Runners, especially those of us who are serious about our training, are typically conscious about what we eat. Although weight control might have been one of the reasons why you started running, at some point we become conscious of the quality of what we put in our bodies - not just the calories - makes a difference in how we perform.
When it comes to healthy eating these days, the buzzwords revolve around “cleanse” and “detox” diets, including variations such as the Whole 30, Paleo, Starvation 5:2, and Arbonne 30 Days to Healthy Living. Some of them are a short duration (3-day to 30-day programs) and some of them, like Paleo, are intended as long-term eating plans. They all claim to clean up our eating habits, in one way or another and teach us how to eat the right foods which can alleviate a wide range of health issues such as headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, irritability, chronic pain, etc. That all sounds good, doesn’t it?
As runners, it’s tempting to try some of these diets because the thought of eating healthier and feeling better is incredibly appealing, especially if it translates into improved performance. And if we can lose a few extra pounds to get down to our race weight – even better! But are these diets compatible with our training? Can we sustain the level of effort required for long, hard workouts if we’re following one of these plans? Will they be more harmful than helpful in the long run? Will they really help us perform better?
Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is not clear because it depends on a variety of factors, including which specific diet you use, how strictly you adhere to it, and for how long. It also depends on your body and the specific allergies or intolerances it has to certain foods. What is good or harmful to you may not be good or harmful to another person.
Part of the problem is that in addition to the fact that there are countless variations of these diets, the difference between a cleanse and a detox diet is a bit unclear. The two terms are used interchangeably, and some diets are a combination of a detox and a cleanse, while some are also considered elimination diets. Depending on where you look for the information, you’ll get a different answer.
“Cleanse”: According to the Medical Dictionary, a cleanse is defined as a “regimen intended to remove impurities and promote health”. A cleanse diet focuses on cleaning the gut in order to improve digestion, boost nutrient absorption and make your overall health better. Traditionally, it involves drinking a lot of liquids (normally fruit and vegetable juices) and water or water mixed with various things, such as lemon, to help the “cleanse” process. There are countless versions of “cleanses” available and to make it more complicated, cleanse diets have evolved to include solid foods in some cases. According to Aimee McNew, a certified nutritionist and editor-in-chief of PaleoPlan, “When someone decides to do a cleanse, they remove specific things from their diet, and they eat or drink foods or beverages that are aimed at having a cleaning effect.” For example, they may remove stimulants, sugars, or other non-nutritive foods while adding other foods that have a specific cleansing effect on the intestines and colon.
“Detox”: A detox diet targets the two main organs responsible for flushing toxins out of your body: liver and kidneys. It aims to help the speed and efficiency of these organs in clearing the body of toxins that can cause harm if they build up in excessive amounts. Keep in mind that detoxing is a natural body function and your detox organs are working all the time to get rid of the harmful toxins accumulating inside you. The premise of the detox diet is that by eliminating inflammatory foods and those with chemicals and additives (such as sugar, salt, dairy, alcohol caffeine, gluten and processed foods) and emphasizing fiber-rich whole foods (such as broccoli, kale, beets, and berries), you help your liver do its work.
If they sound fairly similar to each other, they are; and that explains why the terms are often used interchangeably.
Many people tout their success following cleanse and detox diets. One marathon runner successfully used her own version of a cleanse diet during her taper week.
They can educate you about the foods you eat. When you try any of the diets, you should know what the diet is based on. What is really in all those processed foods you eat? Why is sugar and salt so bad for you? What is the glycemic index (GI) and what foods have a low GI? Why should you avoid gluten? Why is plant-based protein so beneficial? No matter what detox or cleanse diet you follow, understanding why you’re eating or not eating certain foods and knowing the science behind it is important for you to know.
They can jump-start your way to healthier eating. You can use a detox or cleanse as a way to jump-start your way to healthier eating, using what you learn to make the right choices in the long-term. As the Whitaker Wellness Institute points out, “the most valuable aspects of any diet—focusing on your health, being conscious of what you put in your mouth, eating less, giving up junk food, and drinking more water and less alcohol—[involve developing] habits that you hope will stick.” Improving your nutritional intake and your body’s ability to absorb that nutrition while getting rid of the “junk” will keep you healthy and help you perform better.
They can reveal something about your diet you never realized. Particularly for the detox and elimination diets, as you re-introduce foods back into your diet after you’ve eliminated them, you may discover that a certain type of food caused trouble for you that you didn’t even realize. You may find out that gluten makes you feel bloated, and though it’s not “bad” from you, you might decide that you want to minimize your intake of gluten going forward. You may discover that you’re allergic to something you had no idea about; or you might find that no one thing, in particular, makes you feel bad, but that eating clean, whole produce and eliminating processed foods just makes you feel better and more energetic in general.
Weight loss. If weight loss is one of your goals, many of these diets can help you lose weight; and hopefully, you’re losing that weight in a healthy way.
It’s important to note that many nutritionists and dieticians advocate against these diets, or at least they advocate against strictly adhering to them for the long term - whether you’re a runner or not. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the “cons” of a detox or cleanse diet:
They can foster a restrictive diet mentality that isn’t healthy. If you’re not allergic to or intolerant of a certain type of food, like gluten or dairy, you don’t need to eliminate it completely out of your diet.
They can cause nutrient deficiencies over time, caused by avoiding whole food groups without being mindful of replacing the nutrients those “eliminated” foods have. This can have a direct impact on running performance because deficiencies of certain nutrients, like Vitamin D, for example, can lead to lead to fatigue and lack of energy that will certainly cause your running to suffer.
They can lack sufficient calories. This is a significant concern for runners because they need their energy to train and perform. If your goal in starting one of these programs is to learn how to eat better instead of losing weight, you really need to make sure you’re eating enough to sustain your training and keep up with your metabolism, which burns faster the harder you train.
Heather Caplan, a registered dietician, and a marathon runner herself, explains why she doesn’t feel anyone needs or benefits from detox or cleanse diets in her blog on Runners Connect: “There are plenty of products and tips online for cleansing, but few of them are anything less than an extreme way to restrict food intake and/or eliminate whole food groups at a time. This may lead to a restrictive diet mentality and a tendency to continue avoiding food groups, which eventually leads to nutrient deficiencies with calorie deficits.” Moreover, Whitaker Wellness Institute emphasizes that “your body’s remarkably effective detoxification system is working 24/7, whether you’re cleaning/detoxing or not. It’s the small steps you take every day to improve your health and support your all-important organs of detox that really make a difference.”
If you want to try a three-day cleanse or a 30-day program because you want to feel better, or you want to lose weight, or simply because you’re just curious about how it will make you feel, go for it. Ideally, it will lead you on the path towards better eating habits. Just make sure you know what the diet is all about and be prepared to make adjustments to ensure you’re getting enough calories for your training. The best advice comes from Heather Caplan, who advocates a 90/10 philosophy with respect to eating habits: 90 percent of the time, eat nourishing fruits, vegetables, animal and/or plant-based proteins, high fiber grains, fish, fats and 10 percent of the time, give yourself a break and enjoy some things that aren’t so healthy.
Although this applies to non-runners as much as it does to runners, runners in particular need to think about fueling their bodies with the highest quality nutrition possible in order to perform, just like a high-end sports car needs premium fuel. After all, we want to keep running, don’t we? But we also don’t want to feel like we’re depriving ourselves 100% of the time.