Nutrition Beyond the Trends: Coming clean
Dr. Mark Anthony discusses so-called "cleansing" diets and the making of this common part of dietary balance into an exploitable mystery.
By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor | 08/03/2005
|San Fernando Red (one of the late, great comedian Red Skelton's signature characters) once sold a "guaranteed" weight-loss product. Sadly, many of today's ads for health-maintenance and weight-loss products bear a striking resemblance to Skelton's parody. (Photo courtesy of www.idoodit.com.)|
The beloved comedian Red Skelton portrayed a character on his TV show many years ago, a huckster named San Fernando Red. San Fernando Red sold a weight-loss product that was guaranteed to work: All you had to do was take two tablespoons every day, and don’t eat for a month.
I thought about San Fernando Red when a friend asked me about a specific detoxification regimen, a rigid plan for “cleansing your body.”
“Detoxification” and “cleansing” regimens — for example, going on a restrictive diet of fruits and vegetables or their juices only — have been part of alternative approaches to health since before modern medicine. But some cleansing diets today tout any number of odd twists and usually include some expensive “nutritional” liquid meal replacer. Such cleanse-your-body programs sound like something San Fernando Red would sell: “Here, drink this special Cleanbod-5000, don’t eat any 'unpure' food for two weeks and you’ll feel a lot better. That’ll be 80 bucks, please.”
This doesn’t mean the cleansing concept is invalid, just that it’s misleading and too often exploited. So, let’s bring it into the real world. First we need to look how our bodies handle excess protein. Dietary protein provides essential amino acids we use to construct the proteins we need. But what is need, and what is excess? The fact is, that’s still an incompletely understood factor.
You're body has no storage facility for protein the way it does carbohydrate and fat. When you’re starving, you have to recycle proteins — i.e., from muscle — to get amino acids to the tissues needing them most, or to make glucose to keep blood sugar stable. If starvation goes too far, your body will scavenge the proteins from vital organs.
In a more primitive setting, you need energy to hunt or gather food when little is available. In order to keep from recycling protein from critical tissues too quickly, nature came up with a strategy: redundant protein synthesis. In other words, there are certain plasma and tissue proteins that are involved in wound repair and the immune response that we make in excess when sufficient dietary protein is available. They exist within a range of normal and can be depleted to a significant degree without harm.
When food is scarce, we use this store and reduce the level to low-normal. When food is abundant, the amount soars to high-normal. This functional store acts as a buffer to protect us from protein starvation. We can live on berries and leaves until we can find more substantial food.
With food for most of us in the U.S. no longer scarce, it may be to our advantage to turn over a portion of this functional store more rapidly, reducing it to low normal. In moderation, this may be quite valuable, even essential to keeping the immune system functioning properly and reducing the potential harm from proteins accumulating damage over time. This has been tendered as one reason why animals on restricted diets live longer.
Periodically increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fluids at the expense of proteins forces us to call upon our functional protein store for amino acids and fuel, while increasing our intake and absorption of certain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Some feel that such a diet makes one feel light and refreshed.
Many people report relief from symptoms of allergies, congestion, headaches, joint pains, digestive disturbances and many other conditions. Whether a true “cleansing” or the placebo effect is involved, such restrictive diets are unlikely to harm anyone in the short term.
The so-called cleansing in such a case is the normal recycling of a functional protein store. It’s part of natural balance. That’ll be 80 dollars, please.