SWALLOWING THE HYPE
Why extreme detox may not be the way to go
“God, that smells amazing,” says my cousin, gazing at my steaming mug of Arabica coffee. “Let me pour you some,” I say, reaching for the cafetiere. “No, no, I mustn’t. Just hot water is fine,” she says, miserably prodding the slice of lemon. “Only another two days to go. Just let me smell that coffee again … ”
“So what’s the deal with this detox – what are you allowed?” I ask, sipping at my caffeine like an addict getting a fix. “Basically nothing,” she says. “No wheat or dairy, no red meat, no salt, no tea or coffee, no alcohol, no juice or squash, no refined carbs, no saturated fats, no additives or preservatives. So no cakes or biscuits, no crisps, no butter or margarine, no mayonnaise or salad dressing, no bread or cereal or pasta. The first three days was just steamed vegetables and fish. Now I’m allowed rice cakes, stewed fruit, and eggs. And I have to drink at least two litres of room-temperature water throughout the day, plus dandelion tea and apple vinegar.”
“But you must feel totally amazing, right?” I ask, sympathetically.
“I feel like shit!” she practically sobs. “Seriously, look at me – my skin is having some kind of breakout and I’m permanently on the verge of fainting or bursting into tears.” I have to admit, she does look pretty awful. “I’m ingesting vast quantities of milk thistle complex, psyllium husks, and spirulina powder. Plus I can’t sleep because I’m so bloody hungry.” She gets a desperate look in her eyes, grabs a packet of Marlboro Lights and marches to the balcony. “I may not be allowed to eat or drink, but I bloody need to smoke.” So much for detoxing.
When I quizzed her further, she was vague on why she was detoxing. It was something to do with stimulating her liver, eliminating toxins and allergens, boosting energy levels, rebalancing herself. However, she admitted she had never felt more hungry and tired, and was having hallucinations about chocolate biscuits. So why do we do it?
Among the many “healthy” obsessions in modern life, surely detoxing is one of the craziest. While we drive and fly and pollute this fragile planet like never before, we’re also paranoid about hygiene, cleanliness, and purity. We pay a premium for fairtrade products while at the same time we plunder the world’s natural resources with our relentless hunger for stuff, for travel, for oil, gas, electricity. We recycle our rubbish with painstaking care (my boyfriend has five different bins in his kitchen!), yet our levels of waste are astonishing; almost half the world’s food is thrown away. We sip volcano, glacier or spring water while a billion people worldwide have no clean water at all. We embrace new diets and join gyms and pay over the odds for organic products, while our food is more processed, laden with sugar, salt, and artificial preservatives than ever before and the average person’s weight is steadily rising. We eat while rushing down the street, watching TV, or on the phone, we wrap our food in plastic that may or may not be carcinogenic (depending on what scare stories you believe).
These days anything handmade, farm-sourced or homespun is automatically superior to any store-bought rubbish, right? From artisanal chocolate to biodynamic wine, those who can afford it can feel sophisticated, healthy … and just a little bit smug. But we have little cause for smugness while we are dumping our garbage in developing countries and polluting their environments with our chemical factories and rapacious demand for trees and water and oil.
So how can we live more sustainably without the connotations attached to that word? We’ve become addicted to consumerism, it seems. These days you would struggle to get a technician to look at a broken washing machine or fridge: most will advise you to buy a new one if it’s more than a year old. It seems everything is disposable; everything is short-term. Recently my best friend was getting stressed about the delay in his iPhone upgrade: “I should be on iPhone 5 by now! I’ve had the 4 for nearly a year; I feel like a dinosaur,” he said. He’s right: our mobiles are outdated in a few months, as are our computers, superseded by the latest technology. All our cassettes and CDs – all our stereos, for that matter, our Walkmans, our record players – are basically junk, now that everything is online.
Im not the only one who feels depressed at the wastefulness, bewildered by the impermanence of it all. A similar confusion applies to food: how we should live, what we should eat. Surely most of us would like to live in a less “processed” manner, yet many of us just lurch from one miracle detox to the next super-supplement, endlessly looking for that perfect “natural” balance. Rationally, we know the surest way to maintain a healthy weight is to eat when we are hungry and stop when we’re full, enjoy treats in moderation, and stay active. But moderation isn’t easy to achieve: instead we go for broke, bingeing on calories and then retreating to the misery of a strict diet.
One of the latest fads is intermittent fasting, also known as the 5:2 diet. The idea is that fasting for two non-consecutive days a week (and not the other five) can yield terrific benefits: swift, sustainable weight loss without the dreary challenge of calorie control. Apparently, periodic fasting not only delivers weight loss but also cuts your risk of getting cancer and heart disease, boosts energy, mood and brain power, and halts the ageing process. ( Just imagine your wonderful mood on the two non-food days.)
It can be enough of a minefield working out what is considered healthy, let alone sticking to it. I’m a fairly well-informed consumer, but I still feel dazed and confused by the cacophony of debate raging about our food: is soya good for you, or has it been linked to breast cancer? Is milk good for your bones, or are cows really being pumped full of artificial hormones? And what about oily fish – which ones contain dangerous levels of mercury? Wheat and dairy: why so many intolerances these days? Are carbohydrates really the enemy, or a powerful source of energy? What about the Alkaline Diet: why are starchy grains, pasta, wheat and beans, all dairy products, meat, and fish classed as “acid forming”? What does this even mean – are they bad for us? Who invents this stuff; where is the scientific evidence?
Frankly, I can’t figure out half the ingredients in apparently healthy foods. The mango, papaya, and passion fruit yoghurt I’ve just eaten is labelled “no preservatives”, yet it contains modified tapioca starch, thickener (guar gum), aspartame, emulsifiers, and “a source of phenylalanine”. What are the sinister-sounding chemicals, and why are they necessary? Some nutritionists say we should avoid eating anything containing any substance we can’t identify, but of course it’s not that simple.
We’ve known about the health benefits of fresh, unprocessed food for years. But look at the way things have changed recently: beauty, fitness, and food are a near-obsession for many magazines, websites, and TV programmes. It’s like we’ve been taken in by this colossal detox swindle: we’ve agreed we are surrounded by invisible “toxins” and need purification, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The nutritionist Ian Marber said on Twitter recently: “You don’t need to try to ‘detox’ any more than you need to try to breathe. It happens anyway.” And he’s right: apart from the liver, which clearly benefits from alcohol-free regeneration, the rest of our organs don’t actually need detoxification.
Only a few decades ago perfectly healthy people would have looked at you blankly if you’d suggested “going on a detox”. Terms such as low-carbing, clean eating or juicing had not been invented, and the notion of “flushing our toxins” would have been incomprehensible. Previous generations ate well, with a good balance of food groups, without worrying about glycaemic index, slow-release carbs or antioxidants.
We pay a premium for our probiotics and our antioxidants, and we’re suckers for a detox diet, but do we really know what we are paying for? How would you actually define “superfood”? Of course, you’ve heard the marketing spiel: superfoods are nutritional powerhouses packed with antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals; they are wonder foods, miracle workers. However, the term “superfood” is not used by dieticians or nutritional scientists, many of whom dispute that particular foodstuffs have any of the so-called super health benefits.
In fact, there is no independent definition of “superfood” and no legal consensus as to what constitutes one. Rather, it’s an unscientific marketing term used to describe foods that are free of artificial ingredients, additives or contaminants, and high in nutrients or phytochemicals. This is a pretty accurate definition of most fresh fruit and vegetables. Currently fashionable superfoods include blueberries, goji berries or açai berries – and they are priced accordingly. Commoner plant foods such as apples, carrots, broccoli, spinach, pumpkin, and tomatoes are healthy too, but are rarely touted as “super”.
The marketing of trends such as superfoods is all-important. Whether it’s the anti-ageing benefits of oily fish or the purity of organic milk, even the savviest consumer will find it hard not to be influenced by some degree. Recently a leaflet on my doormat offered me “a range of super fighting antioxidants for anti-ageing, digestion, and proven health benefits, with the purest natural ingredients sourced from all over the world. Seaweed from the Adriatic, krill from the Antarctic, and black rice bran from China.” And superfoods aren’t the only modern miracle we’re being peddled – what about the supplements we’re encouraged to wash down with our morning wheatgrass shot? Some days, after my cocktail of fish oil, calcium, vitamins C and D, zinc, magnesium, and evening primrose oil, I feel like I’m rattling.
Exotic, super fighting, and somehow wild! The element of wildness appeals to so many of us – we go mad for the Paleo “caveman” diet, we like the idea of foraging for nuts and berries, eating raw, eating clean. We believe that fungi, squirrel, wood sorrel or whatever, will cleanse and purify us, as if more expensive nutrition will make us better people. By getting closer to nature we feel purer, wilder – and for some of us, thinner. Now, more than ever before, there is a moral dimension to our food tastes and behaviour. It’s not just what we eat, it’s who we are.
I was reminded of the lifestyle prominence we’ve given to food recently when I was selling my apartment. After measuring up and taking photographs, the real-estate agent said, “Don’t forget, the smell of baking bread and roasting coffee is the way to attract buyers!” He was half joking, but he had a point. People who bake their own loaves or grind their own coffee beans tend to be of a certain type; and when you’re selling an apartment you’re selling a lifestyle. This is an excerpt from ‘The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control’ by Emma Woolf (Summersdale), RM44.90, out now in major bookstores.
“From artisanal chocolate to biodynamic wine, those who can afford it can feel sophisticated, healthy … and just a little bit smug. But we have little cause for smugness.”