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Should You Go on a Detox Diet or Cleanse?

Detox diets and cleanses are widely advertised with glowing testimonials. They claim to have amazing health benefits, making people feel more energized and helping them lose weight. Some say they can treat or cure diseases. But, do they?

Detoxes and cleanses have been buzzwords for a while now. There are so many variations of them and each one is advertised with many health claims and compelling testimonials. The question is: Do they really improve skin and digestion, boost the immune system, increase energy, reduce inflammation, or cure diseases? A lot of the time - even when they don’t explicitly say so - they are code words for a calorie-restricted weight loss diet.


But, what effect can they really have on your health? And how can you use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification (and overall health)?

 

What is detoxification?


Detoxification is your body’s own process for breaking down and eliminating toxins. We are all exposed to toxins every day through food, water, and the air we breathe. Toxins include those naturally found in tiny quantities in foods (e.g., methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables - which are very healthy). There are also synthetic toxins found in medicines, pesticides, and preservatives (e.g., sulfur dioxide is used to preserve some fruits and vegetables). The makeup you put on your face every day, the hairspray, deodorant, perfume... they all contain toxins.


In fact, the body also makes its own toxins through normal everyday processes like digestion, metabolism, and physical activity (e.g., urea which is excreted in the urine).


The good news is that your body does a great job breaking down toxins and eliminating them.


Fun Fact: A toxicant is either a natural toxin or a human-made substance that produces negative effects. A toxin is a natural toxicant produced by living organisms like plants and animals. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the common word toxin, but I'm in fact referring to toxicants (which are natural or synthetic).


Because the world is full of toxins that can affect us, we’ve developed some pretty sophisticated detoxification systems. These pathways are mainly found in the liver, but are also located in the kidneys, gut, etc. They help to make toxins less dangerous and allow them to be excreted mostly through urine and feces, as well as breathing and sweating.


What does this have to do with nutrition?


These detoxification systems consist of many biochemicals in our bodies, for example, enzymes. Enzymes need essential nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) to work properly. So, getting quality nutrition helps your body maintain all aspects of your health - including detoxification.

 

What are “detox diets” and “cleanses”?


A quick Google search and you’ll find thousands of websites and posts on these topics. There are so many different types of detox diets and cleanses being advertised! Many make bold promises of weight loss and improved health.


Detox diets and cleanses often include at least one of the following:

  • Eating more nutritious foods

  • Reducing junk foods

  • Avoiding alcohol and/or caffeine

  • Eliminating some common allergens (e.g., wheat or dairy)

  • Replacing meals with smoothies, juices, teas, or powders

  • Short or long-term fasting

  • Only eating/drinking a handful of recommended foods/beverages

  • Taking several dietary supplements and/or laxatives

  • Getting “colon cleanses” (enemas)


Some of these recommendations seem reasonable and healthy. It’s hard to argue that eating more nutritious foods or reducing processed foods isn’t a good step towards better health. However, some of the more extreme recommendations can pose a risk to people including those with underlying health conditions, children, adolescents, athletes, older adults, or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. As you can imagine, the more foods you eliminate from your diet, the fewer nutrients you will get. So, one of the risks of extreme diets in the long term is nutrient deficiencies. It’s counterintuitive to cut out too many foods because there are critical nutrients scientifically proven to be necessary for your body’s natural detoxification pathways to work efficiently. Nutrition is key.


Another risk with certain detox supplements or teas, is serious side effects. You may have heard about cases of unsafe ingredients or contamination that have harmed people.


Overall, there is a lack of good quality research into detox diets and cleanses, as most studies have been conducted on animals, not people. As Dr. Robert H. Schmerling from Harvard Health says, “It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.”


There’s no evidence that detoxes or cleanses actually help your body eliminate more toxins than it normally does. A few studies show that they can help with initial weight loss, however, experts believe that’s due to a reduction in calorie intake. The weight lost is often water and carbohydrate (not fat), so it’s easily regained as soon as the dieting stops. There are no studies of the long-term effects of detox diets or cleanses.


Some people claim to feel better and more energized when they’re on these diets. This may be because they’re eating more nutritious foods and fewer junk foods that are high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats.


Having said this, there may be medical conditions for which eliminating certain foods is recommended. For example, if you have a food allergy or intolerance or if you need to be on a low-fibre diet due to digestive issues, you have a valid reason for eliminating certain foods. Before jumping into a detox diet or cleanse, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first.


Nutrition plays a vital role in your body’s ability to naturally detoxify and eliminate toxins, and you don’t need to follow an overly restrictive or extreme detox diet or cleanse to support this process.

 

How to use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification


You probably don’t need to eliminate a long list of foods from your diet. In fact, getting enough of your daily nutrients is what can help ensure your detoxification enzymes have what they need to keep up their ongoing very important work.


Here are a few simple things you can do every day to “detox” yourself:

  • Don’t unnecessarily expose yourself to toxins in the first place. Avoid things like tobacco and excessive alcohol.

  • Stay hydrated by drinking enough water (this promotes excretion via urine).

  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables. These are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fibre.

  • Include a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. These contain compounds that help support detoxification pathways.

  • Get enough fibre by eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By promoting bowel regularity, these foods help eliminate toxins from the body via the feces.

  • Enjoy some naturally fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These promote digestive health and support your gut microbiome.

  • Consume lean protein. Protein is needed for many things including maintaining optimal levels of a “master” detoxification enzyme called glutathione.

  • You can also consult with a certified nutritionist to see if you may be lacking in any key nutrients. Follow recommendations to eat more or less of a certain food or nutrient or take high-quality supplements.

 

Bottom Line


Nutrition is a key aspect of detoxification. Your body’s own natural detoxification pathways in the liver, kidneys, etc. include many enzymes that require vitamins and minerals to function optimally. You can best support your detox systems by getting enough of your essential vitamins and minerals.


Detoxification diets or cleanses that you see advertised online are usually different. They often oversell their abilities to improve health. There are almost no quality human studies showing benefits and there are no long-term studies. I recommend speaking with your healthcare professional before embarking on a detox diet or cleanse. If you are looking to lose weight, consider a nutritious and varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, reduced portion sizes, and be active every day.


Do you have questions about diets, nutrition, detoxification, or weight loss? Need nutrition support? Reach out below for personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals!









 

Sources & Further Reading


British Dietetics Association. (2019, May). Detox Diets: Food Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/detox-diets.html


Cleveland Clinic. (2020, Jan 3). Are You Planning a Cleanse or Detox? Read This First. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-you-planning-a-cleanse-or-detox-read-this-first/


Eat Right. (2019, May). What's the Deal with Detox Diets? Retrieved from


Harvard Health. (2020, March 25). Harvard Health Ad Watch: What’s being cleansed in a detox cleanse? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/harvard-health-ad-watch-whats-being-cleansed-in-a-detox-cleanse-2020032519294


Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/detoxing-your-liver-fact-versus-fiction


Kesavarapu, K., Kang, M., Shin, J. J., & Rothstein, K. (2017). Yogi Detox Tea: A Potential Cause of Acute Liver Failure. Case reports in gastrointestinal medicine, 2017, 3540756. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/3540756


Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, April 18). Do detox diets offer any health benefits? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/detox-diets/faq-20058040


Medical News Today. (2019, March 11). What to know about the lemon detox diet. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324670


NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019, September). “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know


NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Methanol. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/methanol


NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Sulfur dioxide. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/sulfur-dioxide


NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Toxicology 101. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/key-concepts-and-glossary/toxicology-101

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