SWAL­LOW­ING THE HYPE

Why ex­treme detox may not be the way to go

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Bazaar -

“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.”

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