Dr. Mark Hyman, a New York Times bestselling author and a practicing MD sells a “10-Day Detox Diet Jump Start Guide.” On his website, Dr. Hyman claims that what makes us fat also makes us sick. By sticking to his 10-day detox, he says, “not only can you lose up to 10 pounds, but you may also turn the tide on chronic health problems including type 2 diabetes, asthma, joint pain, digestive problems, autoimmune disease, headaches, brain fog, allergies, acne, eczema and even sexual dysfunction.”
TV’s Dr. Oz offers on his website the “Dr. Oz 48-Hour Weekend Cleanse,” which claims it will purify me “from the inside out” by coming to the aid of my colon, kidneys and liver. From supplements to green shakes, from special teas to liver-flushing yoga exercises, health gurus like this pair of detox docs line up beside celebrities and other snake oil retailers to sell us on the latest pseudo-health craze – detoxification.
But is there anything to the claim that our bodies can be cleansed, flushed, detoxed, drained or purified by special diets, supplements, exercises and other exorcisms? Not according to Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He sees the concept as just another example of how celebrity culture contradicts science to create needs that sell products.
His new book on the impact of celebrity culture discusses the detox myth at length. In Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, Caulfield describes how he met with Dr. Alejandro Junger, Gweneth Paltrow’s guru specialist in Hollywood and tried their version of the detox diet, the Clean Cleanse. Following it to the letter, Caulfield drank powdered mixes at breakfast and dinner. He downed supplements and vitamins. “It was incredibly difficult,” said Caulfield in a telephone interview about his book. After what he describes as a really tough three weeks, he had shed nine pounds, but felt constantly hungry and unhappy. In a very short time after the diet, he regained the weight and then some. Here’s what else he learned about detoxification and, as a result, celebrity culture.
Q: What are these “toxins” that need to be flushed from our bodies?
A: People talk about toxins in our environment – chemicals in our food – that they get into our system and they need to be flushed. There is that kind of rhetoric out there, but they don’t provide any detail. Dr. Junger is not very explicit. This is like the modern evil spirit, these toxins that need to be removed. People are looking for some kind of easy answer. What are the toxins, where are they residing, how do the supplements and special foods pull them out of your system? None of that is ever clarified.
Q: Are there any toxins in us at all?
A: There are toxins. That’s why we pee. That’s why we have our kidneys, liver, even our skin. Our body detoxifies for us. There’s no evidence that cleansing and detox diets facilitate that. I searched for evidence and it isn’t out there. The data is just absent to support these approaches.
Q: What about the celebrity doctors offering detox advice?
A: Just because someone has an MD does not make everything they say true. There was an analysis of the advice that Dr. Oz provides. A team of researchers found that half of all the advice is either not supported by the evidence or conflicts with existing evidence. I call it “science-ploitation” where there’s always a thin layer of real science to make it sound legitimate.
Q: Let me test a few other long-held truths about toxins. What about the claim that we need to flush our bodies by drinking lots of water?
A: Eight glasses a day – it’s amazing how long that myth has endured. In early reports about how much we should drink, they talked about the quantity of water that humans needed, but they were talking about everything – water in apples, coffee, wine. The body doesn’t care where the water comes from. It doesn’t have to come from a glass. It’s about staying hydrated and using thirst as your guide.
Q: If little celebrity health advice has merit, why do we eat it up?
A: These ideas of detoxifying and cleansing have found their way into popular culture. Some people realize it’s bunk, but there’s tremendous pressure on us to try to look young, to try to be a certain weight.
Q: And yet, people do report that detoxing works.
A: The reason these programs seem to work in the short term is because people are paying attention to what they eat so they lose weight and they may be adopting other lifestyles. That’s globally beneficial. So often this is associated with looking good and some kind of short term goal.
Q: Is celebrity health advice dangerous?
A: When you have this short term goal, you can’t sustain it, especially if you’re doing it for extrinsic reasons like looking great in a bikini, peer pressure or trying to conform to some kind of aesthetic standard as opposed to intrinsic – wanting to be healthy, feeling great and enjoying the activity. If you’re doing it for those intrinsic reasons, you’re more likely to sustain the behaviour.
Q: What’s your best advice for staying healthy?
A: Number one is don’t smoke. Number two is exercise. So few Canadians eat enough fruits and vegetables and exercise enough. We should be focusing on the big picture of getting our lifestyles right. These diets distract us from the simple truth about how we should eat. We just need to eat a balanced diet.
In addition to his work as a freelance writer, Darcy Rhyno taught graduate courses in popular culture and media for 16 years.
Image of book and photo of Timothy Caulfield – Courtesy Timothy Caulfield