Detox diets are advertised everywhere. Whether you spend time on social media, watch TV commercials, listen to radio ads, or page through magazines, we are infiltrated with protocols for detox diets and juice cleanses, for-purchase cleanses, ‘flat tummy’ teas, and other magical products are promises of ‘cleansing’ the body. But do detox diets work? Do cleanses work? Are these products and diets worth your time and money?
Well, the short answer is no. But in the interest of diet-talk season aka the New Years season, I thought I’d break down exactly why you should not waste your precious time and/or money on these pursuits, and what you can do instead if you are pursuing health.
Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
What is a detox?
Great question. There is no universal definition of ‘detox’ diets. The idea behind a detox is that by following a certain diet regimine and/or ingesting a certain product, an individual will somehow remove toxins from the body, lose weight, and/or achieve a higher status of health.
There are a variety of detox and cleanse approaches including fasting, drinking only juices, following strict diets and/or avoiding food groups, taking supplements or drinking teas, and cleansing the colon by with edemas, laxatives, or hydrotherapy.
Do detox diets and cleanses work? What does the science say?
High quality research exploring the impacts of detoxes and cleanses on human health is sparse.
Much of the literature that does exist to support the use of detox diets and cleanses is of poor quality and has serious flaws in terms of poor study design, abysmally small sample sizes, and lack of peer review. And/or it is industry-funded (ie, a detox pill company funding a flawed study that has not been peer-reviewed).
A 2015 review of detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management concluded that although the detox diet industry is booming, there is little clinical evidence to suggest that these diets are useful nor necessary.
Furthermore, upon critical review of the evidence, they found that most studies conducted on ‘detox’ products had been ‘hampered by flawed methodologies and small sample sizes,’ and were primarily conducted in animals. The authors concluded that there were no randomized control trials to assess effectiveness of detox diets in humans.
There is some evidence to suggest juicing or detox diets may lead to initial weight loss due to severe calorie restriction, but the same studies also find that people regain the weight upon resuming a normal diet. Also, this has nothing to do with removing ‘toxins’ from the body, because they simply can not and do not do this. Furthermore, severe caloric restriction of any kind may lead to initial weight loss, regardless of diet or cleanse protocol.
There have been no long-term studies to examine the impacts of detox and cleanse diets on the human body. I’m guessing this is probably because most nutrition scientists know that the liver and kidneys detox the human body, and that these for-profit cleanses and rituals are unworthy of time and money.
So, to answer the question “do detox diets work?” the short answer is no, they do not, and there is little use for them.
Do I need to detox or cleanse my body?
No! I’d like to shout this from the rooftop: You do not need to detox your body. Your liver, lungs, colon, and kidneys do a phenomenal job of removing a majority of toxins and waste products from your body.
The lungs, for example, allow you to exhale carbon dioxide, and are home to cilia and mucus, which trap potentially harmful particles and allow you to cough, swallow, or exhale them rather than breath them in.
The liver breaks down nutrients, as well as medicines, chemicals, pollutants, and other toxins. The liver often converts toxins into water soluble substances that can be excreted in the body. For example, it filters blood to remove large toxins, synthesizes and excretes bile to help remove fat-soluble toxins, and makes enzymes that help the body rid itself of chemicals.
The kidneys filter blood, removing byproducts of digestion, as well as waste, toxins, and excess water, and produce urine as a waste product to rid the body of unnecessary substances. By helping your body rid itself of waste, the kidneys work to help detox the body.
What are the risks of detoxes and cleanses?
Some detox and cleansing protocols carry serious and potentially fatal risks. Others are simply a waste of time and money without proven benefit. Either way, it’s important to understand the risks associated with embarking on a cleanse protocol.
The FDA and FTC have taken action against several companies selling detox and cleanse products that contained illegal or potentially harmful ingredients, that were marked with false claims that they could treat serious disease, and for being medical devices marketed for unapproved uses (as is the case with many colon cleanse products).
The precise risks depend on the diet/protocol followed. Below are a list of a few common cleanse techniques, and associated risks.
- Severely Restrictive Detox Diet Plans are often inadequate in nutrients and calories. I often see “detox” diet plans that are 5-7 days long (like the ones on ‘wellness’ website goop) that are very restrictive. Many of these diets are inadequate in energy (calories), and may not provide ample vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal health. In addition to putting individuals at risk of micronutrient deficiencies, low calorie diets have been found to increase cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in individuals. Furthermore, overly restrictive diets may lead to a preoccupation with, and/or unhealthy relationship with food.
- Colon cleansing procedures, such as edemas and hydrotherapies, come with a variety of risks, including severe GI distress, colon injury, and increased risks of hemorrhoids, kidney disease, and heart disease.
- Laxatives may cause diarrhea, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.
- Juice Cleanses often do not provide enough calories, protein, fat, fiber and/or micronutrients to support optimal health. This puts juice cleansers at-risk for micronutrient deficiencies and other symptoms associated with inadequate energy intake. Furthermore, some juices are high in oxalates, which may increase risks of kidney problems. For more about juice cleanses, see this post.
- Taking excessive herbal or dietary supplements and drinking large volumes of water without eating any food may lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances. Electrolyte imbalances may lead to heart palpitations, edema, confusion, and death.
- Drinking Hot Lemon Water in the morning is a popular way to ‘cleanse’ the body of toxins. Compared to many of the other cleansing techniques, this one is fairly harmless, but it is worth noting that the high acid content of the lemon water may be harmful to the enamel of your teeth and increase your risk of cavities.