Diet & Nutrition

The nutrition trend that’s hot right now – but completely ineffective

We wouldn't bother even trying this.

Nutrition trends come and go, but this one, which promotes ingesting activated charcoal to detox your body and aid weight loss, among other things, seems particularly off the mark.

Activated charcoal is burnt organic matter (usually made from coconut shells, peat, or wood) that’s been exposed to certain gases at high temperatures in a special process – this ‘activation’ helps the charcoal bind with anything it comes in contact with.

It is used in hospitals to treat poisoning and drug overdoses, because it binds with the substance before your body absorbs it – and in this instance its use can be life-saving.

But the use of it has trickled into everyday living, with black foods trending on Instagram feeds and the health-conscious eating it or taking it as a supplement (in powdered or tablet form) in the misguided belief that it can do a multitude of good things, from detoxifying your body to aiding weight loss, easing gastro discomfort, preventing hangovers and mitigating the side effects of food poisoning. Gwyneth Paltrow is one such fan.

Why it doesn’t work

When you ingest activated charcoal, it also binds with the stuff that you don’t want to get rid of – like vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients.

“So with that Insta-worthy green smoothie, your activated charcoal will be taking out all of the goodness you’ve just put in your body,” nutritionist Jessica Campbell from Body Balance Nutrition says.

“If you’re taking it on a day-to-day basis you can have vitamin and mineral deficiencies because of it.”

Activated charcoal can stop your body from absorbing any medications you’re taking – including the contraceptive pill.

If you do choose to use activated charcoal, take it two hours either side of a medication, health professionals advise.

And as for the claims around it being great for detoxifying, well they simply don’t make sense.

Explains Campbell, “I don’t think people realise this, but activated charcoal cannot draw out anything from inside your body, it can only work on what’s inside your gut, which is basically what you’ve eaten that day.”

Some suggest that activated charcoal is useful for management of digestive disorders, from an upset stomach through to severe inflammatory bowel conditions – but Campbell says this is “purely anecdotal”.

“There is no evidence to suggest this at all.

“In fact, for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or who are sensitive to sugar alcohols, some of our activated charcoal products are made with a component that can cause the worsening of symptoms like diarrhoea, gas and bloating.”

Summing up, she says, “I really struggle to find anything positive to say about eating activated charcoal at all.”

We checked with New Zealand primary healthcare service provider Green Cross Health, which has under its umbrella around 340 Unichem and Life Pharmacies, and they say activated charcoal supplements are not ranged in their pharmacies – but that the supplements seem to be popular in Asia.

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