ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If you're still trying to jumpstart your January ambitions for healthier living and eating, you may be wondering about the best strategies to start anew. As always, there's a lot of buzz about detox and elimination diets. And we've asked NPR's food and health correspondent, Allison Aubrey, whether there is any science to support any of these diets, and she joins us now to answer. Hi, how are you?
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's start with detox diets. They seem to be constantly trendy, especially at the beginning of the year. I guess the year 2015 is no different?
AUBREY: That's right. I mean, look at the stack of books here. These are new books sent to us by publishers. We've got "The Detox Diet Cookbook." We've got a book here to reset your health and detox your body. And the idea here is that if we just follow the advice in these books that we'll be able to flush out all of the toxins from our bodies. And it's kind of an appealing concept, right? I like the sound of it - kind of like spring cleaning the body. But when I talk to researchers about what this really means, it turns out that the whole concept that you have to go on some kind of special diet or cleanse to detox the body really has no scientific backing. I spoke to Ranit Mishori. She's a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. And the way she explains it is that our bodies have an excellent built-in system for getting rid of toxins. I mean, this is the job of our kidneys and livers, to filter and flush out the bad stuff. And these organs are working 24 hours a day.
RANIT MISHORI: The liver has all kinds of different enzymes that break down the chemicals that are considered to be harmful potentially and then it excretes it. And there are no supplements or super foods that can boost the liver and kidneys to do it better than they already do.
SIEGEL: So as we've heard of the self-cleaning oven, we have self-cleaning bodies...
AUBREY: (Laughter) That's right.
SIEGEL: ...And no need for detox or cleansing diets.
AUBREY: That's the kind of the point she's making. In fact, Mishori tells me when her patients ask about these kinds of diets, which they tend to do this time of year, her opinion is, you know, thumbs down. There's just no evidence that they're effective.
SIEGEL: Well, if detox isn't the goal to aim for then, are there any particular foods that people should look to avoid or eliminate from their diets?
AUBREY: Well, you know, there's a whole host of elimination diets. Gluten-free is the one with the most buzz, of course. But unless you have a specific medical problem, there's no magic bullet that's going to suddenly make you healthy. When I asked Mishori what she recommends, these are her top three.
MISHORI: Cutting on sugar is always a good idea. Cutting on processed food is always a good idea. Being better hydrated is always a good idea.
AUBREY: Now, when she talks about sugar here, she's talking about added sugar, of course - not the sugars you find naturally in fruits and vegetables. And what she's saying here is that, you know, you don't have to go on an all-or-nothing diet. Just cut back and be more mindful.
SIEGEL: We hear a lot about avoiding refined sugar. And you've reported here on this program on the studies linking excessive sugar consumption to heart disease, diabetes, even certain cancers. So how much refined sugar is too much sugar?
AUBREY: So - well, the typical American is consuming about 22 teaspoons a day, and that's three times what the American Heart Association recommends.
SIEGEL: Twenty-two teaspoons of sugar per day...
SIEGEL: ...Is the average intake by Americans?
AUBREY: That's right, I mean, think about that.
SIEGEL: That's just your average guy.
AUBREY: That's right, that's right. And that's a lot when you think about it. Now, most of the time on food labels, sugar's labeled in grams, right? You pick up a yogurt, you see 24 grams of sugar. Now, yogurt's a health food, and who doesn't think that having yogurt for breakfast is a good idea? But at 24 grams of sugar, that right there - if you consider four grams per teaspoon, you're already to 6 teaspoons for the day just with this yogurt. So there's a lot of added sugar in foods - things that we don't even think of as being sugary.
SIEGEL: So this sounds extremely unhealthy actually.
AUBREY: Right. And there was a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine that shows why it's not healthy. Researchers did a lot of number crunching and what stood out is that Americans who consumed the most sugar were about twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to people who consumed the least. So bottom line here is that if you want to make one change this year, cutting back on added sugar may be a good one to pick.
SIEGEL: And then you can just call it detoxing - sugar detoxing.
AUBREY: Well, you could if you wanted to, Robert.
SIEGEL: Thank you. It's fascinating and horrifying.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
AUBREY: Thanks very much.
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