Many individuals who embark upon detoxification protocols seek advice on what dietary strategies may help and improve the process of detoxification. Unfortunately, dietary choices are not “one size fits all.” However, there are some choices worthy of emphasis, particularly where minimizing exposures to potential toxins is concerned. In addition, choosing a diet that can help reduce inflammation is supportive to detoxification, as the body and immune system is challenged by the burden of toxins, which creates oxidative stress.
Eating a diet that is well-balanced and organic whenever possible, and shopping the periphery of grocery stores rather than the aisles a great place to start. By doing this, it is easier to avoid the artificial flavorings, dyes, and preservatives which are added to processed foods, which heavily line the shelves and freezer section of the grocery. In addition to this, metal food and drink cans are commonly coated internally with polymeric films that contain bisphenol A (BPA), which has been found to leach into the majority of the foods which they contain.1,2 If there are ingredients on a food label that are difficult to pronounce, and sound more like a chemical than a food substance, or if a pre-made food contains an extremely long list of ingredients relative to its contents, it often is wise to avoid as well. Consumption of sugar should be minimized, as excess sugars and simple carbohydrates can have an inflammatory effect in the body, raising blood sugar, and serving as food for dysbiotic microbes such as yeast.3,4
Avoidance of known food sensitivities or allergies will help to balance the body’s immune response and reduce inflammation. There are a variety of testing options that are used by holistic medical practitioners to evaluate which foods the body may be sensitive to.5,6 Many individuals also find an elimination diet helpful to determine food sensitivities or food intolerances.
When following an elimination diet, foods that people are commonly sensitive to (dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, peanuts, shellfish) are eliminated for a period of time (2 – 4 weeks), and then slowly re-introduced. When a food is reintroduced, it should be eaten in significant volume on the day it is consumed to truly challenge the body. These challenges should be spaced out (over days) so that changes in symptoms can be fully noted. Because produce from the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes) can trigger an inflammatory response in some individuals, they also may be removed in the process of an elimination diet.7
Through the elimination process and food re-introduction, it is important to keep a journal of food intake and symptoms in order to understand which foods may be impacting your health. Ideally, this also should be guided by a practitioner who is familiar with the process.
Grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic-free, and rBGH-free (bovine growth hormone) are descriptors to look for when purchasing animal-sourced products. Chicken, particularly that from non-organic sources, contains high levels of arsenic, and for this reason should be avoided or minimized.8Rice also contains high levels of arsenic even when organic, although white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. have been shown to contain lower amounts.9 Brown rice actually has more arsenic than white rice on average as it accumulates in the outer layers of the grain.10 Rinsing rice well and cooking it with excess water can help to reduce arsenic content.11
When it comes to seafood and shellfish, one should minimize consumption of larger predatory fish including shark, swordfish, marlin, tuna, and tilefish, as these fish are highly contaminated with mercury.12 Tuna is popular with many due to its high-protein and low-fat content as well as ease of availability, but should not be consumed in excess of 6 oz. per week, or should be avoided altogether, especially by pregnant women and children. Salmon and shrimp offer a higher balance of omega-3 fatty acids to the deleterious mercury, and are better choices, yet even these still should be eaten in moderation.13 The Environmental Working Group recommends 4 to 8 ounces weekly of salmon, or of other affordable seafood such as anchovies, sardines, and mussels.14
Mycotoxins, the toxins associated with molds, are another category of harmful substances which can be found in many foods and beverages. Aflatoxin is a common mold toxin, well-known for being found in tree nuts (particularly peanuts). Aflatoxin also can exist at high levels in beans, corn, rice, wheat, as well as milk, eggs, and meat.15Ochratoxin A is another common food-related mold toxin that blocks detoxification, inhibiting the body’s Nrf2 pathway via which endogenous antioxidant production occurs.16 It can be found in cereal grains, wine, grape juice, spices, dairy, coffee, and dried vine fruit products.17,18
Aflatoxin’s precursor, the mycotoxin sterigmatocystin, can be found in many grains, corn, spices, coffee beans, soybeans, as well as cheese.19,20 There also is zearalenone, a mycotoxin with estrogenic effects commonly found on stored grains as well as rice and corn, and fumonisin B1, a mycotoxin most often found on corn. 21,22 Although binding agents exist such as bentonite clay and chitosan which can help to remove these toxins from the body, 23,24,25,26 for those who struggle with mold toxicity, avoidance of possibly contaminated substances is also recommended.
Of course, there are still other categories of foods beyond these that might trigger reactions, especially in a sensitive population. Histamine, found at high levels in aged products such as cheese or meat, fermented foods, many types of alcohol, as well as certain vegetables such as tomatoes, can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms and systemic symptoms similar to an allergy.27
This can be an issue not only in individuals who genetically have low levels of activity of the histamine-degrading enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO), which is produced in the cells lining the small intestine, but also for those with conditions that lead to damage and inflammation of the small intestinal mucosa. This includes celiac disease or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Sulfite sensitivity also can be an issue for some, and symptoms may appear similar to histamine intolerance. Sulfites are found predominantly as a consequence of fermentation, although they also occur naturally in a number of foods and beverages.28 They also may be found as food additives, as they serve to help preserve and prevent microbial growth as well as browning and spoilage.
The many issues with possible contaminants in water have been discussed previously, shedding light on the importance of ensuring a clean and safe water source. A guide to help you select an appropriate water filter for the possible exposures you may have in your region can be found on the Environmental Working Group webpage. Consuming half your body weight in ounces of water is a general daily guideline, however roughly 2 cups more should be included for every cup of coffee, which is a diuretic, and for every 30 minutes of exercise. As bitter substances support digestion, and detoxification pathways as well, digestive bitters can be added to water or sparkling water as an alternative beverage, also giving health a boost. For individuals who do not have adverse reactions to fermented products, there are options such as kombucha which can be a refreshing change, also supporting the health of the gut with the probiotics they contain.
To learn more, read on at:
- Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink?
- Bitters: Balancing Agents for the Gut, and Support for Liver/Kidney Detoxification
- Humble but Powerful: Cruciferous Vegetables Detoxify via a Potent Molecule Called DIM
- Can Food Really Be Our Medicine?
- Holiday Support for Detox and Digestive Function