Detox Is A Scam: A Doctor Explains How To Maximize Your 2017 Health Goals

You know how it goes: The second the ball drops and New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, people mobilize. They drink their last glasses of champagne, kiss the nearest closest stranger, and swear that this will be the year they quit the grind, shift perspectives, and finally — finally — find inspiration.

For many people, that means a commitment to being healthier. It means a serious detox diet. It means transforming from the withered husk of a drunken caterpillar into a radiant human-sized butterfly, casually munching on an unpeeled carrot.

I’m one of those people. On New Year’s Day I refused a lunch at the Golden Corral (and its totally hygienic chocolate fountain), wrote out a list of resolutions about my health (my blood pressure is too high, my activity level too low), and then proceeded to slam an entire glass of Apple Cider vinegar because the internet told me that it would help me lose weight, improve circulation, and kickstart my metabolism. It would also detox my entire body, turning me from a dude who relentlessly punishes his insides with chocolate pasta and gallons of eggnog into a lean, mean, sour-smelling machine, ready to take on the world.

Except it’s all bullshit. All of it. And the first thing that Dr. Natasha Bhuyan told me — when I proudly announced that I’d just fortified my body with a nourishing blend of water and Bragg’s vinegar — was that there is no scientific evidence that chugging the stuff for breakfast actually does anything.

In fact, if you, like me, have to take a medication that helps you control your blood pressure so you don’t die before you hit 40, it could actually be dangerous.

I would have known that, had I done a little research. But I hadn’t. Instead, I’d done a cursory Google tour and believed the hype. And that’s why I was on the phone, bloated and sweaty, and no longer feeling as proud of myself as I had a few seconds before. Chances are, you’ve stood in a similar spot: queasy and feeling stupid because you thought that a cleanse or detox would miraculously fix everything wrong with your life like it was Iyanla Vanzant and a film crew.

Worry not, nodding friend! Your problems are my (and by extension, all of our) problems, and Dr. Bhuyan, an Arizona-based family practitioner with One Medical, was happy to provide the real facts about all those detox diets your friends keep pushing at you.

Your body detoxes itself, so you don’t need a fancy (and expensive) product

Is that a cleanse or honey mustard dressing? Either way, it won’t save your life

“This morning I was driving to work and the radio DJ was talking about how he’s doing this new juicing diet,” Dr. Bhuyan says. “He was promoting it and telling his listeners to buy the juice. To me, the whole industry is really just this multi-million dollar machine with very little evidence behind whether or not these things work.”

Before anyone races down to the comments section to defend their chosen diet, it’s important to understand that Dr. Bhuyan isn’t saying to stop drinking juice. Instead, what she’s saying is that forcing yourself onto The Hollywood Diet (or any one of its successors) isn’t going to clean out your system — there’s no such thing, unless you’re speaking of a medical detox! Because flooding your body with juices, water mixed with cayenne pepper, or even all those supplements promising that “doctors hate” the person who chooses to take them, won’t do any better of a job than your body already does.

“Our bodies already have a natural, built-in cleansing system,”Dr. Bhuyan says. “It’s our liver and our kidneys. If you have a healthy liver and healthy kidneys, they do a good job of processing and eliminating waste. If you don’t have a healthy liver, there’s some evidence that the one product that does help is milk thistle.”

“I think the problem is the way people decide to use these products,” she continues. “Because people will use them by fasting and drinking tons and tons of water and only doing things like fruits and herbal remedies. Ultimately, that’s not a healthy approach.”

What is the healthy approach, then? According to Dr. Bhuyan it’s “eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, eating whole grains, and drinking plenty of water.” That’s it!

“You can take milk thistle as a supplement,” she adds, “but the actual idea of doing a detox or a cleanse that only focuses on one product and takes away every other nutrient from your body, that doesn’t work. It can also be dangerous.”

How can detoxes be dangerous?

But it looks so cool!

Several years ago, a teen trying to lose weight by drinking detox green tea contracted hepatitis. This wasn’t due to the tea itself, but the pesticides in it. She drank three cups of the supplement a day until she developed the disease (plus some bonus jaundice) and spent months recovering. She might have been fine if she’d only drunk the appropriate dose. And we can all agree that she would have been better off skipping the tea and following some of the advice above. Her near-fatal mistake? Assuming that “herbal” meant safe, which it clearly doesn’t. Herbs are not implicitly clean.

Dr. Bhuyan recalls another incident: In this one, a woman drank so much water and valerian root (an herb that is alleged to help with everything from insomnia to depression) that she caused a salt imbalance to occur in her body, which led to dangerous seizures.

These examples are extreme, and it’s likely you’re thinking, “Hey, that won’t happen to me!” but it’s a good idea to take precautions before starting on any kind of diet or detox plan, especially if it involves something more than eating right and keeping active. Especially if it involves not eating at all.

“Fasting is really interesting,” Dr. Bhuyan says. “I’m Indian and there’s this line of people within the Hindu religion and Buddhist religion who fast for spiritual reasons and they think they achieve this new plane of health.”

“The reality is that with fasting — even intermittent fasting — there’s research that shows it actually changes your basal metabolic rates,” she continues. “When people fast for two to three days, what happens is their body goes into starvation mode and thinks, ‘I’m not going to get food again so I need to hold on to whatever food I get.’ When they start eating again, the body holds on to that food and it destroys their basal metabolic rate.”

According to Bhuyan, this is a huge deal in a world where shows like The Biggest Loser are seen as aspirational. She believes that we’ll soon start seeing more research that programs like this are dangerous (we’ve already seen some) due to the disruption of the basal metabolic rate. But it’s not just the people who lose weight for popular networks who are at risk, those who crash diet are also playing a risky game.

“I’ll see patients who have a history of crash diets trying to go on a healthy diet and they’ll bring in their nutrition logs, their food intake, their exercise, and I’ll look at it and think, “Gosh, if you’re following this, you really should be losing more weight,” Bhuyan says. “The thing is, they’re not. I think the reason why is that history of crash dieting and fasting. It’s disrupted their basal metabolic rate.”

And don’t forget the psychological effects, either. The reason we want a detox or a crash diet is due to the fast results. When you can’t sustain those results because your weight has plateaued or it doesn’t feel good to spend another week drinking only bespoke hand-pressed juices, you’re going to feel like a failure, luring you into the warm embrace of mashed potatoes (it’s called comfort food for a reason) and beginning the cycle all over again.

Stop thinking about new diets and detox plans

“Medicine, when it comes right down to it,” Dr. Bhuyan says, “is actually not that sexy. The most important things are a healthy diet, exercise, and not smoking. If people do those three things they can do a pretty great job of staying healthy.”

Sounds easy, right? But if it were, the diet and weight-loss industry wouldn’t be making money hand over fist, Weight Watchers meeting rooms would be empty, and your inbox wouldn’t be filled with spam from that one high school friend who’s selling wraps to remove the unsightly cellulite that now covers 75% of your body.

Here’s the thing: Your juices, your cookies (don’t look up the ingredients of “The Cookie Diet”), and even your medically monitored weight loss plans will help you lose weight in the short term. You’ll look great, you’ll feel good, and then, once you’ve gotten within sight of your goal, you’ll likely gain it all back. That’s not because you’re a failure who can’t treat your body like the temple it is, but because you’ve chosen a plan that’s not sustainable in the longterm. Yeah, you can lose eight pounds of water weight your first week on a cleanse or diet, but what happens when it gets boring? Or tiring?Or you feel so terrible that all you can think about is where your next serving of solid food will come from.

“With my patients I avoid using the term ‘diet’,” Dr. Bhuyan says. “I just talk more about healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle and that it’s something that should be adopted in the long term. I know it’s not exciting and it’s not a magic bullet, but it’s the reality of what works best for people.”

The reason why safe weight loss isn’t exciting, of course, is because if you want to lose in a manner that won’t make you feel icky (or land you in the hospital), Dr. Bhuyan says you should average about a pound a week. That sounds a lot less appetizing when you consider the hard work you’ll be putting into the process — so it stands to reason that a “miracle drug” or “revolutionary secret diet” might make more sense to you. If you’re in it for the long haul, though, it’s better to take it slow, figure out what your body responds to, and then stick with it, even if “forever” seems terrifying.

“I hate for people to focus on a number,” Dr. Bhuyan says, “because even the act of exercising increases insulin receptors, soars your blood sugar and prevents you from getting diabetes. You won’t see a physical change, you won’t see a change on your scale, but you are making really important changes internally that you can’t see.”

As to anyone wanting to take a shortcut by invoking the names of celebrities who have detoxed their bodies, lost huge amounts of weight, or are espousing a certain plan that’s keeping them fit forever, it’s important to recognize that they don’t accurately reflect the rest of the population. Sure, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt (Chris Evans, too) can cut fat and bulk up fast, but they’re also mega-rich movie stars with entire retinues of assistants ready to get them a healthy lunch or press their juice. And they get paid to stay fit. And if you don’t think that Oprah — who’s now part-owner of Weight Watchers — doesn’t have some dude whose entire job is to track every time she eats a slice of bread, I’ve got a storage locker full of expired Trimspa to sell you.

Hold yourself accountable

If you only take one thing away from this piece, it should be this: Whether you’re trying to change your body for the new year or change it for life, it won’t work unless you keep track of what you eat and drink. The truth is, you know what’s healthy for you; it’s just much less fun to cut down on pizza than it is to sprinkle Sensa powder all over your dinner and hope for the best.

“The one thing I tell my patients is just to log what you eat,” Dr. Bhuyan says. “Eat what you’re normally going to eat and just write it all down. I think when people write down what they eat for a week or two and they actually look at what they’re eating, most people know what’s healthy and what’s not healthy.”

More importantly, your body knows what’s unhealthy for it. That pepperoni pizza that tasted so good when you ate it but made you sick for hours afterwards? It’s not the pizza place’s fault. No, sadly, the fault lies in your body’s vehement objection to being laden down with cheese and sauce and the beer you’re probably going to drink with your dinner. Tracking these things — writing down what you ate and maybe how you felt after — gives you a better idea of how your body responds to certain foods and allows you to evaluate your options and your portion sizes. Is it glamorous? No. Will it work? Barring a metabolic disorder or another medical issue, it should do the trick.

Dr. Bhuyan also says that it’s helpful to go on this health journey with a friend or a loved one (with whom you won’t feel like you’re in constant competition). This isn’t a compulsory, but it can help. “I think some level of accountability is important for people to stick to healthy habits,” she says.

That doesn’t mean you have to tell the whole world everything about your diet and exercise regimen, but sharing it with a few like-minded folks who want to help you be the healthiest — not necessarily thinnest — could be very rewarding.

Set goals and realistic expectations

People who know why they’re doing something have been proven to be more successful, so if your goal is to get healthy and live as long as you can (I will be here until I am 400, science willing), then you need to find a tangible reason to make a big lifestyle change and then stick to expectations that will allow you to be content. That means you have to give up the idea that you can lose 40 pounds overnight (or with one workout at the gym) and start thinking about why you want to lose 40 pounds, clean out your spleen (that’s a thing people say!), or quit drinking for all of January. Because it won’t work otherwise.

Sure, that means Dry January is cancelled, but if you can stomach the fact that it’s best to drink in moderation rather than taking one month off and getting wasted every weekend throughout the other 11, your body will detox more safely and efficiently than if you went on a painful and unsustainable plan.

Minimal pain and lots of gain? That sounds like a good 2017