Almost 50 million Americans diet each year, especially before major life events like weddings or after indulgent holidays and vacations. Among the most popular options for quick weight loss are cleanse or detox diets, in which a large number of foods are limited or banned. These programs rely on extreme restriction, implying that our bodies need help purifying organs to encourage weight loss.
The promise of these diets can be too hard to pass up. But our food choices contribute to not just weight and digestion but also organ function. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 70% of overweight people also struggle with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. If you are a heart patient, is a cleanse diet safe to try?
Nutrients we need versus the nutrients we get
The phrases “everything in moderation” and “a balanced diet” are commonplace but rarely explored by dieters. These generic tenets just don’t have enough information to be useful, especially for weight loss. The definition of a balanced diet differs for everyone, but a main goal is that food intake should provide the nutrients our bodies need to run well, without extra calories that become stored as fat. Healthful diet programs include all three macronutrients — proteins, carbohydrates, and fats — to provide muscle building, energy sources, and cell growth.
In a typical day, up to one-third of calories, or approximately 50 grams (varying slightly for men and women), should come from healthy proteins; the remaining calories, from whole-grain carbohydrates and healthy fats. Almost 75% of U.S. adults miss these goals and eat more poorly than they think: overestimating portion sizes of healthy foods like plant sources of protein and underestimating sizes of indulgent foods like meats or refined pastas.
The result: weight loss approaches based on major calorie restriction, sometimes called very-low-calorie diets, which skew nutrient intake too much to keep bodies running. From juice diets like the master cleanse to restriction diets that eliminate entire food groups, some of the most well-known risks revolve around poor nutrition:
Protein deficiency: Meats, beans or pulses, and nuts are common sources of protein. Diets without protein cause muscle damage and a poor immune response when building blocks of cells are missing. Continued protein restriction can actually increase toxins as the liver becomes less able to clear waste products, too.
Starvation response: Without the energy provided by enough whole grains, green vegetables, and natural fruit sugars, the body enters starvation mode and tells itself to hold onto any calories taken in, leading to even more weight gain when a diet ends. In addition to immediate effects like tiredness and headaches, continued deficiencies in vitamins and electrolytes like sodium or potassium can shut down the gut and even lead to a coma.
Yo-yo weight changes: When cleanse diets end and weight returns, a cycle of restriction and struggle begins. Side effects from repeated weight changes include anemia from a lack of iron and vitamins, bone damage from low calcium, and increased fat as calories are stored instead of used.
How does detox-related heart damage begin?
Unlike the gradual effects of traditional low-carb or low-fat diets, the rapid weight loss from restriction diets shocks organs like the heart to react quickly to keep the body running smoothly. These responses are especially dangerous for people with heart disease:
Metabolism changes from nutrient deficits initially causes heart palpitations and rhythm changes. More serious effects of repeat dieting are loss of heart muscle and higher rates of blood vessel tears. Ultimately, heart attack risk double in heart patients who crash diet.
Because many cleanses and detox diets limit even liquid intake, dehydration is a possibility. Five or more glasses of water each day may reduce the rate of fatal heart attacks; withholding liquid during dieting increases the heart’s workload—narrowing blood vessels, increasing the heart rate, and limiting oxygen flow throughout the body.
When nutrients that help build immune cells disappear, the body not only loses energy but also loses its ability to protect itself. Infections are more likely in people who detox, especially for a long time or repeatedly, and consequences can be more dangerous in people with heart disease, particularly those with valve disorders prone to infections like endocarditis.
Is there a way to diet safely with heart disease?
With all of the potential risks of extreme diets, how can people with heart disease safely try for big weight loss? After all, breaking habits like too many sweets or red meats takes more than just willpower to turn around harmful weight gain.
If you are interested in any kind of diet program, it’s always better to have guidance and support. Cleanse and detox methods usually are do-it-yourself approaches to dieting. Part of a good cardiac rehabilitation program after a cardiac event, though, includes counseling about food choices and balanced nutrition. You can work with your cardiologist or family doctor anytime to reset eating habits. Some approaches to discuss include
eliminating indulged foods, like fats or sugars, carefully for a short time and slowly re-introducing them in smaller quantities
saving favorite problem foods, like soft drinks, for special occasions or very small amounts each week
changing nutrient sources without cutting calories (called nutrient-dense eating): beans or fish steaks can replace red meat and still support muscles, or liquid-diet smoothies can include vegetables and ground whole grains instead of only fruits and laxatives
drinking enough water to protect the heart from overworking while dieting
Elimination of an entire food group can change the body in extreme ways. If you struggle with weight loss and have heart disease, consider visiting a dietician and learning about approaches to nutrition through online learning or local classes. Explore beyond cleanses to nutrition-based diet trends that may work best for you.
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Nicole Van Hoey is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at Bloglovin’.