Saturday, January 12, 2013

Clean Eating vs. Detoxifying

I’m not a huge fan of buzz words to describe eating practices, but there’s always something to be learned from researching the principles behind them. Let me talk about two that have come up in my circle of friends recently: “Clean Eating” and “Detox Diets.”

Clean Eating focuses on consuming mostly plant-based food, drinking plenty of water, and shopping consciously to avoid preservatives, food additives, pesticides, and (for the omnivores) buying humanely-raised animal products. Clean Eaters also try to eat foods that are in season for the freshest produce, stick to reasonable portion sizes, savor their food, and share meals with other people when possible, all of which are considered to be good practices in most cultures.

It’s a new-ish branding term for what used to just be called healthy eating. I can’t find too much wrong with the concepts; I’m not yet sold on the eating 5 or 6 times a day part, and the jury's still out on whether there really is such a thing as humanely-raised meat, but for the most part it seems to be a very sensible outlook on food, and in my opinion, a great place to start if you’re looking for a new way of thinking about what you eat.

Here’s a full list of Clean Eating tenets, from Clean Eating Magazine, which I like to call Eating Magazine in jest.

Detox Diets are a different issue, and I think “detoxifying” is often confused with Clean Eating because there's some overlap. The term detoxifying came about to describe the practice of cleansing your colon, which some believe is necessary to rid your body of ill-defined “toxins” in the mucus lining, and/or to help you lose an extreme amount of weight through a caloric deficit (see also: juice fasting, juice cleansing). The medical community is a lot more skeptical of detox practices, since they believe the body is completely capable of processing and flushing waste on its own without help. Doctors warn us that too much colon flushing may lead to unnecessary suffering, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, to name some of the less severe ones.

The other red flag with the big-D Detox crowd is that they seem very keen on selling you things to help detoxify you. These come in the forms of special juices, supplements, and even colonic irrigation therapy treatments (in layman's terms, they insert a tube into your rectum and flush you out with water). One way to weed out potential snake oil is to ask whether or not the people who espouse certain beliefs are trying to sell you something. If yes, I like to keep a healthy skeptical distance and do more research before buying into it.

It's easy enough to find pro-colon cleansing articles online (and unsurprisingly the first handful are also product ads), so here’s what WebMD has to say about some detox myths.

In terms of food choices, detox diets themselves may not literally detoxify anything, or cleanse you beyond what your body is capable of on its own, but some of the food choices that detoxers make may not be all bad. It does seem like there are myriad benefits from switching to a more plant-focused whole food diet, which is a part of most detox regimens. That part seems fine (and a lot like Clean Eating), and if you're using the term "detox" to mean cutting down on artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and eating more whole foods... that's ok. Just be aware that anything you search with the term "detox" in it may not align with your definition.

This is a delicious banana-blueberry smoothie, not a detox smoothie.

A couple of quick notes to help weed through some of the diet info overload: In the absence of clear scientific data, we have to make informed decisions based on our own observations, reasoning, and research. In practical terms, that means looking around you and asking: who among your friends and family is healthy, happy, and active? What are they eating and what activities do they do regularly, and why? Can you incorporate any of their positive routines into your own lifestyle?

It’s also of utmost importance to pay attention to what your own body is telling you. If you try a buzz word diet and end up feeling energetic and good, that’s wonderful. But if you end up dehydrated and vomiting, listen to your body and stop it right away. Even the best-sounding hype should never override your body’s signals.

More on this later, and more recipes coming shortly.

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