When it comes to detox diets, we totally get the appeal.
Who's not drawn to the idea of flushing all the toxins out of our bodies — a sort of spring cleaning of our insides?
And yes, several years back, I even remember trying — if only for a day — the trendy cayenne-pepper liquid cleanse (as seen in this Mindy Kaling clip from The Office) as part of a cleansing/detox diet.
But it turns out, as we've reported, the whole idea that you need to go on a special, draconian diet to detox your body really has no scientific backing.
We spoke to Dr. Ranit Mishori, a faculty member in family medicine at Georgetown University Medical School who has reviewed the literature on colon cleanses. She told us that lots of her patients are asking about detox and cleansing diets, especially at this time of year. Her advice: Steer clear.
The way she explains it, our bodies have an excellent built-in system for getting rid of toxins. Our kidneys and livers, for instance, both play an important role in helping to filter out potentially harmful compounds.
"The human body has evolved over many years, and it has a very sophisticated [filtering] system through the liver, through the kidneys," Mishori told us.
"The liver has all kinds of different enzymes that break down the chemicals considered to be harmful, potentially, and then it excretes [them]. It does it very, very efficiently," she says. "It does it 24 hours a day. And there are no supplements or super foods that can boost the liver and kidneys to do it better than they already do."
Of course, this doesn't mean that healthful eating isn't important. But the point is, you don't need to live on liquids and cayenne — or any other crazy fad diets out there. Most of us would be better off making more straightforward changes to our diets that are known to be beneficial.
So what kind of simple, good-for-you changes should you consider? Mishori offered her top three tips: "Cutting on sugar is always a good idea. Cutting on processed foods is always a good idea. Being better hydrated is always a good idea," she told us.
Diets don't need to be all-or-nothing. When it comes to sugar, the idea is to reduce consumption and be more mindful.
Currently, as we've reported, the typical American consumes about 22 teaspoons a day of sugar, which is about three times more than what's recommended. And the evidence is piling up that this is doing all kinds of damage to our bodies.
For instance, a recent paper in BMJ Open Heart described how consuming too much sugar can raise the risk of high blood pressure.
And, as we've reported, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that Americans who consumed the most sugar — about a quarter of their daily calories — were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limited their sugar intake to 7 percent of their total calories. Or, as I previously broke it down:
"To translate that into a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the big sugar eaters were consuming 500 calories a day from sugar — that's 31 teaspoons. Those who tamed their sweet tooth the most, by contrast, were taking in about 160 calories a day from sugar — or about 10 teaspoons per day.
"The American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily. This is about 100 calories. And men, no more than 9 teaspoons, or about 150 calories from sugar. (This does not include foods such as fruits and vegetables that naturally contain sugar.)"
So the bottom line is, if you want to make one change this year, cutting back on added sugar is probably a good choice.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you're still trying to jumpstart your January ambitions for healthier living and eating, you may be wondering about the best strategies to start anew. As always, there's a lot of buzz about detox and elimination diets. And we've asked NPR's food and health correspondent, Allison Aubrey, whether there is any science to support any of these diets, and she joins us now to answer. Hi, how are you?
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's start with detox diets. They seem to be constantly trendy, especially at the beginning of the year. I guess the year 2015 is no different?
AUBREY: That's right. I mean, look at the stack of books here. These are new books sent to us by publishers. We've got "The Detox Diet Cookbook." We've got a book here to reset your health and detox your body. And the idea here is that if we just follow the advice in these books that we'll be able to flush out all of the toxins from our bodies. And it's kind of an appealing concept, right? I like the sound of it - kind of like spring cleaning the body. But when I talk to researchers about what this really means, it turns out that the whole concept that you have to go on some kind of special diet or cleanse to detox the body really has no scientific backing. I spoke to Ranit Mishori. She's a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. And the way she explains it is that our bodies have an excellent built-in system for getting rid of toxins. I mean, this is the job of our kidneys and livers, to filter and flush out the bad stuff. And these organs are working 24 hours a day.
RANIT MISHORI: The liver has all kinds of different enzymes that break down the chemicals that are considered to be harmful potentially and then it excretes it. And there are no supplements or super foods that can boost the liver and kidneys to do it better than they already do.
SIEGEL: So as we've heard of the self-cleaning oven, we have self-cleaning bodies...
AUBREY: (Laughter) That's right.
SIEGEL: ...And no need for detox or cleansing diets.
AUBREY: That's the kind of the point she's making. In fact, Mishori tells me when her patients ask about these kinds of diets, which they tend to do this time of year, her opinion is, you know, thumbs down. There's just no evidence that they're effective.
SIEGEL: Well, if detox isn't the goal to aim for then, are there any particular foods that people should look to avoid or eliminate from their diets?
AUBREY: Well, you know, there's a whole host of elimination diets. Gluten-free is the one with the most buzz, of course. But unless you have a specific medical problem, there's no magic bullet that's going to suddenly make you healthy. When I asked Mishori what she recommends, these are her top three.
MISHORI: Cutting on sugar is always a good idea. Cutting on processed food is always a good idea. Being better hydrated is always a good idea.
AUBREY: Now, when she talks about sugar here, she's talking about added sugar, of course - not the sugars you find naturally in fruits and vegetables. And what she's saying here is that, you know, you don't have to go on an all-or-nothing diet. Just cut back and be more mindful.
SIEGEL: We hear a lot about avoiding refined sugar. And you've reported here on this program on the studies linking excessive sugar consumption to heart disease, diabetes, even certain cancers. So how much refined sugar is too much sugar?
AUBREY: So - well, the typical American is consuming about 22 teaspoons a day, and that's three times what the American Heart Association recommends.
SIEGEL: Twenty-two teaspoons of sugar per day...
SIEGEL: ...Is the average intake by Americans?
AUBREY: That's right, I mean, think about that.
SIEGEL: That's just your average guy.
AUBREY: That's right, that's right. And that's a lot when you think about it. Now, most of the time on food labels, sugar's labeled in grams, right? You pick up a yogurt, you see 24 grams of sugar. Now, yogurt's a health food, and who doesn't think that having yogurt for breakfast is a good idea? But at 24 grams of sugar, that right there - if you consider four grams per teaspoon, you're already to 6 teaspoons for the day just with this yogurt. So there's a lot of added sugar in foods - things that we don't even think of as being sugary.
SIEGEL: So this sounds extremely unhealthy actually.
AUBREY: Right. And there was a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine that shows why it's not healthy. Researchers did a lot of number crunching and what stood out is that Americans who consumed the most sugar were about twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to people who consumed the least. So bottom line here is that if you want to make one change this year, cutting back on added sugar may be a good one to pick.
SIEGEL: And then you can just call it detoxing - sugar detoxing.
AUBREY: Well, you could if you wanted to, Robert.
SIEGEL: Thank you. It's fascinating and horrifying.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
AUBREY: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.