Fiftysomething Diet: Do You Need to Detox?

3 questions to answer before trying a fast or a cleanse

It’s no secret that the high-sugar, fast food-rich Standard American Diet is a land-mine of not-so-good ingredients that can harm your health.

But does nibbling on one too many chips, cookies or fatty burgers mean you need a diet “detox” — one of those juice or raw-food style fasts that lasts for three or four or 10 days?
Books and anecdotal stories on the Internet will tell you "Yes." But health experts are far from convinced.

(MORE: How I Finally Gave Up Junk Food)
Here’s a closer look at what you need to know about detoxing and the fiftysomething body:

Detoxing Defined

It’s a confusing riot of choices in the world of cleanse-style diets with detox kits, detox clinics, books and Internet plans all competing for your attention and your dollars. But despite the laundry list of regimens, there’s really no set definition of what it means to detox.

There is, however, one common underlying philosophy. It goes something like this: By eliminating certain foods or eating a specific way, the body can shed itself of “toxins” (from food and the environment) that cause illness.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Foods You Should Never Eat — or Try Not To!)
Does Detoxing Work?
A few scientists are currently dabbling in research on how water- and juice style fasts might help break addictions to things like cigarettes and alcohol. But research on the benefits or risks of any of the popular detox diet plans is scant.

In fact, experts suspect the whole concept is built on shaky ground. “There's little evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from the body," says Mayo Clinic dietitian Katherine Zeratsky. “Indeed, the kidneys and liver effectively filter and eliminate most ingested toxins.” 
Potential Dangers to Consider
Even more important than asking if detoxing works is questioning its safety. Here are three serious questions about plans to review with your physician:
1. How limited are the food choices? Skipping out on lean proteins, whole fruits, veggies, grains — or any food group, for that matter — can lead to nutrient deficiencies, particularly if the detox is kept up for more than a few days.

(MORE: Why Diets Don't Work — and What to Do Instead)
2. Are there too few calories? Depriving the body of the calories (energy) it needs to function leads to fatigue. The very low calorie "Master Cleanse," for example, is based solely on drinking one lemonade style beverage for 10 to 40 days, dietitian Keri Glassman tells CBS.
3. Does it call for colon cleansing? Flushing a long tube of water through the intestinal tract to “clean it out” can cause serious side effects such as nausea, vomiting, cramping, dehydration and bloating. And attention dieters: There’s no proof a colon cleanse helps with weight loss.
A Healthier Detox?
In the end, many experts warn older adults to just say "No" to detox regimens.
“Detox diets can affect our ability to maintain blood sugar levels within normal,” says dietitian Lona Sandon in Today’s Dietitian. “If you are taking diabetes medications, you may put yourself in danger of a too-low blood glucose level by cutting out food groups but continuing to take your medication.”
Still, a day or two of fasting — something we all do unintentionally when a flu bug or brief illness hits — might not hurt.
“As for older adults, you wouldn’t want to start a detox diet undernourished,” says Amy Joy Lanou, senior nutrition scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in Today's Dietitian. “But it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for a 65-year-old person who’s been overeating and having two-martini dinners and is trying to figure out how to reset and eat more healthfully. That person could use a fast to jumpstart that process.”
But do fiftysomethings need to fast or detox? Not really.
What Should You Do?
The best way to clean up bad eating habits is to gradually turn to a whole-foods diet while focusing on two key strategies: eliminate added sugars and minimize processed foods.
Getting rid of excess sugar should help boost energy. Staying away from nutrient-poor, highly-processed convenience foods nets you more vitamins, antioxidants and a whole slew of disease-fighting chemicals that are all good for health.
To start you on this healthier eating path, here are a few good recipes:

Harvard’s sparkling ice tea with lemon, cucumber and mint or Eating Well magazine’s green smoothie are refreshing low-sugar alternatives to sweet summer beverages.
Or try upping your fresh vegetable ante with salads or a cold veggie-rich summer soup, such as Cooking Light magazine’s gazpacho. If you’re filling half the plate with produce, it’s all good.

By Maureen Callahan
Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner.

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