If you have been listening to the radio over the last few weeks you’ve probably heard about the amazing Lemon Detox Diet. “Detox” is one of the current buzz words in the alternative health sphere, it’s perfect because it’s not well defined but it carries a vague sense of helping your body to be healthy. If in doubt slap “Detox” in the name of your product and it’ll sell like hotcakes. I’ve written more generally about the Detox fad but I want to focus on this particular diet as it is currently very popular and so seems particularly harmful. The diet itself consists of Palm and Maple syrup, Lemon juice Cayenne  pepper and water, sounds nutritious. The regimen requires downing 2 litres of the diluted syrup a day for 10-14 days.

The website for New Zealand consumers is slick, clean and relatively uncluttered compared with the overactive pages that seem popular at the moment. To one side is a panel that cycles pictures naming famous and ordinary people that have used the product. The front page proudly proclaims that Beyonce and Angelina Jolie are among those who use the diet, a not so subtle appeal to authority in the form of the all knowing and infallible movie star/celebrity. A browse of the rest of the site reveals many of the staples of alternative medicine; testimonials, emphasizing the naturalness of the product, references to the product in the media, impressive sounding but meaningless “medical” information and appeals to antiquity.

The basis of Detox is explained in predictably simplistic (read wrong) terms, the entire appeal of the philosophy can be summed up with this quote from the site:

“We service our vehicles every once in a while to free them from any blockages or complications and to get them back to their peak performance. If we leave our vehicles for too long without a service, they begin to slow down, losing their vitality and performance. Usually problem after problem will occur, especially in winter. With regular servicing, our vehicles become revitalised and more reliable, and able to function efficiently.”

It has sunk into popular consciousness that our bodies are incredibly complex machines, in general this is a good thing and a useful metaphor. However things begin to go awry when the metaphor is taken too far in one direction, as in the paragraph above. Sure, you can think of vitamins and exercise as maintenance for your body but it is not such a simple machine that it needs constant fine tuning and cleaning. Our bodies have sophisticated ways of taking care of that sort of thing.  Some of the statements seem to make intuitive sense like this one:

“Without a regular cleanse of our insides, our cells become submerged in toxins; we start to suffocate in our own wastes.”

But although this sounds serious it is medically vacuous, if true this would mean that hospitals would be full of people suffering toxic reactions. Oh wait, in the very next sentence they tone things down again saying “we lose our vibrancy and energy” so nothing specific then, just then general fatigue that most people feel.

Among the meaningless platitudes there are sentences that are simply ludicrous, here’s one I found:

“White sugar, refined and industrialized, is almost completely lacking in energy when it arrives at our table.”

What? Sugar is lacking in energy? I bet that’s why people stay so slim when they eat a lot of it.

Some of the statements are outright dangerous:

“The main symptoms that people will experience on the program are minor symptoms such as weakness, light-headedness, slight headaches or dizziness. These symptoms will usually only last a few days as toxins are being dissolved into your bloodstream. It is actually a good sign that the detoxification process has begun and you are on the way to releasing harmful toxins from your body.”

Yep, that’s right, don’t visit one of those idiot doctors if you get weak and dizzy from not eating and losing essential electrolytes, what could possibly go wrong? That’s the diet working. If I slip into a coma, do I have to pay extra? Hyponatremia is a dangerously low level of sodium (important electrolyte) in the body, symptoms include: fatigue, weakness, nausea, and headache. Sound familiar?  More severe cases cause confusion, seizure, coma, and death. Let me repeat that for you while pausing for emphasis…………. Death. Hhhmmm, this detox thing really doesn’t look so attractive now.

A supportive article written by a “doctor” contains the sentence:

“No fats and proteins are consumed so the body is in a state of metabolic rest. This aids in the release of toxins out of the body.”

Metabolic rest? are we in suspended animation? Again, this is just vacuous (I love that word, intellectual and insulting). The alleged doctor also refers multiple times to “western” medicine, this is just spin, medicine that works is just medicine, it doesn’t change depending on where you are. Someone revoke his medical license, if he exists.

The site even has a portion that appeals to the current interest in spirituality, they have no doubt noticed that it is fashionable to be “Spiritual” (whatever that means) rather than religious. So they equate fasting with wisdom and heightened consciousness. They also have a quote attributed to the New England Journal of Medicine extolling the virtues of fasting (Though this quote is used extensively on the internet I can find no conclusive evidence that it originated at the NEJM, it also seems odd to me that a quote would be attributed to a Journal rather than a person). Curiously, elsewhere on the site they state that the program is not fasting, they want to benefit from both sides.

The site does not restrict itself to a only single pseudoscience however it also embraces another fast growing fad, Live Blood screening. This consists of untrained people looking at slides of fresh blood and diagnosing on the basis of what the think they see, it’s pareidolia in a very scary setting. I recommend the link on Live Blood screening, it’s a very good overview.