Cleanses and detox diets are everywhere these days, promoted by celebrities and health experts as a rapid solution to our weight-loss woes.

The purpose of a cleansing program is to remove toxic substances from the body in order to burn fat, relieve bloating or speed up a sluggish metabolism. But do these extreme diets and pricey supplements really work, or are they a dangerous quick fix for a culture obsessed with weight?

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Weighing in on Detox Diets

There are many different approaches to cleansing, but most programs require following a highly restricted, low-calorie diet. While you’re on the cleanse, you’ll be limited to a few specific foods, liquids or herbal supplements. Some programs, like Salma Hayek’s popular Cooler Cleanse, emphasize vitamin-rich, raw juices. Actress Anne Hathaway relies on the 48-Hour Detox Diet — a two-day regimen that involves drinking a lemon beverage four times a day — to boost her metabolism before big Hollywood events. Bethenny Frankel of Real Housewives of New York swears by a product called Skinnygirl Daily Cleanse and Restore, a fiber supplement that’s taken in combination with healthy meals.

On the positive side, a short cleanse could leave you feeling lighter and healthier after a period of overindulgence, or help you kick-start a long-term diet. But any program that deprives you of vital nutrients or fluids for more than a day or two could pose a serious risk to your health, and may actually undermine your weight loss goals.

Red Flags to Watch For

A quick survey of the most popular cleanses will show you that some of these diets are safer and more sensible than others. Here are a few warning signs to watch for if you’re considering a detox plan:

  • The program promises rapid weight loss. Most of the weight you’ll lose through a cleanse consists of water. According to WebMD, a severely restricted diet or fasting program can slow down your metabolism and trigger even more weight gain—usually in the form of fat—when you go back to your normal eating habits.
  • Supplements are available only through a specific practitioner. Cleansing pills, powders and enemas are often sold through websites or infomercials, usually at an exorbitant price. You’d probably be better off investing that money in a fitness class or gym membership.
  • The cleanse lasts more than one or two days. After a day or two of extreme fasting, you may start to experience side effects like dizziness, weakness, nausea or confusion. While cleansing for 24 to 48 hours may be safe for a healthy adult, a longer fast could be dangerous, even life-threatening.

Safety Precautions

Cleansing toxins from the body is vital to our health, which is why our liver, kidneys, digestive tract and skin perform this task naturally. If you’re determined to help the course of nature with a detox diet, follow these basic safety tips:

  • Check with your healthcare provider first. To be on the safe side, it’s always best to talk with your doctor before you start a cleanse. If you’re pregnant or if you have a chronic health condition like diabetes, cleansing diets are generally not recommended.
  • Set realistic goals. A safe cleanse isn’t going to make a dramatic difference in your body weight or appearance, but it might motivate you to start a long-term program of healthy, balanced eating.
  • Stay hydrated. While you’re on the cleanse, drink plenty of water or other healthy, caffeine-free fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Don’t overdo your workouts. Vigorous workouts could overtax your body when you’re on a restricted diet. Light stretching or walking may be more appropriate. Ask your doctor about the safest approach to exercise during a cleanse.

If your goals include getting thinner and healthier, a diet based on clean eating may be a better way to get the results you want. Clean eating emphasizes fresh, unprocessed foods and liquids, which are packed with nutrients that help your body detoxify naturally. With a balanced diet, fresh water and exercise, you can help your system rid itself of toxins without fad diets or expensive supplements.

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