Behind the Headlines: Detox products 'a waste of money'

There is no detox substitute for healthy eating and drinking, says Jo Carlowe.

What is the story?

Detox diets have no proven health benefits, according to media reports.

The papers advised people wanting to counteract the effects of overeating and drinking heavily over Christmas and the New Year to steer clear of detox diets.

The stories reported that scientists had debunked the myth that the body needs expensive assistance in the form of detox regimes.

They quoted experts from Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust that works to ensure evidence is central to public discussions about science and medicine, saying that despite commanding a multi-million-pound market, there was no scientific evidence to back up the efficacy of detox therapies.

What is the research?

The criticism of the detox industry, which embraces herbal supplements including milk thistle, detox drinks and 'liver tonics' as well as body brushing and colonic irrigation, comes from a 16-page report from a working group to be published at the end of this month.

The Sense About Science report is designed to raise dieters' awareness of the body's ability to detox itself without assistance.

It highlights the lack of evidence to support the efficacy of supplements, therapies or diets in speeding up this process.

The authors say: 'The gut prevents bacteria and many toxins from entering the body.

'When harmful chemicals do enter the body, the liver acts as an extraordinary chemical factory, usually combining them with its own chemicals to make a water-soluble compound that can be excreted by the kidneys. The body thus detoxifies itself.

'Detox products sow confusion about how our bodies, nutrition and chemistry work.'

They also dismiss anecdotal evidence suggesting that detox diets help rid the body of toxins.

Instead they claim the public misinterprets the benefits it receives from switching from a poor diet to a healthier one.

What do the researchers say?

Professor John Henry, clinical toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital, central London, explained: 'The cure for partying to excess is a good night's sleep, your normal diet and plenty of water.

'Special detox diets and products are not going to do anything to hasten this process.'

Professor Martin Wiseman, visiting professor of human nutrition at the University of Southampton, said: 'People have the idea that in some way the body accumulates noxious chemicals during everyday life, and that they need to be expunged by some mysterious process of detoxification.'

Professor Wiseman added that supplements could sometimes pose a risk to patients' health but that many people assumed that just because something was 'natural' it was harmless.

What do other experts say?

Nutritionist Anita Bean said that the problem lies with the broad definition of 'detox'.

'There are some cranky detox diets around including many that are fruit only and involve semi-fasting,' she said. 'Detox ought to be about reducing consumption of unhealthy foods including saturated fats and foods high in sugar and salt, particularly processed foods. In addition, people should eat more fruit and vegetables and whole grains.'

Ms Bean's own detox diets advocate a break from alcohol, caffeine, animal products and high-fat dairy items but an increase in bean and nut consumption.

She agreed with the Sense in Science team's view that detox supplements are unnecessary and also emphasised the importance of water consumption.

'Nine out of 10 people fail to drink the recommended eight glasses of water a day. The liver, kidneys, gut and skin need adequate water to do their work,' she said.

GPletters@haynet.com

www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/DetoxPressRelease.htm

Live links at GPonline.com

WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

"Detox diets are a waste of time and money, say scientists" - The Times

"Water as effective as any detox fad, say scientists" - The Telegraph

"Scientists dismiss detox schemes" - The BBC

INFORMING PATIENTS

- A group of scientists says the body has its own mechanism for ridding the body of toxins and there is no evidence to support the need for detox supplements or other therapies.

- Rather than taking detox remedies, patients should combat Christmas excesses by eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water and cutting back on saturated fats and processed foods high in sugar and salt.

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