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Why Detox Diets Make No Sense

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Detox diets, or cleanses, have become as ubiquitous to health as washing your hands and drinking water. They’re seen as a necessity.

But unlike hand soap and H20, there’s no good reason to think that detoxes are good for you. They claim to jumpstart weight loss, cleanse your gut, and provide an abundance of energy by removing toxins from your body. But what they fail to do—along with satisfy hunger—is provide any evidence of their necessity, much less effectiveness.

 

The Mystery History of Detoxing

Before detox-diets were a fitness fad, “detox” was actually a medical procedure, typically done in a hospital, ridding the body of dangerous or life-threatening levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons [1]. These detoxes involved therapies and drugs to cleanse the body of toxins.

Now “detox” has taken on a brand new meaning—with emphasis on “brand.” It’s no longer a medical procedure, it’s a dieting fad that all your friends are doing (and selling!), leaving their tummies grumbling and wallets empty.

We’re not kidding about the prevalence, either. A 2011 survey of naturopaths (alternative medicine doctors) found that 92% claimed to use “clinical detoxifications strategies” in clients ranging from infancy to adulthood [2].

 

Drink Yourself Clean

Famous detoxes, like the Master Cleanse, instruct participants to follow a strict diet for a given amount of time—anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. Typically, there’s not much food involved—just a whole lot of liquid.

Participants drink shakes, gulp juices, swallow herbs and laxatives, pour salt and cayenne in their water, and soak their bodies in Epsom baths, all in hopes to drink themselves clean.

The idea is to get all your nutrients from juices and smoothies, or fast altogether, to give your insides a break while “flushing” them of toxins. The reason you do this with liquid instead of solid food is because supposedly liquid nutrients absorb quicker and help your body’s organs do their jobs better—aka detoxify.

 

What Exactly Are You Detoxing?

Detox diets promise to remove “toxins” from your body, never quite defining what exactly those toxins are. They could mean pollutants, heavy metals, processed foods, or even fecal matter.

Woman drinking green smoothie.

Detoxers be like, “Why are my dumbbells green? What’s happening?”

All we know for sure is that they claim your body is under attack from these so-called toxins and needs a good cleansing. And somehow juices and smoothies are the way to go.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Bother

Doing a detox diet or cleanse is kind of like leaving the mechanic after an oil change and driving to another mechanic for a second oil change. It makes no sense.

Your body has multiple systems and organs in place to detoxify itself. Your skin provides a barrier against harmful outside substances. Your airways and lungs trap and expel gross particles and toxins from the air—hence why you sneeze and cough. Your intestines screen out parasites and other harmful organisms while allowing the right nutrients to be absorbed. The kidneys do a remarkable job of filtering out waste substances and moving them out of the body [4].

Your liver—the body’s MVP filter—produces a family of proteins called metallothioneins. These proteins metabolize nutrients and also neutralize harmful metals [1]. Liver cells also produce enzymes that regulate the metabolism (chemical change) of drugs and are an important part of the body’s defense against harmful chemicals and toxins.

Infographic of how the liver filters toxins.

An actual detox… and nothing you can control.

Basically, everything expensive detox diets claim to do, your body already does—for free, and much more efficiently.

 

Yeah, But Do They Work?

One of the main reasons people try detox diets is because they want to lose weight. Most people see a detox diet as an opportunity to jumpstart their weight loss journey and lose weight quickly. And lose weight they will, but not for long.

Because most cleanses involve a large restriction in calories, dieters will lose weight right away, simply from being in a caloric deficit. Most of this weight loss isn’t fat (which we’ll talk about in a minute) but more important is understanding that the speed of weight loss here isn’t really a good thing. Scientists have found that if you want to lose weight, keep it off, and improve your metabolism, slower weight loss is the way to go [5,6].

On top of restricted calories, many of the diets promote the use of diuretics and laxatives, causing fluid loss and frequent bowel movements—which show up as a reduced number on the scale. But lost water weight is really just a fat loss imposter: it tricks you into thinking you’ve made real progress when in reality, the second you consume carbs and salt you’ll be right back where you started.

Another reason people try detox diets is the belief that environmental toxins, ranging from pollutants to metals, enter our bodies and wreak havoc on our immune systems. Which is true—there certainly are toxins entering our bodies on a daily basis; however, those toxins are filtered, fought, and kicked out by our bodies.

Right now, there’s no scientific evidence to show detox diets are effective or safe, much less necessary [7]. They may help you lose weight initially, but the weight lost isn’t from fat and won’t be sustainable. They might give you that boost of energy you’ve been looking for—but so will eating the right amounts of the right foods and getting enough sleep. As far as cleansing your gut, let’s leave that to the real pro—your gut.

Detox diets are more of a sales pitch than effective health remedy [8].

So, You Still Want to Detox…

You may be thinking, “Sure there’s no evidence supporting them, but a detox diet can’t hurt! I could use a good cleanse and my sister said she loved hers!” We get it—the temptation to jump on the bandwagon is real. After all, what harm can a little juice do?

Let’s squeeze out the truth.

Restrictive diets, like detox diets, can result in nutrient deficiency, starvation, and other health risks for certain sections of the population [9]. If you do decide to buy the juicer and go all out—talk to your doctor first and figure out if it’s safe for you.

 

Detox: Without the Juice

Bottom-line: Detox diets, cleanses, flushes, and whatever else you want to call them, are far from the new hand soap. Your body has its own detox systems and unless there’s an underlying medical issue, it doesn’t need your help “cleansing” itself.

That’s not to say the goals of detox diets aren’t valid: weight loss, increased energy, and an overall healthier body. But those are all achievable without starving yourself, sitting on the toilet for hours a day, and emptying your wallet.

Small, daily decisions are key to a sustainable healthy lifestyle. Eat good food. Get your exercise. Prioritize sleep. And have a glass of OJ in the morning if you feel like it—right along with a healthy serving of pancakes.

 

If you want to lose weight:

  • Exercise regularly: Do yoga, go to the gym, hit the trails
  • Follow a nutrition plan: Don’t starve yourself; eat enough and ask us for help (we happen to know a thing or two about dieting!)
  • Increase your NEAT: Move more outside of the gym
  • Eat enough micronutrients: Think fruits and veggies
  • Rest up: Aim for 7+ hours of sleep per night, take rest days, and listen to your body

If you want to improve energy and cognitive function:

  • Feed your body the proper supplements: Skip the laxatives and diuretics
  • Cut back on crap: Eat less highly processed foods, sugars, alcohol, and other junk
  • Decrease stress: Journal, get outside, meditate, take a vacay
  • Don’t smoke: It can cause insomnia and zap energy [10]

 

References
  1. Anonymous. 9 tips to boost your energy – naturally. Harvard Health Publishing. The dubious practice of detox. Harvard Women’s Health Watch. 2008 May.
  2. Allen J, Montalto M, Lovejoy J, et al. Detoxification in Naturopathic Medicine: A Survey. Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine. 2011 Dec;17(12):1175-1180.
  3. Burke L, Darwish T, Cavanaugh A, et al. mTORC1 in AGRP neurons integrates exteroceptive and interoceptive food-related cues in the modulation of adaptive energy expenditure in mice. eLife. 2017 May;6
  4. Cosgrove B. The Truth About Detox Diets. Berkely Wellness. 2015 May
  5. Ashtary-Larky D, Ghanavati M, Lamuchi-Deli N, et al. Rapid Weight Loss vs. Slow Weight Loss: Which is More Effective on Body Composition and Metabolic Risk Factors? Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2017 July;15(3):e13249
  6. Senechal M, Argui H, Bouchard D, et al. Effects of rapid or slow weight loss on body composition and metabolic risk factors in obese postmenopausal women. A pilot study. Appetite. 2012 June;58(3):831-834
  7. Klein A and Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014 Dec;28(6):675-86
  8. Cohen M. ‘Detox’: science or sales pitch? Australian Family Physician. 2007 Dec;36(12): 1009
  9. Clemens, R and Pressman, P. Detox diets provide empty promises.(detoxification diets). Food Technology. 2005 May;59(5), 18
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