This article was first published in Let's Live magazine, March 2001.
Tired? Blue? Looking to lose a few pounds? Your diet could be the culprit. Here's how to detox your diet and make a fresh start this spring.
What does spring cleaning mean to you? Some visions that may come to mind: Dusting tabletops, vacuuming, washing the floors and shaking out rugs so that your home has an almost-new look and feel. Getting rid of things you've accumulated but don't really need. Opening up the windows for the first time in months to allow spring breezes to air out the old. Basically, a top-to-bottom, old-fashioned cleaning.
Have you ever thought about trying a similar rejuvenation process with your diet? With the snow melting, the days getting brighter and warmer, and new life sprouting up everywhere in nature, there's no better time to overhaul what you eat to revitalize your health. This is especially true if you've gained more than a few unwanted pounds between the holidays and the cold, bleak days of winter - or if you've developed irritability, moodiness, fatigue, allergies, skin problems, joint pain or high blood pressure. Unlike fasting, which involves deprivation and can be counterproductive to ridding the body of toxins, our 10-step spring-cleaning plan allows you to relish the foods of the season while still promoting detoxification and weight loss. Follow these steps to lighten up your diet and produce a personal spring within.
1. Cultivate unrefined tastes.
In most instances, the word "refined" has a positive connotation, but in the case of food, refined is the ultimate bad guy. Refined sugars (especially white sugar) and refined grains (i.e., white flour products and white rice) are stripped of nutrients and fiber and cause erratic blood sugar swings. Refined fats (such as partially hydrogenated oils and refined corn, soybean and safflower oils) interfere with cell membrane function and hormone-like prostaglandin function. Eating these groups of foods-as most Americans do by indulging in many baked goods and sweets during the holidays-is the primary reason people pack on the pounds and don't feel well beginning after Halloween. Eliminating these nutrient-poor foods from the diet, therefore, is step number one to shed unwanted pounds and rejuvenate the body's cleansing and energy-producing mechanisms.
2. Clean out your pantry and "frig".
Just as you clear the junk out of your house when you spring clean, so too you should do with the convenience foods you've accumulated in your kitchen. Read the labels: If any of them contain enriched, bleached, unbleached or semolina flour, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar or other concentrated sweeteners, partially hydrogenated oils or any oil other than olive oil-throw them out. Also get rid of products that have a long list of hard-to-pronounce chemical names as ingredients. Doing this will clean the slate on your diet so you can start anew.
3. Veg out.
Vegetables are packed with antioxidants and flavonoids, which protect the body from harmful free radicals-something that's especially important when the body is detoxifying and producing higher amounts than normal. The best vegetables are non-starchy veggies (basically the non-root, non-winter squash ones), such as greens, salad vegetables, broccoli, zucchini, and peppers: they're rich in nutrients and fiber but low in carbohydrates. You can eat these to your heart's content and still find it easy to lose weight (or maintain a healthy weight).
4. Get fresh.
The secret to a flavorful and healing diet -- anytime of year but especially in the spring -- is to emphasize foods that are as fresh as possible. Spend most of your time grocery shopping in the produce and fresh meat/seafood departments. Try using fresh herbs instead of dried. As the weather turns warmer, add some more raw foods, such as salads, to your diet. Don't do this too quickly, though. Chinese medicine teaches that too many cold foods can weaken digestive function, especially when it's still cool outside. So, if the weather hasn't warmed up in your area yet, continue to cook foods -- steam, bake, poach, simmer or broil them-but be sure to use fresh ingredients.
5. Spring into action.
Now's the time to avoid heavy foods (such as beef and mashed potatoes) and lighten your diet with seasonal foods. First, think green. The traditional foods of spring include greens of all types, especially mixed baby spring greens, spinach, dandelions, watercress, chervil, and sorrel. According to Judith Benn Hurley, author of The Good Herb (William Morrow and Company, 1995), these greens are European herbalists' prescription for spring rejuvenation. Also, include other seasonal foods, such as salmon, trout, young chicken, dill, chives, asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, and-if you don't have a weight problem-new potatoes, baby carrots and young beets.
6. Phase out the toxins.
Spring's the season to cleanse and support the liver, the body's main organ for detoxifying all the toxins we accumulate. A surprise to many people is that fasting can result in reduced detoxification because it depletes the body of critical antioxidants needed for the process.1 Antioxidant-rich vegetables and adequate protein are needed for the removal of toxins from the system. Protein-rich diets actually appear to enhance the detox process.2,3
Foods or food components that are especially helpful for enhancing liver function and detoxification are: artichokes;4 limonene-containing foods (citrus fruits but not grapefruit, dill weed oil, and caraway oil);3,5 cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts);3 diallyl-sulfide-containing garlic;3 capsaicin-rich peppers;3 ellagic acid-rich berries;3 and other flavonoids,3 which are found widely in fruits and vegetables. For extra insurance, take a broad-spectrum antioxidant supplement.
Herbs can also be used to enhance the liver cleansing process. Herbalists Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D., and Laurel Vukovic recommend an herbal tea made from 7 cups of purified water, 3 tablespoons dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), 1 tablespoon licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), 1 tablespoon unpeeled fresh gingerroot (Zingiber officinale), and 1/2 tablespoon fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare). Simmer these herbs in a covered nonmetal pot for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat, allow it to cool to room temperature, and strain into a glass jar. Drink one cup of this tea three times per day between meals. [Note: If you have high blood pressure, omit the licorice root.] A number of packaged herbal teas for detoxification also can be found in health food stores; they commonly contain the above herbs as well as other cleansing herbs such as red clover (Trifolium pratense), burdock root (Arctium lappa) and oregon grape root (Mahonia repens) An alternative or complement to the tea is to take one capsule of milk thistle (210 mg. Silybum marianum, standardized to 168 mg. silymarin) three times per day with meals.
7. Refrain from grain, and don't have a cow.
Undiagnosed, delayed-onset food allergies, which interfere with the detoxification process, are a lot more common than most people think. The most common sensitivities are to gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, triticale and oats) and dairy foods (milk, butter, cheese, ice cream).2 As part of a start-anew diet program for spring, steer clear of these foods and avoid processed substitutes such as rice milk and rice bread. (Small amounts of brown rice and quinoa usually are well tolerated.) If you're like most of my clients, you'll not only easily get rid of bloating and extra weight, but will also likely find other surprising symptoms, such as aches and pains, low moods and food cravings, abating.
8. Go with "no starch", if you have weight to lose.
If you've really packed on the pounds over the winter, adopt a no-starch policy until you lose the weight. Cut out legumes, all grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn and beets, and all fruits except for berries. Instead, get creative with non-starchy vegetables. They have four to ten times less carbohydrates so you can freely eat them. Along with adequate protein and some healthy fats, such as olive oil, flaxseed oil, and omega-3-rich fish, this strategy normalizes blood sugar and insulin function so you can shed extra pounds.6
9. Keep meals simple.
When you spring-clean your diet the right way, food preparation becomes much less involved. The meals, in turn, become much more healing. Steer away from complicated recipes containing a dozen or more ingredients and delight in the merit of simplicity. By using just a few fresh or seasonal foods and no processed foods, easy, uncomplicated dishes take on the taste of gourmet. For example, sprinkling a dried herb between the skin and flesh of a chicken breast and throwing it in the oven doesn't take a lot of time but the end result is extremely tasty. (Remove skin before eating.) If you change the herb-say, switch it from thyme or dill to herbs de Provence-you create a whole new flavor without any more fuss.
10. Water yourself.
Just as the budding plants need water to grow and live healthfully, so do we. We need even more water when the body is flushing out excess toxins. Alcohol, sodas and juices don't satisfy the body's need for water: instead, they stress blood sugar and liver function and lead to weight gain. They should be avoided, and some people also benefit from reducing or avoiding caffeine (found in coffee and tea), which the liver must detoxify. There's no hard and fast rule about how much water a person should drink: I simply recommend making a concentrated effort to drink purified water often throughout the day, especially between meals. If you'd rather not have plain water with meals, have sparkling mineral water with lemon.