The Ultimate Diet Cleanse

Detox your mind.

I never thought I would do this, but here I am, endorsing a cleanse.

Well, sort of. This is a mental nutrition cleanse to remove thoughts and ideas that make you vulnerable to empty promises, keep you confused, and steer you in the wrong direction.

1. Cancel all “cleanses” and “detoxes”. The only true “cleanse” is colonoscopy prep — unpleasant and the opposite of glamorous. Its purpose isn’t to detoxify, but make the lower intestine “camera ready.” Everything else that passes itself off as a cleanse or detox (from “skinny teas” to three-day green juice fasts) is unsubstantiated bunk which ignores that our kidneys and liver work 24/7 to help the body get rid of what it doesn’t need.

If your kidneys and liver don’t work, that is a serious medical emergency that requires transplantation, not sips of activated charcoal water.

2. Abandon the idea of “alkaline diets”. You have probably come across bottles of “alkaline water”, which promise to increase your blood’s pH — a measure of its acidity. According to proponents, disease only develops in acidic bodies, so an alkaline body is a body free of disease.

Reality check: our blood’s pH is supposed to hold steady between 7.35 and 7.45 (slightly alkaline). That’s a marvel of human physiology — not something to “improve.” As for the root causes of chronic disease, there are many: poor diet, stress, sedentary lifestyle, genetics. Acidic blood is not one.

3. Skip past — or mute — food commercials. This isn’t a “how to curb your hunger” tip, but a “how to preserve your sanity” tip. Most television food advertisements are for unhealthy and deceptively marketed products (i.e.: cookies — er, “breakfast biscuits” — spun as a way to start your day with fiber and an energy boost, fruit juice — 6 to 8 teaspoons of sugar in liquid form, depending on the brand— as a healthful beverage).

It’s not just television actively hawking unhealthy food. PepsiCo spent $71 million in 2010 marketing Tostitos, Lay’s, and Cheetos in newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and billboards.

4. Delete the “everything in moderation” mantra. Yes, all foods fit, but here’s the important detail: they don’t fit equally.

You know who loves “everything in moderation”? Companies that produce and market junk food. Their bottom line depends on the public believing “there are no bad foods” (few things are as profitable as processed snacks made of cheap ingredients).

Ask ten different people what they define as eating candy “in moderation” and you’ll get ten different answers. Therein lies the problem.

“Everything in moderation” also denies the realities of nutrition science. Drinking six eight-ounce glasses of water a day (a great way to hydrate) is very different from drinking six eight-ounce glasses of soda a day (hundreds of empty calories and over 30 teaspoons of sugar). There’s nothing worrisome about eating cucumbers and tomatoes five days a week. Cupcakes and Doritos with that same frequency? Different story.

A better way to think about food: “frequent/daily foods” (i.e.: vegetables, whole fruits, beans, nuts and seeds), “occasional/weekly foods” (i.e.: dark chocolate, popcorn) and “once in a blue moon foods” (i.e.: donuts, cheeseburgers, fried foods, brownies).

That way, nothing is forbidden or “demonized, and nutrition science is acknowledged.

5. De-enlist from the nutrient wars. The never-ending “carbs” vs. “fat” battles are very profitable for a handful of authors that firmly stand in one camp, but a total disservice to the general public.

“Carbs” include everything from Skittles and Coca-Cola (empty calories; have sparingly, if at all) to broccoli and blueberries (nutrient dense and rich in fiber; eat frequently).

High-fat foods include health-promoting avocados and walnuts, artery-damaging vegetable shortening, and unhealthy cold cuts like bologna (processed meats are the only food the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends avoiding).

Worry less about “low-fat” and“low-carb.” Choose whole, minimally-processed carbohydrates and fats.

6. Clean out your shelves. Your book shelves, that is. Diet books that promise results in seven, 14, 21, or 30 days? Out (notice how they never promise you’ll maintain those results a year later). Require you to purchase hundreds of dollars of supplements? Goodbye. Promise to cleanse you or help you get rid of toxins (which, interestingly, are never specified or identified)? Adios. Claim healthful, whole foods (i.e.: fruits, beans, tomatoes) or cooked foods in general are “poison”? See you never. Treat honey and coconut sugar as “health foods”? Nice knowing you.

7. Question “miracle” and “super” foods. Scour the internet for a few minutes and you’ll come across miraculous claims — almost all of them unsubstantiated in research — for a litany of foods (i.e.: coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, bone broth) that, while not unhealthy, are not silver bullets. As for so-called “superfoods”. Sure, goji berries provide vitamin C, but so do bell peppers, oranges, and strawberries. All fruits and vegetables are good for you, some just have super marketing teams. And while quinoa certainly offers a great nutrient profile, so do steel-cut oats.

8. Scrutinize every nutrition headline. It’s important to be well read. It’s equally important to seek out quality information. To see how easily nutrition misinformation can spread, read this account of how a science journalist fooled millions into believing chocolate was a weight loss food. Making matters more confusing: a lot of nutrition research is funded by corporations; these studies tend to favor the sponsor. Inaccurate Facebook memes don’t help, either.

One place to help navigate the maze: Health News Review, which grades the accuracy of health headlines.

This is why eating healthfully can be puzzling for so many. You don’t need another fad diet, just a change in perspective.