The New Year detox is upon us in its many guises, and although we know that the entire premise is a fallacy, why do so many of us seem to fall for it?
The proposition is a compelling one — that we are riddled with toxins, which the human body is unable to process, allowing them to accumulate in tissue and organs causing any number of diseases. Without our intervention the levels of toxins increase and the ensuing ill health is our own fault. Worse still, we have made things more serious by indulging in festive food, and so a punishment by way of abstinence sits well with any feelings of guilt. It sounds almost logical, and it’s a good story, one spun by well-meaning complementary health practitioners, celebrities and wellness bloggers rather than any doctor I know. But it’s not true.
The biochemical truth is that the human body is wondrously adept at clearing out what it deems unwelcome through highly complex systems. These involve the liver, skin, kidneys and lungs as well as the bowels, and unless you have a liver disease, then it is almost certain that your kindly organs are efficiently detoxifying as you read this, without the need of any self-flagellation.
In short, the science of detoxes, such as it is, doesn’t stack up. That isn’t to say there aren’t benefits — but these have nothing to do with fear-mongering detox fanatics. There is a profound aspect to a period of restriction, one found in nearly all religions, as fasting removes the focus on food, and thus the self, allowing the individual to contemplate loftier, more spiritual matters. Overeating is the foundation of two of the seven deadly sins — greed and gluttony — while festive inactivity is represented by sloth. There is a sad irony about atoning for sins that might be said to be those of self-interest by drinking a bespoke green juice and posting images of it on Instagram.
The modern fast sits well with this as the vociferous supporters often use emotionally powerful words such as ‘cleanse’ and ‘detoxify’ which fit nicely with the guilt that one can feel after having overdone it a little. Increasingly this indulgence is classified as having been ‘bad’ and thus ‘dirty’ and their detox is ‘good’, and if you follow it, then you can be ‘clean’, just like them.
Unlike the premise of most spiritual fasts, though, a detox is not about freeing oneself from food, but instead enslaving oneself in a miserable cycle of boom or bust, feast or famine and self-obsession.
As with every diet, there is potential for eating disorders and food obsession to hide behind the positive aura of eating well, but the wildly exaggerated health claims of the detox brigade provide further cover for disordered eating.
Having overdone things, of course we might be mindful of what we eat, but there is no need to ‘detox’. You don’t need the green juices, tinctures, supplements, smoothie makers, books or therapists, as better health can be achieved by eating modest amounts of good food. That may not be the cutting-edge nutritional advice some people were hoping for, but we are adults. We don’t need nutritional hocus-pocus. We can handle the mundane truth, can’t we?
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9 February 2016 | 7 p.m. | IET London