  • They can improve the body’s purification process. Certain cleanses, such as juice cleansing, provide us with an abundance of nutrients and stimulate our body to eliminate waste and toxins. Water is the main ingredient of every fluid in our body and is involved in just about every function of our body. When we cleanse, we take in more water, which supports our bodily functions.
    What we know for certain: If you drink enough clean water each day, the organs in your body that are responsible for detoxification functions will do their job. Also, there are more health benefits to eating whole vegetables, compared to drinking them.
  • They can prevent disease. North Americans are over-consumers of processed, fatty, high-caloric, sugary foods, which ultimately lead to chronic degenerative disease, such as type 2 diabetes and cancer. Cleansing helps us become more aware of our eating habits, and encourages us to change them for the better.
    What we know for certain: Consuming a long-term wholesome diet that is adequate in nutritious whole foods, vegetables, healthy fats, fiber, complete protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants will support disease prevention. Avoiding trans-fats, saturated fats, sugar and processed foods help to prevent the development of chronic diseases. Also, cleanse diets are usually low in protein and we need adequate protein intake for good health and disease prevention.

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