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This Is Your Heart on a Detox Diet
If you’re planning to clean out your body for spring, wait until you see why experts are divided over detox diets, cleansing juices, and fasting.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Come spring, some people like to clean out not just their closets but their bodies too. Is so-called cleansing with a detox diet, such as fasting or juicing, necessary or even wise?
The jury is still out on potential health benefits of detox diets because evidence is scant. There haven't been any randomized controlled trials on the benefits or risks of detox diets in people, according to a review of studies published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
And a consensus among doctors and nutritionists is lacking. A proper cleanse diet can provide the ingredients — protein, liver-supporting nutrients, and fiber — needed to boost the body’s own detoxification system, says Frank Lipman, MD, founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City.
If you eliminate foods that cause your gut to react unfavorably, “you will give your digestive system a well-earned rest,” he says. He believes an effective detox plan won’t harm or endanger the heart, a concern with some approaches.
However, Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, a professor of nutrition at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that as long as you’re healthy, your body’s own detox systems — lungs, liver, kidneys, and skin — will do their jobs quite well on their own. You won’t need any help from popular detox ideas, whether it's a fast, a juicing diet, or an herbal tea.
Blake believes some detox diets, like the one that calls for buttered coffee, which is high in saturated, animal-based fat, could actually be harmful to your heart.
“Your heart is a muscle, so you want to feed it healthfully,” she says. “You don’t want to be eating foods that are heart-unhealthy, nor do you want to eliminate foods that are good for your heart or your entire body, for that matter.”
A Plant-Based Diet Is Heart-Healthy
If you’re looking for a way to detox for a healthy heart, make the right changes to your diet, says Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, and the author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
Rid your diet of all animal products — including dairy and animal-derived fats — added sugar, and processed foods, Esselstyn says. Instead, eat a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, and whole fruits. A plant-based diet for life can not only prevent heart disease but also reverse it, he says.
Fasting Could Put a Strain on Your Heart
There are pros and cons to fasting, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, MPH, author of , an assistant professor at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda Maryland, and an attending physician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In animal research studies, intermittent fasting — one day on, one day off — protected rats against oxidative damage to their hearts, according to results published in March 2015 in the journal PLOS One.
However, Dr. Gerbstadt says, “Just because the heart benefits, it doesn’t mean other organs do.” The same study found that fasting could cause an oxidative imbalance (between antioxidants and pro-oxidants) in the liver and brain that could lead to inflammation, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. Gerbstadt says the bottom line is, “Everything in moderation.”
And while Dr. Lipman favors some detox programs, he does not support fasting. The purpose of a detoxification program is to support the organs that eliminate toxins from your body, enabling the toxins to be metabolized and excreted, he explains. “It is not about starving oneself for days at a time, which is not a healthy approach to cleansing and could put a strain on your heart,” he adds.
RELATED: 7 Ways to Detox for Spring in 30 Minutes or Less
Is Juicing a Better Detox Choice?
A cleansing diet that involves just juicing isn’t as good as it seems, even if it includes lots of healthy celery and beets, which are natural detoxification aids, says Esselstyn.
The problem is that juicing is actually processing the fruits and vegetables, and processed foods aren’t as healthy as whole foods, he explains. Beets and celery, in particular, contain nitrates, and their juices contain larger amounts than most people would get from just eating either vegetable.
Nitrates are being investigated for their potential cardiovascular benefits, including their ability to lower blood pressure, according to a report published in the Journal of Nutrition. However, nitrates also cause blood vessels to dilate. This, in turn, can cause pounding headaches, Esselstyn says. When you make juice, you’re also eliminating heart-healthy fiber. And when juicing fruit, you consume more of the liquid sugar in the fruit, and that’s not a healthy food for the heart or any organ, he adds.
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