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For many people, following a detoxification diet is a ritual form of spring cleansing. It's a way to recharge, rejuvenate and renew the body after a winter of overindulging.

Supporters say a seven- to 30-day regimen of fresh fruit and vegetables, brown rice, shakes, herbal laxatives, antioxidants and plenty of water can remedy their ills - including excess pounds, general fatigue, dull skin and poor digestion.

Detox diets, or cleanses, are tempting to try. Their numerous claims - burn fat, boost energy, reduce bloating, improve skin, banish cravings, resist disease, enhance wellbeing, increase mental clarity - can entice those wanting a fast track to feeling and looking better. Even Beyoncé Knowles credited a detox diet with helping her shed 22 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls.

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While these may sound like compelling reasons to follow a detox diet, medical experts question their health claims. Some even say they're dangerous and should be avoided by certain people.

Although detox diets are often promoted for weight loss, slimming down is not their underlying premise. Advocates of these diets contend our bodies become overloaded with toxic substances in foods and the environment.

Toxins from pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticide residues, chemical contaminants, alcohol and caffeine are thought to build up in the body and create imbalances that can lead to weight gain, headaches, fatigue, nausea, even diseases such as arthritis and cancer.

The basic idea of a detoxification diet is to give up temporarily certain foods that contain toxins while consuming fibre, nutrients, antioxidants and herbal extracts that aid in the body's natural detoxification processes.

The diets vary widely and can last for as few as four days to as long as one month. Many involve some version of a liquid diet - giving up solid food for a few days and then gradually reintroducing certain foods.

Detox diets usually include organic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, water, herbal teas and vitamin and mineral supplements. Red meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, wheat, sugar, processed foods, fried foods, caffeine and alcohol are typically avoided.

Some programs involve replacing one or two meals with a high-protein, vitamin-rich shake.

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Most cleansing diets also include detoxification "boosters" in the form of herbal laxatives, probiotics (to replace healthy bacteria in the gut), nutrients and antioxidants.

Such detoxification supplements are designed to aid the liver, kidneys and intestines in ridding the body of toxins.

Popular ingredients include milk thistle (thought to enhance liver regeneration and promote liver detoxification), magnesium (a laxative in high doses) and dandelion root (a diuretic).

Is it worthwhile to "cleanse" your body once or twice a year? Do detox diets offer health benefits?

In my opinion, the answer depends on what your ultimate goal is.

There's no evidence that detoxification diets speed the removal of toxins from the body or that the elimination of toxins will make you healthier. Medical experts believe the healthy human body is well equipped to deal with toxins.

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Our skin, lungs, kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract are efficient at removing or neutralizing toxic substances within hours of consumption.

That's not to say adhering to a detox diet won't make you feel better.

In general, people report improved energy, clearer skin, regular bowel movements, improved digestion and increased mental alertness.

Critics argue, however, that these effects are due to dietary modifications rather than the elimination of toxins.

Many people who report feeling healthier and more energetic start a detox diet after coming off an unhealthy diet high in sugar and processed foods that may lack nutrients.

Detox diets can help break a poor diet by encouraging eating habits such as consuming more fruits and vegetables and less caffeine and alcohol, drinking more water, and eating less junk and processed food.

Detox diets are not without side effects.

During the first few days, it's common to experience headaches, hunger, fatigue and irritability.

Some people report diarrhea (usually caused by laxative supplements), which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

If continued for a longer time, detox diets can cause deficiencies of nutrients, especially protein. Many detox plans limit or completely omit animal protein.

Another side effect is weight loss. The majority of weight you'll lose is water, which is typically gained back when the diet ends.

If you stay on the diet too long, you run the risk of losing muscle mass, which slows down metabolism, making it harder to keep the weight off or to lose weight later.

Following a detox diet, even for a short time, is not safe for everyone.

These programs are not recommended for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), eating disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, lowered immunity, kidney disease, liver disease or addictions to drugs or alcohol.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and growing teenagers also should not follow a detox diet.

If you are recovering from an illness or injury, detox diets are not appropriate.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday.


Think short-term

If detox diets do appeal to you, use the following tips to help you "cleanse" safely:

Choose a detox diet that has the least dietary restrictions. Look for a program that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Ensure the diet includes protein in the form of (organic) poultry and fish and/or protein shakes.

Avoid laxative and diuretic supplements. Consuming plenty of fibre and water will help your body excrete wastes.

Think short-term. Do not exceed the diet's recommended duration. Use a detox diet as a springboard for a healthy lifestyle.

Consult with your health-care provider.

Leslie Beck

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