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Should Athletes Detox?

By Ellen K. Chow, MS, RD, CSSD, CD

You are a cycling enthusiast and typically watch your food choices. Homemade lunches, farmer’s market vegetables, grass-fed meats ... you’re well informed. And of course, eating organic is a given. However, chances are you are also human. That means a weekly treat, office candies and some salty snacks are inevitable as are those happy hour drinks. Should you detox?

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Detox Basics

The fundamental belief of detoxification is that we live in a modern world that provides much convenience, but as a result, is full of toxins — air pollution, chemicals from packaging, preservatives and coloring in foods, pesticides used in industrial farming, chemicals in personal care products, and more. These toxins, since relatively new to the human body compared to the course of evolution, are generally agreed by scientists and medical professionals as unwanted at best, and cancer-causing at worst. There are tolerable safety levels established by scientific studies for most chemicals, which are monitored by environmental groups and government agencies. However, virtually no one argues that it is best to limit exposure or even avoid them when possible — think of using glass containers instead of plastic or eating organic foods grown without chemical fertilizers.

The concept of intentional detoxification is manipulations, usually done through food choices and/or homeopathic remedies, which expedite the excretion of said toxins. Saunas, for example, had long been thought of as one of mankind’s earliest ways of detoxification, excreting toxins through deliberate sweating. All detox programs should be carefully planned and supervised by a certified professional who is familiar with the particular methods used. To stay within the scope of sports nutrition, this article focuses on dietary approaches and does not discuss herbal remedies.

Types of Detox Diet

In today’s American culture, detox diets vary tremendously. Keep in mind, the objectives of such a program is a short term “purge.” It is assumed that your regular diet should not contribute to re-toxification.

1. The No Processed Foods Diet

The most basic approach is eliminating ready-to-eat foods, prepared foods, packaged foods, and refined carbohydrates. This can constitute a well-balanced diet and if desired can be maintained for the long-term. However, for athletes this also means no energy bars, protein shakes/powder, sports drinks/gels, pasta, etc. Careful planning with complex carbs and proteins such as beans, lean meats, fish or homemade yogurt can substitute for those convenient items.

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2. The Raw Food Diet

In a nutshell, cooking stays below 120 degrees, which excludes most processed foods and often results in a near-vegan diet, unless one chooses to consume raw fish and raw milk/cheese. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouts, seaweed, and some whole grains are staples. Sugar, alcohol, and caffeine are all discouraged. This approach intends to preserve many of the valuable vitamins and enzymes in whole foods. Many books, websites, and blogs are available as resources for starters. Again, careful planning is required to maintain protein and iron intakes as well as moderating fat from plants.

3. Juice Cleanses and Fasting Diets

Both juice cleanses and fasting diets are based on the belief that food consumption and digestion are stressful to the body. By consuming only liquids, your gastrointestinal system is getting a rest. It is usually performed for one to seven days. Proponents claim that fasting can curb cravings and solve indigestion. From a health professional’s standpoint, I encourage you to work on these issues through long-term healthful behavioral changes. This diet is completely imbalanced and does not meet proper nutritional needs, even if combined with dietary supplements. The above, however, is not intended to influence fasting performed for religious and spiritual purposes.

Detoxing for Athletes

Like the “Most-Improved” award, people with generally healthy diets — appropriate portions, limited processed foods, sugars, and saturated fats — may not experience much effect from a detox program. On the other hand, if your usual diet is middle of the road or downright poor, you’re certainly encouraged to experiment with reducing processed foods and their additives. Juice cleanses and fasting diets are discouraged because they lack scientific evidence for long-term benefits and can be dangerous if performed unsupervised. As an athlete, consider your goals and objectives when exploring the world of detox diets. Plan ahead for expected workload and training needs, and consider making changes during off-seasons. Avoid times when you’re working on muscle gain, injury recovery, or a new training program.

Below is a sample 2,200-calorie detox menu for an athlete during off-season.*

No processed foods

Estimated: 2237 calories, 103g protein

Breakfast

1 cup steel cut oatmeal

1 hard boiled egg

1 cup mixed berries

8 oz homemade yogurt

Whole food multivitamins with minerals

Snack

2 Tbsp natural almond butter

1 fruit of choice

Lunch

Sandwich with 3 oz grilled chicken

1/2 cup black beans

Coconut water, no preservatives added

Snack

1/2 cup Edamame

Herbal tea

Dinner

2 cups steamed mixed vegetables with

1 tsp oil of choice

4 oz pouched fish

1 cup wild rice

Raw foods

Estimated: 2237 calories, 80g protein

Breakfast

2 cups oats or high fiber cereal

1 cup fruit of choice

12 oz homemade almond milk

1 oz flaxseed

Whole food multivitamins with minerals

Snack

1 oz hemp seeds

Lunch

2 cups kale with 1/2 cup red lentil

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

Miso soup

2 slices buckwheat bread

2 Tbsp hummus

Snack

12 oz raw almond of soy milk

Dried seaweed

1/2 cup homemade granola

Dinner

2 cup raw mixed vegetables with

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 cup quinoa

2 cups sprouted mung bean soup

* This is not intended to replace consultation by a qualified professional. Suggestions are based on assumption of a healthy adult without known medical conditions or food allergies.

Ellen Chow is a Seattle-based sports and wellness nutritionist. She assists athletes of all ages and she also works extensively with competitors who have stable cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Ellen can be contacted at endgamenutrition.com

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