Fasting Does Not Detox Your Body- Eating Well Does
Fasting is defined as an abstinence of some sort with regard to food and water, and is done usually for either spiritual reasons or improving overall health and losing weight. While fasting is a common practice in almost all world religions and can be profoundly meaningful in a spiritual context, the current trend of fasting as a way to detoxify your body or lose weight doesn’t have much in terms of scientific credibility nor does it promote healthy eating patterns. Unfortunately the idea of fasting has become a rather superstitious practice of redeeming yourself and creating a fresh start after a spell of bad food choices, and while not eating or skipping meals may make you feel better about the junk food you ate- it won’t do anything to make you healthier, nor will it reverse any increases in body fat brought on as a result. (In fact- studies show that intermittent fasting tends to make us increase our total calorie intake over time- not reduce it- which can predispose you to weight gain, not weight loss- see my article on Intermittent Fasting here). Today we are bombarded as well with the pseudo-science of toxins being responsible for everything from cancer, arthritis, fatigue and depression and that our primary goal should be to do our best to somehow eliminate these toxins from our system. To help us with this process are countless numbers of detox products- ‘all natural’ teas, juices, herbal blends and services that all claim to help you get rid of all those unwanted toxins when used in conjunction with a fast. Products whose sales figures make up a significant part of the multi-billion dollar unregulated supplement industry. In this article we will take a hard look at the ‘bro-science’ behind fasting and the idea of detoxification. Practices that go a long way in selling products- but don’t do very much in terms of making you healthier. As always, thanks for reading and do be sure to share this article with someone you think might benefit from it.
Before delving into some of the myths behind detoxification diets, it’s best to first define what detoxification actually is and what it’s not. The word ‘detoxification’ is a medical term that refers to the removal and or reduction of potentially harmful substances in the body such as alcohol, illegal or pharmaceutical drugs and or poisons. It does not refer to ‘cleaning your system’ from ‘toxins’ found in foods. That usage is little more than a cleverly designed marketing version that’s clinically sounding enough to make it seem like a pretty good idea. Aside from losing weight quickly and obtaining some sense of forgiveness for the bad foods they ate, there are three main reasons people use to justify the use of fasting, most of them commonly accepted by the general population as being true. They are:
1. Fasting gives your digestive system and organs time to rest and recover from the strain of the processed foods that we eat today.
2. Fasting helps the body get rid of unwanted toxins.
3. Fasting helps you lose weight.
Myth 1: Fasting Let’s Your Organs Rest
Most literature promoting fasting for weight loss or health purposes (along with special juices, blend and teas that they promote as well) use the idea of resting your organs as an important reason why we should fast. They call to mind the idea of your liver and digestive system working non-stop to process all the foods that you eat and that they need some time off to rest. When put that way it does indeed sound like a very plausible idea- but it’s more ‘bro-science’ than anything else as it has no grounding in the biology of how the human body actually works. Our organs are designed to process food as an ongoing requirement and continually regenerate throughout the span of our lives. They can’t be overworked by digesting the very nutrients we need to survive as that’s what they do- on the contrary remove food sources for prolonged periods of time and organs begin to break down, and your stomach can shrink in a relatively short space of time without food which can make going back to regular eating temporarily uncomfortable.
Consider the parallel example of a car engine; if you don’t put any gas in the tank you aren’t doing anything to make it run better- and like our organs, not running a car engine is one of the surest ways to make it not work over time. Engines are also designed to run on gas and it would be unthinkable to expect any benefits from driving your car with an empty tank. In the same vein, you shouldn’t expect your body to function optimally if you don’t give it the fuel it needs.
Now if you put contaminated or low quality fuel in your car, you can indeed do damage to the engine, but having the car run with no gas for periods after filling it with cheap gas isn’t going to make it any better. The same applies to junk food. If you eat a diet high in refined junk foods, one or two days of not eating anything will not magically undo the 364 days of bad food choices. It is an appealing idea that a couple of days fasting can somehow absolve you of frequent bad food choices, but this is called magical thinking and has no basis in reality whatsoever. If you want to be sure that your organs are not overwhelmed, then your focus should be on consistently wholesome food choices and avoiding foods that our bodies naturally were not designed to consume. Not quite the quick, feel-good fix that most are looking for, but it is the only way proven to maintain optimal health.
Myth 2: Fasting Eliminates Toxins
With regard to eliminating toxins, again it sounds like a solid theory, but only if you don’t have a background in biochemistry. Our organs are here to do just that: to breakdown and remove toxins. They do a pretty darn good job of it. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that fasting will cleanse the body. This is what our lungs, liver, colon, kidneys, lymph glands and even our skin does and are built to do. In a sense, our organs are natural detoxification centers and by not eating for a period of time you do nothing to eliminate any excess toxins. The practice of drinking lots of water or juices while fasting is equally useless.
Water and juices cannot flush away toxins- they only dilute whatever compounds are already in the body.
Drinking more water whether you are fasting or not does nothing to increase the rate of toxin removal, if anything the dilution from an increased fluid intake may actually slow down the rate of excretion. The idea of water and juices washing away the bad chemicals inside our bodies is laughable, yet there are numerous New Age types who take advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge of human biochemistry. An internet search on fasting and detox will give you hundreds of websites selling products but none with any scientific credibility. This is an oversimplified view of how the human body works and has no grounds in human biology. It goes a long way in selling juicers and promoting the sales of bottled water but does nothing to eliminate toxins. The human body is designed to defend itself against most of the potentially harmful substances in our environment and our diet. There is a limit, of course, to how much alcohol, processed foods and or drugs that our bodies can bear without permanent damage, but if you are serious about protecting your liver, kidneys and digestive system your best bet is to simply avoid smoking, staying away from excessive alcohol consumption, illegal drugs and highly processed foods while following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and sufficient sleep time. It’s that simple and it doesn’t involve fasting or buying any special teas or drinking juices. It might not be a simple fix, but if you don’t put anything harmful into your body you don’t have to worry about having to get rid of it in the first place.
Myth 3: Fasting Helps You Lose Weight
Most can attest to the fact that the numbers on the scale do indeed go down when you fast- but as much as it may make you feel better about the bad food choices you may have made to gain weight in the first place- the reductions are short-lived at best and you’ll put the weight right back on when you resume eating regularly. Most of the weight loss brought on by short term fasting comes from a reduction in fluid levels and not a decrease in body fat. By understanding what happens during a fast gives us a clear picture of exactly what happens in your body when you stop or restrict your food intake and how fat loss isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Sugars that are broken down and stored in the form of glucose form our body’s main source of fuel and are essential not only for our muscles and organs to work efficiently but they are also the primary fuel source for our brain. When food intake is restricted, even within the context of everyday life for more than 4 to 8 hours, the low blood sugar levels trigger a rise in the hormones glucagon and epinephrine. These hormones, among other things, stimulate the conversion of glycogen–a form of glucose stored in our liver and muscles–into a usable form of fuel by means of a process called glycogenolysis. Our liver and muscles have enough glycogen to last for two to three days, which is one of the reasons brief periods of fasting, be it forced by circumstances or for spiritual reasons, are usually harmless for healthy individuals. Reduction in glycogen stores- (which are a combination of glucose (sugars) and water) creates a consequent drop in overall fluid levels- (which is aided as well by the reduction in sodium brought on by not eating) thus any weight loss is superficial and will return once normal eating patterns are resumed. That said, no fat is being burned in the process and skipping a meal here and there is not going to do anything to reduce the fat around your waist or anywhere else. In fact, the practice of fasting for purposes of weight loss can increase the risk of certain eating disorders and distract us from developing the healthy habits needed to learn to live a healthier lifestyle.
For more information on this topic see the following articles:
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Kevin Richardson is one of the most sought after fitness trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™. Download a copy of Kevin’s free weight loss ebook here!