Felicity Cloake: let’s face it, detox diets are making fools of us

In many ways, January diets are as self-indulgent as the Christmas binge.

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Well, that’s Christmas done for another year, with only a spare tyre and some cheap chocolate to show for it. Already the cheery social media snaps of festively red-faced hordes have made way for the annual torrent of sludge-coloured smoothies. Welcome to January, the month of self-righteous cleanses and mindful eating.

Boring as the details are to listen to, at least the basic idea of the “juice cleanse” is straightforward. Even the dimmest of us can understand that replacing a diet that’s two-thirds Stilton with a few puréed green things will cause you to lose a little bit of weight along with the will to live. But if that stringy glass of cellulose sticks in your craw, the slickly written “science” that goes with it will be even harder to swallow.

According to a fashionable supplier of organic cold-pressed juices whose packages start from £80 a day (about the same as Ed Miliband’s idea of the average British family-of-four’s weekly grocery bill), cleansing is “a healthy form of routine maintenance” that helps the digestive system to rid itself of “accumulated toxins”. The benefits don’t stop there: the magical vegetal elixirs will also, apparently, transform your nasty “acidic interior” into an “oxygen-drenched alkaline” environment.

It’s pretty tempting, I’ll admit. The mere phrase “oxygen-drenched” is likely to put a spring in anyone’s step. But here’s the rub: according to the NHS, our clever old bodies can regulate their acidity levels anyway, “regardless of diet”.

The British Dietetic Association gives similarly short shrift to the claim that we’re all toxic time bombs, calling the whole notion of a detox diet “a load of nonsense”. It points out that filtering waste is what our kidneys do, whether we bombard them with £13 cucumber cocktails or not. It seems that if we really were storing up vast quantities of dangerous substances in our bodies, being a bit fat and spotty would be the least of our worries.

Yet apparently sane people – people who work with food every day, who write endless articles about the importance of a balanced diet and would rather die than be seen with skimmed milk in their trolley – still witter on about raw smoothies and “clean eating”. Clean eating, for those of you who are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the idea, has nothing to do with the three-second rule: pick it up off the floor quickly enough and it’s still safe to eat. Instead it means consuming food “in its most natural state”, as an American magazine devoted to the subject puts it.

The problem is that food in its “most natural state” seems to involve way more chia seeds and hemp protein powders than you might imagine – fine if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow, who has made a good deal of unnecessary dosh out of her clean eating cookbook (even the title, It’s All Good, is annoying), but considerably less realistic for us with lives to live and mortgages to pay.

These ridiculous January diets are every bit as self-indulgent as the Christmas binge that precedes them. Truth be told, we all already know the secret to healthy eating and it’s not cold-pressed or blonde or glamorous – it’s our boring old friend moderation.

Sadly, moderation doesn’t sell juices or require much in the way of scientific explanation; it’s tediously simple. It’s a couple of squares of chocolate after dinner, rather than the whole bar – or indeed an entire tin of Gwyneth’s spelt and brown rice syrup brownies with soy protein mayonnaise.

As my granny, who lived well into her eighties without the benefits of blue-green algae, used to say, a little of what you fancy does you good. In her case, that meant a mindful and moderate diet of jam doughnuts and Silk Cut.

Happy New Year, all.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth