Many people ask me, especially this time of year, what detox diets are and if they work.
If your holiday diet consisted of eating too many heavily processed and artificial foods, you may be thinking about trying a “detox” diet this new year.
When we think of detox diets we usually have the goal of ridding the body of harmful toxins like food additives, pesticides, pollutants, and other synthetic compounds. The diets offer the promise of increased energy, clearer skin, headache relief, decreased bloating, and perhaps even weight loss.
But do they really work? Can these diets safely help the body rid toxins better than the “normal” metabolic processes of the liver, kidney, skin, lymph nodes, and other bodily systems?
The Basic Ingredients of a Detox Diet
All detox diets are some combination of fasting, food restriction, and supplementation.
They typically begin with a “cleansing phase,” which is usually two or three days of only liquids. Brown rice, fruit, and steamed vegetables are usually added about a week later and then other foods may be reintroduced. This final phase is expected to be followed indefinitely for maintenance.
Of course, with no standard definition of a “detox diet,” programs vary considerably.
Most of them include eliminating caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, and many restrict meat and solid foods altogether. The diets also tend to involve consumption of large amounts of liquid, fiber, and raw vegetables. These are thought to purge the gastrointestinal system of accumulated harmful substances.
A variety of “cleansing boosters” may be incorporated like herbal laxatives, colonics, probiotics to repopulate the natural intestinal flora, and antioxidants.
Some programs even include relaxation therapy, such as massage, sauna, aromatherapy baths, deep-breathing exercises, and walking.
There is conflicting scientific evidence about their usefulness.
For instance, toxicologist A. Jay Gandolfi, an associate dean for research in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona, and Linda Birnbaum, director of the Experimental Toxicology division of the Environmental Protection Agency made the following points in a Los Angeles Times article:
- High volumes of liquid consumption could theoretically help remove water-soluble chemicals like arsenic, but not fat-soluble chemicals (which make up most pollutants).
- Fiber consumption may help eliminate toxic chemicals that accumulate in the liver, but not chemicals that are located in other parts of the gastrointestinal system.
- Raw vegetables have no special detoxifying properties other than that their high fiber content can further help bulk up stools.
- Most chemicals of concern are fat-soluble and so are stored in fat. The best way to get rid of these potential toxins is not through a detox diet, but through weight loss. Slender people get rid of toxins more quickly than overweight and obese individuals.
While consuming a lot of fiber and staying hydrated are healthy when done in moderation, using colonics and laxatives that are intended to “purify” the digestive tract can be dangerous.
Their use can lead to metabolic disturbances, fainting episodes, dehydration, and muscle cramps. The more extreme programs also leave individuals protein and nutrient depleted. Among other consequences, this can lead to decreased lean muscle mass and slowed metabolism.
But What About the Great Benefits Detox Followers Tell You They Get?
Benefits may exist, but they may not be due to detoxification.
The decreased bloating can be from eating less food; the clearer skin from increased hydration; and the decreased headaches from the exercise and relaxation components of the program.
That’s NOT to say that all detox diets should be strictly avoided. In fact, there may be some benefit in a short-term (1-3 days) laxative-free “detox” program.
As a health-promoting practice, committing to a detox regimen helps people stop and consider the healthy and unhealthy components of their lifestyles. Making changes like eating less, examining health habits, and getting rid of processed foods, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol will help you feel better.
Some dieticians even recommend a gentle cleanse to clients. This would be a diet consisting of primarily fruits, vegetables, non-meat proteins, and lots of water, while excluding substances such as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.
In the end, a short and moderate “detox” diet may serve as an incentive to improve a chronically unhealthy lifestyle, though remember, it does not necessarily purify or cleanse the body of toxins.
Recommendations if You’re Starting a Detox Diet
- Make sure you understand the benefits and risks of detox regimens, and explore possible alternative methods that might help improve your health (such as an overall healthy diet that is not nutritionally deficient and regular physical activity).
- Recognize that children and adolescents; pregnant and breastfeeding women; older adults with impaired kidney or liver function; individuals with chronic illness such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or gastrointestinal disease; people with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia; those with irritable bowel syndrome; and individuals on blood thinning medication are at high-risk for negative health outcomes from following a detox diet.
I hope this helps so that if you’re considering a detox diet you now have some better understanding of what that means and the choices you’ll have.