Clean and Lean
Helping your body shed fat-based toxins may make it easier to lose weight.
by Lisa James
When people think about the effect environmental toxins can have on human health, they tend to focus on disorders such as cancer and neuromuscular disease. But what many don’t realize is that obesity is also aided and abetted by toxins.
“The Environmental Working Group tested the blood and urine of people around the country and found the average person carries 92 toxins within their body. When people are overweight they store fat-soluble chemicals in their fat cells,” says Brenda Watson, ND, CNC, author of nutrition books including The Detox Strategy (Free Press). Such toxin-drenched fat disrupts normal metabolism, which in turn make fat loss that much harder.
Fortunately, there is a way to break this vicious cycle. Detoxification, including the use of foods with purifying properties, has been practiced for centuries to boost health and overall well-being. Now researchers are beginning to understand how detox can make losing weight—especially the loss of excess body fat—that much easier.
Pollution Outside and In
Toxins come from two sources, external and internal. From the outside, our bodies are assaulted by a foul brew of pollutants. “The EPA monitors about 80 toxic substances found in our drinking water,” says Elson Haas, MD, director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California and author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts). “Toxicity is of much greater concern than ever before.” The majority of these externally produced toxins are fat-soluble.
All toxins are broken down by the liver, the body’s main chemical processing plant. This procedure is fairly straightforward for water-based substances such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. However, fat-based toxins “are much more dangerous,” says Watson. “They must go through a conversion process that requires more nutrients.”
Trouble comes when more toxins show up than the liver can comfortably handle. Waston compares it to the old “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy, as a chocolate factory employee, is trying to deal with a conveyor belt delivering more candies than she can pack. “The liver says, ‘What am I going to do?’” Watson explains. “It then stores these chemicals within its own cells.” Eventually the liver starts looking for storage space elsewhere—and fat cells within the abdomen will do quite nicely.
At that point, “fat becomes its own organ,” says Watson. “It slows the body’s metabolic rate. Studies going back 30 years indicate that toxins weaken your body’s ability to burn fat. They keep cells from receiving signals from leptin, the hormone that lets us know when we’re full.”
If the presence of external poisons wasn’t bad enough, toxins are produced by the very metabolic processes that keep us alive. Free radicals, harmful molecules generated during energy production, “are biochemical toxins,” says Haas. When free radicals and other toxins are not eliminated, “they can cause inflammation of the cells and tissues, blocking normal functions on a cellular, organ and whole-body level,” he adds.
Once source of inflammation is the stress that has become a hallmark of modern life. Such stress produces toxic effects within the body, leaving “your fat cells less receptive to leptin,” Watson explains. “That leads to leptin resistance, which contributes to weight gain.”
In addition, fat cells can produce inflammatory chemicals themselves. That’s a double-whammy because “free radicals are produced at sites of inflammation,” says Watson. “They can damage neighboring cells, which causes more inflammation, releasing more free radicals.”
The body doesn’t just stand idly by as poisons build up, of course: Noxious substances are constantly being eliminated through the kidneys, bowels, skin and other channels. However, the sheer amount can overload the system. “The hidden danger is the additive, combined effect of all toxic substances to which we are exposed in a bit-by-bit way,” says Haas.
This explains why many complementary practitioners recommend detoxification on a periodic basis to help the body clear out its backlog of harmful chemicals. “Almost everybody needs to detox, cleanse themselves and rest their bodily functions at times,” says Haas. That’s especially true of people looking to lose weight. “If you can reduce your exposure to toxins while aiding in the elimination of current toxins, you can support a healthy—and possibly faster—metabolism,” says Watson.
Haas highly recommends fasting for detox, calling it “the single greatest natural healing therapy I know.” And while water-only fasts have their uses, juice fasting is generally easier on the system. “Fresh juices are easily assimilated and require minimum digestion, while they supply many nutrients and stimulate your body to clear its wastes,” says Haas. Some people find it easier to use whole-food juice concentrates; in one study such concentrates reduced inflammation markers by up to 35% (Molecular Nutrition and Food Research 2/10 online).
Many detox products include the so-called “superfruits”—such as açai, goji, mangosteen, noni and pomegranate—for their high antioxidant levels. Research indicates that many of these fruits can boost antioxidant levels within the body, a key factor in fighting inflammatory free radicals (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 9/24/08).
Fiber is another effective cleansing agent. There are two types, which Watson compares to the yellow and green sides of a kitchen sponge. “The yellow side, the soluble fiber, soaks up cholesterol, toxins and hormones,” she says. “The green side, the insoluble fiber, scrubs—it gives you bulk and curbs appetite.” In addition to its mechanical actions within the bowel, fiber also affects hormone production. “There’s a hormone we release it when we eat fat called CCK,” says Watson. “People on a high-fiber diet release this hormone; it’s really good at making you feel full and leading you to eat fewer calories.”
According to Watson, everyone should get 35 grams of fiber every day, compared with the 10 to 13 grams consumed by the average American. She explains that for “every gram of fiber you consume you don’t absorb approximately seven calories,” noting the difference between 15 grams (105 calories a day) and 35 grams (245 calories). What’s more, “when people start losing weight they release toxins into the bloodstream,” Watson adds. “Extra fiber can help soak that up.”
As fiber helps sweep toxins away, beneficial micro-organisms called probiotics can set up shop in the intestines, where they crowd out harmful microbes and help the body digest and assimilate food.
Watson says that fiber and probiotics work hand in hand because “good bacteria love to eat soluble fiber,” allowing them to multiply and flourish. Probiotic bacteria particularly enjoy feasting on a form of soluble fiber called fructooligosaccharides (commonly referred to as FOS). Extracted from plants such as asparagus, bananas and onions, FOS also provides a mildly sweet taste.
Diet and exercise are crucial in the fight against excess pounds. But they work better after you’ve reduced your toxic burden. Watson says, “I hope we can educate people to understand that total-body cleansing and weight loss go hand in hand.”