Do we really need detox?

In his article from the 1966 3rd publication of Heilsuvernd magazine, the then head of the Naturopathic society of Iceland, Björn L. Jónsson, had this to say about fasting:

“Men should limit their food and drink intake throughout their lives. Should they occasionally surpass their limits, a few days of fasting suffices to regain equilibrium. According to this simple rule, everyone would have to fast every now and then, since people usually tend to eat too much.”  

Björn defines fasting as not consuming any solid foods or milk while, and only drinking water and vegetable or fruit drinks.

Weight loss slows down with reduced food intake.

We should probably hang on to these words and wonder if there isn’t quite a bit of truth within them to this day. More than a few people tend to “detox” in one way or another after bingeing on good food and drinks. People who promote detox, fasting and various products that revolve around similar practices often promise weight loss and a “cleansing” of the body.  Sometimes we even hear speak of cleansing foods.  

It’s unavoidable that some weight loss take place when food intake is so drastically limited.  One can wonder whether such a rocking between extremes in eating habits can provide any sort of healthy balance. Fasting will not be a viable recommendation to the general public any time soon.  This is none the less common practice in advertising today. Recommendations like these often come with declarations of a long-term benefit without any scientific data to support the claims.

The body is fully capable of releasing toxins on its own

Ólafur G. Sæmundson, nutritionist, recently produced a second print of his book, Lífsþróttur.  Therein he covers, among other things, detoxing and fasting, and Stúdentablaðið has his kind permission to cover the book. Ólafur says that the bodies detoxing and cleansing system is very sophisticated, and the only thing it really needs to work is that we take care not to overtax it with an unhealthy lifestyle. He points out that the liver processes everything we eat, and our liver cells break down exotic chemicals before they enter the bloodstream.  

Our blood also contains proteins that bind to various chemicals and matter to prevent them from having detrimental effects on our body. The liver then sifts out these protein bonds and breaks them down. The kidneys also serve an important function as a waste-disposal center, getting rid of almost all of the residual toxins and waste from the body’s day-to-day functions. The body does some more cleansing through its use of bile and the biliary system, major duodenal papilla and simply breathing.

Fasting for extended periods

In his book Ólafur recounts that there is usually no mention of liver or kidneys in promotional material concerning detox products, methods or services. He feels the reason for this is probably that propagators of such methods haven’t the slightest idea of how the body’s cleansing systems actually work.  This does not prevent people from believing that their bodies are full to the brim with mysterious toxins and poison. “The brilliance of these programs is to start by making up a universal disease, and then providing and selling the “cure”” Ólafur writes.

Ólafur also brings up the fact that fasting for more than 2 or 3 days causes the body to start breaking down valuable muscle mass, and eventually leads the body to drastic measures in conserving its energy. This then causes a quicker build-up of fat when the fasting ends. Fasting, he reports, actually increases the strain on the liver and weakens the body’s immune and cleansing systems.

Fasting can be viable, says Ólafur, but for 1–3 days at most, to increase discipline at the start of a change in diet, but after that you should not go further than 500 calories below your estimated daily requirements. He’s of the opinion that fasting is not a viable long-term solution, or even justifiable for more than a short period of time. In his book, Ólafur proposes to stand against eating disorders, and normalize the publics’ conversation regarding food and diet. Black-and white rules and obvious extremes, like we often see offered up in detox- and fasting programs, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Artlicle: Birna Varðardóttir

Translation: Tómas Ari Gíslason