Detox? Fuhgeddaboutit!

Mulled wine, mince pies, a roast meal swimming in gravy, Christmas pudding and all the sweets Santa can bring can certainly leave someone feeling satisfied, full and heavy.

With Christmas Day firmly behind you and New Year’s Eve coming up with the idea of champagne and even more delicious treats, I’m guessing you are wondering how to work it all off in 2015. It’s not surprising then that the most common New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. Surely the best way to get rid of it is to go on a detox? WRONG. All kinds of diets and products are marketed towards to this mistaken idea of dispelling nasty toxins from your body that naturally will stay in your system. Ben Goldacre devotes a good deal of his book Bad Science to this subject. He writes:

“The detox phenomenon is interesting because it represents one of the most grandiose innovations of marketers, lifestyle gurus and alternative therapists: the invention of a whole new physiological process. . . that burgers and beer can have negative effects on your body is certainly true, for a number of reasons; but the notion that they leave a specific residue, which can be extruded by a specific process. . . is a marketing invention.” Page 10.

He explains that purification after material indulgence is a by-product coloured by religion and in the Western world we seek redemption and protection from what we place in our mouths. There are a range of products that have been marketed as removing toxins from the body, which has included foot patches that you stick on the end of your feet and overnight they draw out the nasty bits from you. The idea that we are placing “unnatural chemicals” into ourselves has evolved into fad and crazy diets where we have to limit or remove food groups from our diet. In my field, I constantly come across the Palaeo- diet where in order to avoid modern diseases we have to consume the food groups identical to those of the Palaeolithic people. But even this has its problems as this article outlines.

It doesn’t stop there either. Say the word “chemical” and some people will shudder and think that anything that is a chemical is bad for us. But here’s the punchline: everything around us is a chemical. We are made of chemicals. The Oxford Dictionary defines a chemical as a substance obtained by or used in a chemical process, and this has spawned the hilarious meme posted on the I f***ing hate pseudoscience facebook page:

Chemical free living
From the Facebook page: I f***ing hate pseudoscience

As a common pseudoscientific topic, IFL science has outlined the myths that need to be busted in an article posted back in June this year. To understand where these myths arise, it makes sense to look back into the past as this blog piece by Sharon Hill writes: It was the chemical weapons used in World War II that created a hazardous image of science and its chemicals to the point where anything that is seen as man-made is viewed as harmful. This is complementary to the Naturalistic Fallacy; that anything natural is safe. Nothing can be further from the truth when you consider herbs such as belladonna or deadly nightshade. Even organic almonds were found to contain high levels of cyanide and had to be recalled by a supermarket chain in the USA. A recent edition of the New Scientist (29 November 2014) featured a special report on the chemicals that we should be worried about. For quite a few of them, there is not enough scientific evidence to say anything valid about them (e.g. parabens used in cosmetics, phthalates used in plastic and acrylamide found in burnt food). However some that do have evidence of being harmful in humans include mercury, pesticides and bisphenol A (BPA) found in packaging. But all is not lost as there are programmes aiming to screen effects of some chemicals and, should they be potentially dangerous to human health, be eliminated.

To get to the heart of the matter, which is most applicable to this time of the year, we need to remember the most basic scientific principle which is that we already have the organs we need to eliminate any unnecessary chemicals. This is exactly what our kidneys and livers are designed to do. Sense about Science offers their own leaflet debunking the common misconceptions.

The best thing we can do is to make sure we are not woefully ignorant, exercise frequently, eat healthy (the Mediterranean diet has been found to be the most healthy; spinach pie here I come!) and if we do indulge it should be in moderation. Having said that I should probably add at this point if red wine is your thing, I highly recommend the Rioja Faustino V Reserva 2009(!) Apparently you can only find it at Asda.
Stay safe and Merry Christmas everyone!

Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: