January is the time of the year when we forget everything we know about biology, physiology and nutrition in an attempt to convince ourselves that the answer to festive over-indulgence is abstinence in one form or another. As the month draws to an end, and we start to reach for what has been denied – a glass of wine, a plate of pasta, chocolate – we should reflect on whether a few weeks of penance has done us any good whatsoever.
Alongside Dry January, one of the crazes this year has been “Veganuary”, a regime in which all animal products are avoided. Beyonce and her husband, Jay-Z, are among a number of celebrities who have been extolling its virtues. I’ve lost count of the number of friends and patients who have told me they are doing it, too.
The idea is that by going animal-free for a month, you ’’cleanse’’ your body. This is just a new version of the old detox myth. People love the idea that the sins of yesterday can somehow be purged – detoxified – by some temporary change in lifestyle. Once you’ve done your penance, you’re free to go off and sin again come February 1. The drama of it all is far more seductive than what we know to be true: all things in moderation, but more fruit and veg, and less sugar, salt and fat.
The main detox regimes fall into two categories: the first, like Veganuary, involves cutting out foods that, in excess, are bad for you. Unscrupulous companies, nutritionists and health gurus then try to sell you the vitamins and minerals you ’’need’’ to supplement your meagre detox diet. But the body stores many of these, so this is quite unnecessary. More importantly, a few weeks of avoiding unhealthy foods, such as saturated fats, will make no difference to your health if you continue to eat too much of them the rest of the year. They’re still going to fur up your arteries.
The second type of detox regime relies on various potions and pills that claim to help your body expel so-called toxins. What those toxins are, or how you might have ingested them, is rarely specified – or if it is, not convincingly. Evidence is in short supply.
Could it be that these ‘‘toxins’’ are just the normal waste products that result from metabolism? In which case, the body has evolved over millions of years to remove them itself, and appeared to be doing it perfectly well before Superdrug, Boots or Holland & Barrett came along. And as for the claims that these toxins are the result of modern life – of exposure to pollution, pesticides and other chemicals – that’s pure shamanism.
If you don’t believe me, then can I point you to the charitable trust, Sense About Science, which has reviewed some of the many products claiming to have ’’detox’’ properties and found the term to be meaningless? Unfortunately, as there is no universally accepted definition for it, advertising standards are difficult to enforce, so these products can go on being sold with impunity.
The truth is that any perceived benefit from a detox regime is either down to a placebo effect or the temporary change in diet and lifestyle that accompanies it.
I’ve nothing against Veganuary or veganism per se. In fact I was once a vegan myself – until I realised that practically every food that is good to eat has been near an animal in one way or another.
In its favour, Veganuary isn’t trying to sell us something. A few people might discover healthier foods that they otherwise might not have tried, or come to appreciate that there is more to life than fatty burgers. That’s fine. But my objection to Veganuary and similar regimes is that they are rooted in cleanse-and-detox pseudoscience, and founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the body works. And that does none of us any good.
The Telegraph, London