Nutrition Has No Shortcuts

Juice cleanses and superfoods are hot topics in the health foods realm thanks to extensive marketing efforts to promote their alleged health benefits. Expensive juice cleanse companies tout their products’ detox abilities while superfood companies lay claim to their products’ super-nutritional properties.

As much as we'd all love a silver bullet to quick health, the science isn't so clear on these claims.

Juice cleanses and superfoods are at best poor ways to introduce better nutrition into your diet. And in some cases—particularly with juice cleanses—they can be detrimental to your health. Below we break down five reasons why superfood and cleanse myths are actually wellness risks.

1. Myth: Your Body Needs Help Getting Rid of Toxins

Science: Your body is already equipped to get rid of toxins for you.

Cari Nierenberg at LiveScience writes that your body naturally rids itself of toxins via enzymes in the liver and kidneys. If someone is seriously struggling with an overload of toxic chemicals, they require hospitalization—not juices.

Still, many people worry that synthetic components in food—such as artificial dyes and flavors—are toxic to the body if eaten for a long period of time; some proponents of cleanses suggest that it’s these “toxins” that the juice cleanses purge.

But the truth is it’s very unlikely for synthetic elements in food to do any harm to the body. C. Rose Kennedy, PhD of Harvard's Science In The News blog explains that synthetically re-created flavors and colors are virtually identical to the chemical compositions of the flavors and colors that foods have in nature. Scientists analyze these foods, break them down into their elemental parts and re-create them from the ground up. No toxins involved.

In other words, don’t waste your hard-earned coin on a juice cleanse that promises to give your liver and kidneys a break—they don’t need the downtime and will work hard to process anything you put in your system. Instead, commit to total health by consistently eating a well-balanced diet of whole foods; this will help ensure all systems are functioning optimally on a daily basis.

2. Myth: Cleanses Make You Feel Thinner/Healthier/More Clearheaded

Science: Cleanses feel good because of the placebo effect.

In an excellent article on juice cleanses, TIME reporter Markham Heid found that many people say they feel “amazing” after a juice cleanse. When he interviewed doctors on the subject, though, the doctors pointed out that the placebo effect has a lot to do with how people feel about diets, regardless of what food they’re consuming.

That placebo effect is powerful, too. Even the expectation that a drink will have health-boosting properties is enough for our brains to release feel-good hormones such as dopamine.

Case in point: Heid cites a study in which different people were told identical milkshakes were either 620 calories or 140 calories. The people who thought they were drinking a 620-calorie shake had a measurable drop in the hormones that cause the sensation of hunger. Those who thought their milkshake was only 140 calories experienced a significantly smaller decrease—even though the milkshakes were actually the same size and had the same calories and nutrients.

Put bluntly? All that hype may help convince you that you’re doing great things for your body but the science suggests it’s all in your head.

3. Myth: Juicing is a Quick and Healthy Way to Lose Weight

Science: Juicing to lose weight can be dangerous.

Russell Marx, MD, Chief Science Officer at the National Eating Disorder Association, explains that juicing to lose weight can skew our bodies’ abilities to balance our nutrient levels.

When we follow a restrictive diet for an extended length of time  then go back to how we were eating before, we create nutritional imbalances that can have dire consequences. In extreme cases, juicing for too long may result in organ failure, especially if caution isn’t taken with monitoring macro and micronutrient levels upon returning to a normal diet.

There are other less lethal, but still painful, dangers to cleansing. Anecdotally, professional athletic coach Ryan Andrews found—and documented—how a three-day juice cleanse left him with headaches and abdominal pain that eventually landed him in the ER.

It turns out that the $180 juices he was drinking had zero fiber or protein and far more nitrates than is safe to consume. The excess of nitrates led to painful vasodilation (dilated blood vessels), and depriving his gut of fiber for three days led to Andrews’ appendix becoming inflamed.

If losing weight is your goal, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends choosing a long-term weight-loss plan to help avoid organ damage (like Andrews experienced). While these plans may take you longer than a juice cleanse to drop the pounds, they are scientifically proven to be safer and have longer-lasting results.

4. Myth: Superfoods Are Necessary for Healthy Eating

Science: A healthy diet relies on a variety of nutrient and calorie sources, not on so-called superfoods.

Science reporter Anthony King, writing for the Irish Times, says the very notion of a superfood is hype. So-called superfoods such as goji berries aren’t particularly more nutritious than other berries, he writes.

Though there is no lack of companies claiming that their food products have specific super abilities—like boosting immune systems—to date no such claim has withstood scientific scrutiny.

Professional nutritionist Andrew Hill explains why no one food is, by itself, life-saving. At his blog Caveman Medicine, Hill argues that the human body evolved in times of scarcity, when for thousands of years there wasn’t enough food to go around. Under those conditions, our bodies adapted the ability to extract necessary nutrients and calories from a wide variety of foods.

That scarcity response also explains why people crave high-calorie foods, the Association for Psychological Science argues. Our instincts are to eat now, when food is plentiful, which is a problem in a world where food is constantly plentiful for many.

It’s not a dearth of superfoods causing obesity levels worldwide to rise, and drinking an açai smoothie every morning isn’t going to make you instantly healthy. Only being consistent and intentional in making well-balanced food choices can do that. (Noticing a trend?)

5. Myth: Certain Superfoods Can Save You from Cancer

Science: No one food has been show to significantly cut cancer risks.

In an article titled “Reality Check: No Such Thing As a Miracle Food,” a trio of researchers from the University of Minnesota detail how they evaluated more than 70 foods that claim to have cancer-fighting properties.

In each case, the researchers found those claims didn’t hold up to scrutiny and failed in one of three ways:

  • The properties could be observed in mice but not humans.
  • The properties were correlative, not causal.
  • The results weren’t statistically significant.

To date, science has found no food that prevents or heals any kind of cancer.  

NPR reporter Richard Knox explains how certain misconceptions about cancer-fighting foods entered the public’s collective consciousness: in the 1990s, surveys found correlations between people who ate five servings of fruit and vegetables per day and a decreased likelihood of developing cancer later on in life. The problem, Knox writes, is researchers didn’t account for other variables, such as whether or not people smoked or drank. Those ultimately proved much more predictive of a cancer diagnosis.  

All that said, while you can’t rely on a single superfood to save the day, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can play a role in disease and obesity prevention. As long as you keep balance in mind, there’s no need to worry about keeping current with every food trend that hits the market.

Supplement Your Nutrition the Right Way

If we haven’t made it clear yet, the only effective, sustainable way to get and stay fit is to make smart lifestyle choices. This means getting enough exercise, mitigating the stressors in your life, and eating well as often as possible. Still concerned you’re not getting enough variety in your diet? Consider supplements: when taken daily, supplements are a good way to support your cells’ natural self-defense mechanisms and keep your nutritional intake balanced (no expensive juicers required).

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