Is Detox a Cover for Fad Diets?

"I call my diet the 'no' diet because there are so many things you can't have," says Mary Louise, a 48-year-old Hollywood screenwriter. When she's not fasting (which she does at every season change for two to three days), Mary Louise adheres to a version of the candida diet, which consists mostly of brown rice, green vegetables and organic beans and forbids all dairy, breads and sugar. "Before, I was really sick and I didn't know why. I was lethargic; I couldn't get out of bed," she says. On this plan, she says she feels energetic and clearheaded. She also has shed nearly 30 pounds. "But in the beginning, I was down to only five foods I could eat."

That sounds almost lavish in comparison with the recommendations of popular plans by Beverly Hills physician Dr. Howard Flaks, who advises eating only 800 to 1,000 calories a day under weekly medical monitoring. According to a patient we spoke with, her plan consisted of 7 ounces each of protein and vegetables, two pieces of fruit and a handful of crackers, to be washed down with at least 10 glasses of water. By contrast, Reardon and other registered dietitians say women on diets should consume at least 1,200 to 1,500 calories daily. "It's a shock, the first week, a real shock," says the Dr. Flaks true believer, who lost more than 30 pounds with his guidance. "But you realize how addicted you are to the idea of having plentiful food."

Without a doctor's surveillance (and possibly even with it), extreme plans that radically restrict calories or ban vital foods such as carbohydrates altogether could have life-threatening consequences. Take the case of Aimee Popovich, a 39-year-old Los Angeles homemaker and mother who went on a raw-food diet, eating only uncooked fruit, vegetables and nuts and started drinking a lot of water. At first, she says she believed it delivered all sorts of health benefits, including a stronger immune system and less difficult childbirth. "I felt fantastic for a year and a half, and it was easy -- I didn't have to spend time standing over the stove; I could just grab something raw and go," Popovich says. "But then I realized something was wrong: I had too much anxiety and a nagging problem with urgent urination." Yet she stuck with the diet for five months more, until one day, while laid up in bed feeling sick and dizzy, she had a seizure and passed out. Her husband called 911. Popovich seized again, vomited and stopped breathing. Fortunately, her husband knew CPR and was able to get her breathing again by the time the paramedics arrived. Still in and out of consciousness, Popovich had a third seizure on the ride to the hospital.

When she fully came to two days later, doctors told Popovich she was undernourished, devoid of vital minerals and suffering from kidney failure and brain swelling due to a severe electrolyte imbalance and hyponatremia, a condition caused by excess water in the blood, which can result in dangerously low blood levels of sodium. She spent a week in the hospital receiving saline and antidiuretic hormones and following a diet high in protein and salt and low in water. She has been consulting with a nutritionist ever since and, after nearly a year, finally feels healthy. "I'm not eating exclusively raw anymore, but it still makes up 40 to 60 percent of my diet," Popovich says. "I think there are a lot of benefits to it. Some people have been very successful on the raw diet for years and years, so it can work."

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