Thinking of Doing a Detox Diet? Be Warned: This is What Happens to Your Body
It’s that time of year, where after a month or more of the party season, detox diets start appearing in magazines and on websites – everywhere you look – promising rapid weight loss.
But be warned: I have done it before, and I can tell you what happens to your body and it’s not pleasant.
A couple of years ago I went on an extreme detox. For two weeks I ate no food, just drank foul-tasting Chinese herbs (imagine the taste of old cigarette butts floating in brackish creek water), then for the following three weeks I ate only small amounts of cucumber and poached chicken.
I lost 14 kilograms, which I put back on over the following two years.
I won’t be doing an extreme detox again but if you’re considering it, here are some of the weird effects you can expect to experience.
You will smell
It was day four of no food when I noticed the smell. I was lying in bed with the windows open, and thought, “Maaaannn, someone must have left a bag of old chicken carcasses out in the sun. Chicken carcasses and off milk.” I closed the window in disgust before realising the smell was coming from me. I smelled like chicken carcasses and sour milk.
Over the following weeks, friends recoiled from me when I hugged them, and I noticed that when I cried, even my tears smelled bad.
You will be bored
Not shopping for, preparing, eating and cleaning up after a meal means that days are no longer filled with food-related tasks. Without meals, there’s no marker or divider so time takes on a different dimension. There’s so much of it!
I avoided food-related socialising while detoxing, so did not spend any time in restaurants or bars. I had nothing to do during the day, which was lucky because I slept a lot (and was being paid by a magazine to write about the diet). I also had no plans at night.
I was bored. Really bored. Each day I went to the detox clinic, got weighed, had some acupuncture and a (very hard) massage. Then I’d go home to just ... hang. I had no energy to do anything else. When I met people on a rare outing, I was hyperactive. I was so excited to meet a friend in the park one day that I arrived an hour early.
“Soon I will see her!” I said, looking at my phone, “In 43 minutes!”
It reminded me of that novel on boredom, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: over the foothills of tedium and boredom lie bliss – you just have to wait it out.
First you look bad, and then you look amazing
First, your skin goes blotchy, eyes bloodshot, hair lank, tongue coated, and of course you stink. Then one day you wake up and look in the mirror and there’s no other word for how you look: AMAZING.
Years fell off my face. One day I woke up and every single wrinkle I had was gone. My nails were strong, hair shiny, the whites of my eyes luminous. Who was this person? I was afraid, though, that if I kept on not eating, I’d look like an infant by Easter.
Your dreams will be particularly vivid
By day five, I felt like I was on heavy sedatives. I could barely do anything except sleep.
When awake, I spent hours staring out the window. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read more than a couple of lines of my book. TV programs, even the dumb ones, were too much effort.
But, oh, my dreams! I’ve never had such vivid, energetic, horrific dreams thrumming with currents of anxiety. Typically I was trying to get somewhere, running from gate lounge to gate lounge trying to board a flight for my departure to “Barkly.” Where is Barkly? I don’t know but I had to get there.
Days four to seven are really hard
The first couple of days are fine, almost a novelty. I felt too waterlogged from the gross herbs to be properly hungry and I didn’t leave the house much so was safe from temptation. There were headaches – probably from caffeine withdrawals – but they went away after three days.
But by day four, bad moods, boredom, hunger, lack of energy and brain fog were bumming me out. I was no longer able to think very much, about anything at all.
In the second week, things improved considerably, including memory and concentration.
You will only think of food, to the point of obsession
Food preoccupied me like never before. I spent a lot of time thinking about various meals of the past that I have enjoyed. Seeing a picture of pizza on my Twitter feed made me feel so much longing that I couldn’t sleep. It’s like being horny, times a thousand. I would stop outside restaurants to watch people eat. I licked food, secretly at home, then threw it in the bin. I missed chewing.
When I was out with a friend who was eating hot chips, I snatched one from his plate, licked it and felt it in my mouth, then threw it in the bin without swallowing it. He was disgusted. He also told me that my new gaunt face made me look like “a PR chick”.
People have strong opinions on detoxing
On day 10 I woke up with chest pains. “Am I having a heart attack?” I panicked. The pain subsided and I visited my GP who was surprisingly mellow about the fast. He told me that fasting had been around forever and human beings are quite good at it due to long periods of time not catching things in the wilderness. He also said that fasting is good from an ethical perspective because you get to understand what it’s like to go without food.
Other people thought it was dangerous, despite the fact that the current Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy did the same program (he lost 13kg). Friends couldn’t fathom not eating for that long, and wondered if I might actually die from starvation.
I spoke to a professor from the nutrition school at the Queensland University of Technology who said, “When you fast for more than three or four days, all you do is reduce your metabolism.”
Stuff comes out of your body
This was a mystery. Why, if I was not eating anything was my body expelling so much STUFF? It was gross. What was it? Where did it come from? A Google search revealed weird pictures of things in toilet bowls that other fasters had taken. It was horrible, yet in that deprived state, strangely compelling.
You reassess food intake
When I started eating again, I was full after one bean and a tiny piece of fish. It was delicious. I did not need any more food. I thought back to all the times when I needed a snack after two or three hours. I needed it! Well, perhaps I didn’t need it.