inside the wild world of celebrity diets

From subsisting on baby food, to green juices and laxative tea, celebrities have run the gamut when it comes to questionable methods for ‘cleansing their digestive systems’ and sharing techniques for living the ultimate ‘toxin-free’ life. And I don’t know about you, but I thought we’d finally reached the end of all that? Thanks to a slew of combative articles and public figures calling out all the BS on socials…

However, it seems the tide has turned again lately, and we’re inching ever closer back to square one of diet culture reigning supreme. A square that instead of openly admitting to wanting to fit into a pair of size 6 skinny jeans, sees us fawning over the idea of ‘detoxing’ and desperately seeking ‘wellness’ in ways that, err, don’t actually make a whole lot of sense?

Our fixation with cleansing and shrinking ourselves is nothing new – entire centres and retreats have long-existed for those who can afford to spend a week slugging back wheatgrass shots and crying through hot yoga sessions, with the promise of an internal rebirth for £5,000, after a week of eating… well, not much. But instead of laughing at those people, is it just me or are we all sort of at risk of buying into it all again? The current diatribe is all feeling eerily familiar: frets over the return of heroin chic, size zero models dominating catwalks and diabetes medication being co-opted for weight loss. And whether you listened or not, you won’t have missed last week’s TikTok hot-takes responding to Goop founder, Gwyneth Paltrow – who, whilst appearing on the Art Of Being Well with Dr Will Cole podcast, laid her eating habits bare. With bare being the operative word here: as it sounds like her plate remains pretty empty for most of the day.

Speaking about her diet, which includes extreme intermittent fasting, Paltrow said that breakfast is typically coffee, celery juice or lemon water “[to avoid spiking] blood sugar”, followed by a soup or bone broth for lunch, and a dinner made up of a ‘paleo’ meal as “it’s really important to support my detox”. She continued: “I’m not a natural detoxer, [my body gets] impacted by things more heavily,” adding that her love of daily movement, infrared saunas and IV drips – one of which she was attached to while recording said podcast – are all part of her quest for a toxin-free existence. Is this the new health gold standard?

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Naturally, some were unhappy with Paltrow’s comments (which fills me with hope), and eating disorder charity Beat spoke to Cosmopolitan UK about the dangers of talking about food in this way: “Whilst trying out a particular diet is unlikely to be the only reason someone develops an eating disorder, sharing specific diets and extreme dieting techniques can be very dangerous for those already unwell or vulnerable.”

Quick to respond to the backlash, Paltrow stressed that she does eat a well-rounded diet, and referred to some post-Covid health concerns she was working through with a doctor, via her aforementioned ‘detox’. “I’ve been working […] for over two years, now, to deal with some chronic stuff,” she explained via Instagram Stories. “The way [the chronic condition] manifests for me is very high levels of inflammation over time, so I’ve been working with Dr Cole to really focus on foods that aren’t inflammatory.”

Many of these so-called detoxes and cleanses are recommended and marketed by actual medical doctors so, is there something in it? Should we all be boiling up some bones to erase the sins of a heavy weekend, to reach health nirvana, and aiming to carve out some kind of celebrity-inspired wellness routine of our own (upside-down meditation included)? Or is this just a thinly-veined attempt to modernise the Special K diet and the likes of SlimFast shakes thrice a day?

“Detoxing is a buzzword and a marketing term”

Not so fast, says Specialist Gastroenterology Dietician, Dr Sammie Gill. “Detoxing is a buzzword and a marketing term, based on the unfounded idea that we need to rid our bodies of toxins that build up on a daily basis.” Gill, who is also a Scientific Research and Development Manager at probiotic brand Symprove says, “There is no evidence showing ‘detoxing’ is effective or safe. In fact, it can be harmful.”

Registered nutritionist and author of The Science of Nutrition, Rhiannon Lambert, agrees, adding that “the diet industry also promises that a detox can help you lose weight, or completely restore gut health, but in terms of overall health and people’s relationships with food, it’s best to avoid this type of celebrity nutritional advice.”

The idea of cleansing our systems and giving our digestive tract a bit of time off sort of sounds like it makes sense. And the promotion of these regimes really are quite persuasive; I can’t pretend I haven’t been a little bit tempted to buy detox tea in the past and I’ll openly admit to juice cleansing to ‘reset’ after a blowout holiday that left me feeling like a beanbag with limbs (spoiler: I had crazy bad headaches and ordered a curry after day one). But, explain Lambert and Dr Gill, detoxing isn’t something that we can do to our bodies through eliminating key nutrients – because our bodies are already doing this for us. It’s literally what they are designed to do.

The kidneys and the liver are our own built-in detoxing equipment whose sole roles are to rid our bodies of any nasties. What’s more, says Dr Gill, “if you’re over restricting, cutting out food groups or eating erratically, then your gut won’t like it.”

Instead of cutting things out (allergies and intolerances aside), she advocates “maintaining good gut health [by] adding things in“, sharing that a healthier gut microbiome comes about when we focus on plants such as fruit, veggies, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, wholegrains (packed with different types of fibre) and plant chemicals phytochemicals (such as polyphenols). “Each community of microbes in your gut have different ‘preferences’ so keep them well fed and nourish them with a variety of plant-based foods,” she explains.

Essentially, it’s the same old classic advice of eat a balanced diet, move a bit, sleep enough and you’re good-to-go, and seek personalised help if you’re experiencing health issues or have a long-term condition. Fasting, the experts agree, can be beneficial, but must be done safely, sustainably and still see enough calories eaten during your food consumption window. Unsurprisingly, avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs is one thing you can do to naturally encourage a ‘detox’ from the inside-out too, as both can impair the liver’s ability to function properly.

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What about that bone broth though? This, explains Lambert, has what she calls a ‘health halo’ attached to it. “Consuming bone broth alone is not going to alter your immune system or have a miraculous effect, and the low-calorie intake is a concern,” she says. In and of itself though, bone broth does have nutritional positives [it’s often said it can help fend off colds or support immunity], but “it’s about what you eat daily as a whole,” Lambert says. For it to be a beneficial addition to a diet, you would need to “bulk it out with some whole grain bread and extra protein, or even have it as a comforting hot drink between mealtimes.”

The rise of IV drips have also become an enormous wellness market in recent years, popping up everywhere from party hotspots as part of room service offerings, promising to undo decisions made the night before, to airport lounges (jetlag, who?), to The Kardashians (Kendall Jenner is still a proud fan despite being hospitalised after having a bad reaction to a drip back in 2018). But while these might come with the apparent cache of seeming medical and being offered in clinical-style settings, or administered by pros, IV drips can also be a red herring – and something we should be concerned about – explains Lambert. “We don’t know the longer-term effects on the body, and often these drips are from unregulated sources, so we can’t be certain what is actually in them, which is worrying,” she says.

Speaking bluntly about them, Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, even said: “People who are healthy do not need IV drips. At best they are an expensive way to fill your bladder – and then flush hundreds of pounds down the toilet – but at worst they can cause significant damage to your health […] Exposing the liver and kidneys to large quantities of vitamins can place them under significant stress, and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has prohibited companies from offering drips without screening liver and kidney function beforehand.”

Given the clear lack of medical backing with all of these detoxing trends, you’d think celebrities would opt for the far easier (and surely more pleasant?) method of simply eating a balanced diet. So, is there some benefit to any of these fads at all (half of which aren’t even affordable to the average person either, but that’s a whole other article)? Are there any nuggets of gold worth panning from this muddy stream of wellness misinformation?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition when it comes to managing gut symptoms, betterment or seeking weight loss, stresses Lambert. “Advice should be evidence-based and individualised to your specific needs.” For anyone struggling with food-based health concerns she suggests finding a registered dietician who can work with you to tailor your food and exercise to your specific needs, or speaking to your GP. Gill also adds that we can aid digestion by adapting, not only what we eat, but the way we eat. She recommends a mindful approach to food: eating away from tech and chewing mouthfuls around 10-20 times to aid digestion as a start.

“We can aid digestion by adapting, not only what we eat, but the way we eat”

Beat’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn, says, “We’d never advise that someone with an eating disorder changes their diet or exercise plan without first speaking to their doctor or care team, and would encourage anyone worried about their health to reach out to their GP without delay.”

Sadly, despite all the evidence pointing towards the pointlessness – not to mention potential health risks – of self-marketed detoxes and cleanses, the diet industry is worth big money. Our desperation to glow, be snatched, look younger than our years and still be ‘cool girls’ who can nonchalantly down fries on a date remains. And extreme diets seem to be a mainstay of celebrity and influencer culture. Here we were thinking we’d finally finished with being flogged tummy teas and juice cleanses, only to have it all reappear in the form of bone broths, IV drips and lemon juice. Still housed under the label of wellness.

As for the psychological impact of all this and our war on toxins, Dr Helen McCarthy AFBPsS, consultant clinical psychologist and author of How To Retrain Your Appetite, says it best: “The idea that we need to detoxify our bodies is pouring fuel on the fire of body-negativity. It implies inner toxicity. Who started that rumour? Presumably someone who wanted to sell detoxing kits.”

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If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or via their website.