A Case of Toxic Misinformation

There are lots of examples of nutritional boogeymen. Online circles always seem to be in a frenzy about some hidden danger lurking in your food. Despite all the variations of these food freak-outs, there is one nutritional boogeyman out there that really exemplifies the problem: toxins.

Read any cleanse testimonial or yoga manual, and you’re likely to find mention of hidden “toxins” that can accumulate in your system. But what are these “toxins” that we hear so much about? This is where comparisons to the boogeyman feel particularly apt. The term has occasionally been attributed to safe and commonly-consumed food ingredients, but most of the time it is used to describe a vague and amorphous health threat. It’s as if the toxins are damaging your health and you can’t even spot them.

Defining “toxin”

Health experts and toxicologists are much more conservative in their use of the term “toxin.” According to the dictionary definition, a toxin is poisonous substance of plant or animal origin. But here is where the definition of “toxin” gets tricky. As toxicologists like to say “the dose makes the poison.” This means that pretty much anything, even a healthy or essential component of the diet, can be harmful to health if you consume too much of it. It’s the same phenomenon of having “too much of a good thing.” Even water can be poisonous if you drink too much, too quickly.

To “cleanse” or not to “cleanse?”

The term “toxin” is often associated with cleanse-culture. Many cleanse practitioners tout their program as a way to flush yourself of hidden toxins. These over-the-top cleansing regimens promise everything from increased energy to whiter eyeballs.

But do these cleanses actually work? Short answer: no. The only guaranteed outcome of a cleanse is that you will end up hungry (… very hungry). Your body already has built-in detoxification mechanisms, courtesy of your liver and kidneys. As long as these organs stay healthy, you can count on them to do all the work of clearing toxins from the blood. No cleanses necessary.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet can boost your body’s natural defenses against actual contaminants in your diet. Some micronutrients (including calcium, iron and vitamin c) may help decrease your absorption of some chemical contaminants, like lead. These nutrients are present in a variety of food groups (read: not just juice), including fruits, vegetables, dairy, and lean meats. So, in this case, not going on a juice cleanse may be the best thing you can do for your body’s ability to detoxify itself.

Still unconvinced and looking for the next powerful cleanse? Try this: cleanse your vocabulary (online or otherwise) of vague references to “toxins.” It’s a way more helpful regimen than any cleanse out there. At the very least, you’ll cut down on all toxic misinformation.

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