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Do detoxifying cleanses deliver what they promise? Add to ...

Without fail, the start of a new year brings with it renewed pledges to eat better, lose weight and undo any other damage inflicted by a season of unbridled holiday indulgences.

In recent years, nutrition makeovers have increasingly featured a variety of cleanses that promise to detoxify, rejuvenate and otherwise rid the body of alcohol, caffeine, processed foods and other unwanted elements.

From the Master Cleanse (which doesn’t permit food and involves a rotation of water, laxative tea and lemonade that contains cayenne pepper), to colon cleansing, to the Organic Avenue juice cleanse (an organic raw vegan program that promises bright eyes, mental clarity and “synergy with people, animals and the environment”) there are no limits to the number of cleanses on the market.

These cleanses make big promises, but do they deliver?

The fine print

One of the most common reasons people go on so-called “cleanses” is to flush toxins out of the body. But there is little or no evidence demonstrating the ability of cleanses to get rid of toxic elements, which could include heavy metals, food additives, pesticide residue or other undesirables found in the environment, said Brent Bauer, director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Dr. Bauer pointed out that while the term “toxin” is tossed around, it has no real definition or clear meaning.

The liver and kidneys are responsible for removing toxins and waste from the body and experts point out that cleanse diets can impede these organs’ ability to function properly.

As well, fasting for days at a time and taking a large number of herbs and supplements, some of which may be toxic, could do serious damage. Dr. Bauer said some aggressive detoxifying cleanses have been linked to deaths and should be undertaken with extreme caution.

That’s not to say the body can’t benefit from any cleanse. For instance, some evidence has shown fasting for a day could be beneficial. Dr. Bauer also pointed out that the number of chemicals in the environment has grown in recent decades, which indicates there could be a grain of truth to the concept of “detoxification.”

But that doesn’t mean you need to embark on a cleanse diet to achieve beneficial results.

“Rather than a cleanse, why not do healthy eating every day?” Dr. Bauer said. “I think that’s a much healthier approach.”

The bottom line

Not all cleanses are created equal. While some extreme cleanse diets could lead to serious health problems, particularly among individuals with pre-existing ailments, there is some limited evidence that fasting for a day can have positive results.

The fad-like nature of many cleanse diets, however, may distract from the simplest, most time-honoured way to achieve better health: Eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly.

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