The Fasting Track

Hollywood popularized the detox diet. Don't believe the hype

| September/October 2007

Once a year, Filip Vanzhov shuts his fridge and doesn't open it for seven days. Vanzhov, a naturopathic physician from British Columbia, isn't on a diet. He abstains from food as a tune-up for mind and body. "I feel strongly that fasting should be part of everybody's health plan," he says.

Advocates like Vanzhov believe that fasting gives the body a break from the work of digesting food all the time, allowing it time to heal. "The body can do amazing things," he says. "We don't realize how much we overload our systems."

Many environmentally minded people are interested in fasting as a tool for removing chemicals from their systems. And it's true we store pesticides, mercury, and dioxin in our fat. Fasting and detox programs such as the Lemonade Diet are also becoming more popular as Hollywood celebrities tout their weight-loss benefits.

But the science of using fasting as a way to lose weight or clean your insides is murky. Robert S. Baratz, a Boston-area internist and president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, does not see the value in fasting. "There's no magic about this--you're talking about starvation," he says.

When people fast, their bodies break down protein from their muscles to provide glucose for the brain, and then they tackle fat cells. This can overload the kidney and liver with toxic by-products like ammonia and urea. It also can upset electrolyte balance, leading to a heart attack risk. Your organs don't rest during a fast, explains Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a nutrition professor at the University of California at Davis. They're actually working overtime. "It's really the opposite of cleansing and detoxifying," she says.

The idea that fasting detoxifies the body is a myth, according to Baratz: "There's no so-called body cleansing that occurs. . . . The body doesn't work that way." Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago, agrees. "We were born with our own detoxification systems: our liver and kidneys."

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