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Why do cleanse detox diets remain so popular?

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Just in time for swimsuit season, another “cleanse” diet book has been hovering near the top of the best-seller list. This one, called the “10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse” promises to help you “lose up to 15 Pounds in 10 Days!” So it’s no wonder that it is selling better than the Green Smoothie Bible, the Detox Diet, or the 3 Day Juice Cleanse, all published within the past six months.

Clearly, many people are embarking on these extreme eating — or rather, drinking — plans to lose weight. The diets usually involve drinking smoothies or juices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisting of leafy greens, fruits, and water. (The latest derivation has folks using blenders rather than juicers to retain the pulp and fiber.)

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“I have no idea if there’s anything special about these so-called cleansing or detox diets” for weight loss, said Dr. Frank Sacks, a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health. Any rigid diet that eliminates categories of foods and lowers calorie intake, he added, will help people shed pounds, but people usually gain the weight back after they go back to their old eating habits.

For some, though, the appeal lies in the notion of detoxifying the body of chemicals found in processed foods, which is based on little or no science. “I truly question the whole idea of ‘toxins’ accumulating in the body and causing disease,” Sacks said. “What are such toxins? What makes someone think that a short ‘treatment’ period of anything will rid the body of various problem molecules whatever they may be?”

Lisa Lewtan, a certified holistic health coach from Weston, had 15 clients last week taking part in a seven-day “clean eating kick-start program” that’s designed to erase the damage caused by junk food and get people back to eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, and nuts. They aren’t allowed refined sugar, alcohol, gluten, soy, or dairy foods at all during that first week.

“My clients call it a detox, but I don’t like the term because I think its misleading,” Lewtan said.

She’s part of a movement that deemphasizes liquid diets. “Chewing is very important” Lewtan said, for taste and tactile sensations, as well as to maintain dental health.

“I’m not against smoothies,” she added, “especially for those who don’t get enough leafy greens, but we need to live in the real world, and you can’t always get a green smoothie on the road.”

To make her kick-start program easier, Lewtan’s clients form a Weight Watchers-style support group where they meet in person and online through social media.

“Survived 20 people at my house and served cocktails and beer and didn’t drink at all,” wrote one of Lewtan’s clients who was on day 5 of the diet on the group’s private Facebook page. Others wrote that they were feeling good, keeping their cravings under control, and were paying close attention to food labels. Weekends and food scenes from the movie “Chef” were the biggest challenges. None of them posted about losing weight.

“This isn’t about weight loss,” Lewtan told me, “though some lose a few pounds. It’s about breaking a bad eating cycle.”

Sounds reasonable, but does Lewtan buy into health claims made by authors of best-selling detox diet books? Besides the ridiculous promise of a 10- to 15-pound weight loss, JJ Smith, the nutritionist author of the “10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse,” wrote that it increases energy and mental clarity, while improving sleep and alleviating indigestion and bloating.

Those sorts of improvements could occur simply by improving the nutritional quality of your diet, Lewtan said. Most of us feel pretty lousy when we binge on candy bars, potato chips, and ice cream. We feel even crummier when we eat foods that we can’t properly digest because of food sensitivities or intolerances. For example, people who can’t digest the milk sugar lactose — known as lactose intolerance — feel less bloated and crampy when they stop eating dairy foods.

At the end of the kick-start, Lewtan advises her clients to add foods back into their diets one category at a time while gauging how they feel. “It’s a chance to play private investigator,” she said. “People may find that gluten is a trigger food or that soy makes them feel bloated or that their skin looks better when they’re off dairy. It’s very empowering.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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