Coming clean

It’s January, the time when many of us try to undo the damage of the festive season with a detox — but usually come unstuck within a couple of weeks. We asked the experts how to make it work

Emma Procter
11:13 January 8, 2018

It all seemed like such a good idea. The endless mince pies and cakes, plus scoffing your bodyweight in meat, and then washing it all down with drinks. Not to mention chomping sticks of Toblerone while slumped on the sofa watching Home Alone.

But since the cold light of January 1 arrived, many of us will now be undergoing a drastic cleanse and promising our bodies that honestly, truly, we will be better in 2018. Yes, it’s detox time.

Drastic detox dangers

Depending on what form your holiday bodily abuse took, these month-long cleanses might include Dry January or Veganuary, as some of them are now known. Whatever the route to purity, it won’t be easy. Statistics show people usually fail a detox within a couple of weeks due to a lack of motivation and a poor understanding of how their system works.

In any case, medical experts are warning against going too far, too quickly with a detox. Writing in the British Medical Journal Case Reports recently, a group of doctors said that while it may be tempting to undergo a short-term cleanse, a severe detox isn’t necessarily healthy and isn’t supported by medical science.

They highlighted the case of a 47-year-old woman who became critically ill after taking herbal remedies and drinking too much water. The woman, who needed intensive care in hospital, had ingested a mixture of herbs and alternative remedies including milk thistle, molkosan, I-theanine, glutamine, vitamin B compound, vervain and valerian root. She had also drunk lots of water, green tea and sage tea in the few days before she collapsed and had a seizure, the doctors said.

The patient recovered with treatment, but doctors said her story was a reminder of how dangerous it can be to undertake a drastic detox. The levels of salt (sodium) in her body were dangerously low, according to medical tests. The doctors also highlighted the case of a male patient with a history of anxiety whose low sodium level had caused him to have seizures. He developed his symptoms after consuming a large amount of a herbal remedy containing valerian root, lemon balm, passion flower, hops and chamomile.

“The complementary medicine market is very popular in the UK, and the concept of the new year detox with all-natural products is appealing to those less concerned with evidence-based medicine and more with complementary medicine,” the doctors wrote.

All this doesn’t mean going on a new year health kick can’t work wonders, but the key is to do it sensibly. “A detox can be beneficial if done the right way by just avoiding certain unhealthy foods that are considered acidic,” says Dr Rula Abughazaleh, Dietician at Dubai’s Rashid Hospital. “These include sugars, sweeteners, coffee, refined carbohydrates, processed and canned foods; full fat and fried foods; and high-glycaemic fruits such as mango, pineapple, melon and dried fruits.

“But don’t go on a drastic quick-fix detox diet. Stay hydrated and don’t starve yourself, because if you go below 1,200 calories a day, your body might start burning muscle instead of fat. “So, start with a healthy breakfast, go green and consume a lot of raw vegetables to enhance the digestive enzymes in addition to lean protein and wholegrains — and finally, get moving.”

Steam to eat clean

Cooking methods are also important when trying to eat clean, and experts say steaming where possible is ideal.

But the most important part of a successful January detox is good planning, says Dr Ahlaam Ali, a Dubai lifestyle and nutrition consultant.“A detox can be a brilliant idea following the crazy social season throughout December. “Sugar, meat and processed foods are all great to give up anyway and there is no time like the new year to detox the nasties away.

“It’s good to plan things ahead of time. Put a date down and ensure you stick with it. Also, chalk out a detox plan and work out what you need to make it successful. Buy the ingredients you know you will require to get organised and get planning.”

Dr Ahlaam also recommends finding a buddy to do the detox with, being committed to the change, and even letting go of influences that might put you off the detox plan. “Find friends who will support you on this journey rather than deterring you,” she adds. 

Biochemical individuality

This means we’re all physiologically different and we all have different needs and requirements. The South Beach diet may work wonders for your neighbour, but may not be the right plan for you. Then you feel inadequate because your neighbour lost 23kg, and you stayed the same — or worse, gained.


If you’re restricting calories too low, your body is going to rebel and prevail in the end — when you have an inevitable binge. Eating too few calories actually pushes your body into fat storage mode, as it perceives you are in a famine state, so it needs to hold on to what it’s got. You could also be losing muscle. 

Not sustainable

Diets aren’t sustainable. People perceive diets as something you go on when you want to drop weight, then you can go off and back to your old ways. There’s no lifestyle change in place there. It’s about finding what works for your body. It’s more than a calories in/calories out game — figure out which foods cause you inflammation — a major contributor to weight gain — or are trigger foods, such as gluten, dairy, nuts and sugar, and avoid those. 

Promotes an unhealthy relationship with food

Diets create a sense of deprivation and put you at war with food as the enemy. By focusing on good fats and proteins and veggies and seeing those foods as truly nourishing, you redefine your relationship with food. The enemy foods are the low-fat, highly processed diet foods that are skeletonised and cause cravings and hunger because they don’t provide any nutrients, not that grass-fed steak or even that organic bacon!

Damage metabolism 

The longer you restrict calories, the more stressed your body becomes. It thinks you’re in a famine state, so cortisol rises and you enter fat storage mode. Stay there for too long and thyroid function can also be affected. A hypothyroid state makes it increasingly difficult for your body to lose weight and burn fat until it’s corrected.