Detox diets remain extremely popular, perhaps due to the degree of celebrity endorsement that they get. They range from very low calorie diets, to diets that allow only juices for the period it is being followed. But do they do what they promise to do?
What is “detox”?
Detox is short for detoxification, the process by which our bodies process and dump toxins that we accumulate through breathing in pollutants in the air (traffic fumes, cigarette smoke); plastering our bodies with chemicals such as hair dyes, deodorants, skin emollients, or any exposure to occupational based toxins such as dust from manufacturing.
Toxins also accumulate from things we eat and drink such as alcohol, caffeine, medicines, additives in foods that have been highly processed, or chemicals used in agriculture such as pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers and medicines given to animals (that we then eat).
Toxins are anything that our bodies consider to be toxic or poisonous, and these vary from heavy metals to viruses, bacteria and fungi.
Our bodies are brilliantly equipped with natural filters throughout the digestive and urinary systems (liver, kidneys and, of course, the intestine itself is a filter). The toxins are dumped into reservoirs in our body that prepare them for excretion (urine and bile).
The liver is an extraordinary organ – it has a highly advanced system for detoxification, that sees waste in our body go through two main phases of detoxification, processing the toxins in a highly sophisticated manner.
The stomach also produces a very acidic chemical that kills many bacteria that ride on our food. Our skin is a barrier against the outside world, and our lungs expel carbon dioxide, a waste product of respiration.
But this isn’t enough, the body also forms what’s called free radicals, compounds that react with oxygen and create havoc inside our bodies. We therefore need antioxidants to neutralise these free radicals and make them harmless.
Our bodies actually make antioxidants! We’re already programmed to know that free radicals exist and they’re here to do us damage, so we naturally produce chemicals that already neutralise free radicals.
So with the body’s ability to do the job of detoxification, do we need a diet to do anything in addition to this?
Basics of a detox diet
Detox diets are based on the principle of cleansing the body. Many proponents of detox diets claim that following a specific regimen of eating and drinking flushes out toxins and cleans our bodies from the inside out.
Here are some typical claims from detox diets:
Detox diets can range from simple vegetable and fruit juicing diets where you consume nothing except juices for a short period; drinking teas such as those available from TEATu tea tox, which promises weight loss and detoxification just by drinking tea; eating raw foods (no cooking!); to elimination diets, where a list of prohibited foods is given.
Some diets include other detoxifying methods such as the use of coffee enemas, and many just seem so bizarre:
So the world of detoxification isn’t, by any means, straightforward.
The cruel truth is, some of these diets may well do what they claim to do, but not because of detoxification.
It’s much more likely down to lower calorie intake, eating higher portions of fruits and vegetables, or cutting back on sugar.
Detoxification diets are highly unlikely to cleanse you. You’re already very clean!
What they probably do is steer you from the highly processed foods, processed meats, lots of fatty foods and sugar, to a diet that’s lower in calories and lower in saturated fat and processed sugar.
This alone will improve skin, make you feel much more alert, improve joint conditions among many other symptoms.
Not because the body is being flushed of toxins, but because you’re not putting them in your body in the first place.
What do the professionals think?
Nutrition professionals come with many different profiles, and the way each group approaches nutrition is significantly different.
You can read about the different professions here.
In clinical nutrition, there are two main professions:
- Dietitians are the type of nutrition professional you’ll typically meet in hospitals. They say that the whole idea of detox is nonsense. The body is a well-adapted system that has its own built-in mechanisms to detoxify and remove waste and toxins….Detox diets are a marketing myth rather than nutritional reality.
- Nutritional therapists, however, disagree. They take a genetic view of detoxification and believe that the right nutritional programme for your genotype can reduce the risk of disease, combat inflammation, which is linked to a number of health conditions and support mitochondrial capacity, which provides energy to the body and promotes genomic stability. They clearly espouse a field known as nutrigenomics
There’s a lot of sciency words in the nutritional therapists’ point of view, but what they’re saying is that modern day toxins affect us at the cell level.
Eating correctly can prevent our cells from becoming damaged and then passing on the damaged genes to new cells that it creates.
An individualised diet programme based on our genetic profile, known as a genotype, can prevent disease – but this would mean undertaking a genetic test, which are very expensive, and themselves very limited in what they can tell us currently.
Moreover, not all gene testing laboratories report in a uniformed way – meaning it’s down to you or your nutritionist to do the interpreting.
So, the science behind creating diets for our genotype is very new and only a few studies have currently been published on this.
It’s difficult to know how nutritional therapists have already used this limited knowledge in practice on patients, unless they’re doing so by being honest and telling clients that these diets will be experimental.
Are detoxification diets dangerous?
Let’s look at some of the headlines in recent years:
To be honest, the biggest dangers with some detox diets are those that encourage you to drink way too much water.
Water can and will kill you if you drink so much that you dilute all the natural salts in your body. It’s rare, but happens.
Very low calorie diets are OK if strictly followed so that all the essential nutrients are consumed.
It’s very difficult to do this unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and therefore should only be followed by careful monitoring with a dietitian. Dietitians are the only nutrition experts qualified in this type of clinical nutrition.
And any diet that advises additional supplements or herbs or pills should be ditched immediately. Many supplements are not regulated in the same way that pharmaceutical medicines are, and so correct dosage or even ingredients used may not be healthy.
So what if you want to follow a detox diet…
Knowing the science behind anything doesn’t stop some people wanting to follow a particular diet anyway. I have doctor friends who have told me they have followed detox diets and felt amazing.
In essence, detox diets are not dangerous – let’s not get dramatic about it, but – you do have to be careful and follow some pretty strict warnings first. Because they could be dangerous for some people.
- Water: be cautious about programmes that encourage you to drink more than 2L of water a day. Don’t do it. If your urine is clear, you’re cleansed already! If it’s bright yellow, then fill up your water bottle and get drinking.
- Herbs: don’t pop herb pills. Just don’t. Even more so if you’re on medications for other reasons. If you want to follow a herbal medicine diet, then make sure you seek professional guidance by someone qualified to the armpits.
- Juice only: walkaway, you were given teeth for a reason. There’s no need to drink juices and fast for days on end. There’s nothing wrong with fasting per se, in fact it might even be healthy, but there’s a danger you’ll miss out on essential nutrients like proteins, B12, essential fatty acids, dietary fibre among others.Juices can be very high in sugar, and although these diets are likely to be low in calorie, don’t forget your teeth! Sugar will destroy them.
- Don’t cut out food groups unless there is a medical reason to do so or you are following a well-balanced plant-based diet. There’s no reason why lean meat, fish, low-fat dairy or grains should prevent your body from detoxifying. Ensure you go for organic meat or fish that are small in the wild (the smaller the fish, the lower toxic load it will have).
- Genetic testing: if you’re advised to have a genetic test (such as 23andme) before following a diet, put your card back in your wallet! No one can yet say with any certainty that people with a specific set of genes will avoid disease if they eat (or refrain from) a certain group of foods. However, this is a fast-pace and emerging medical field and I have absolutely no doubt that this will change in the near future. It’s just not there yet.
- Eat a rainbow: for me, this is the main thing to focus on. We often hear about antioxidants, phytonutrients, carotenoids, but what’s important is where you get them and how often you eat them. So eat a rainbow, suggesting that you choose foods from all colours of the spectrum, is good advice. It means that you’re more likely to consume a range of antioxidants that will help improve your health.
- Sulphur: Eat a portion of cruciferous vegetables every day. These contain Sulforaphanes, which are compounds containing sulphur that may help power the body’s detoxification system. Broccoli, kale, cabbages and greens, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, collards, are all good sources. Other sulphurous foods include the onion family: leeks,onions, shallots, garlic etc. And some proteins containing the amino acids: methionine and cysteine.
So the bottom line is that, if you feel like doing a short term detox diet, then go for it.
Just be picky around the ones you choose – if it sounds weird, then it probably is weird – so avoid those ones like the plague.
If it just sounds like sensible healthy eating, then you may actually get something out of it – even if it’s short-lived. BUT, it’s much better just to switch to a healthy-eating plan that you can follow for the rest of your days.
This blog post is intended as an interesting and informative read for anyone with a general interest in health and nutrition. It is not intended to give any form of medical advice or opinion. If you suffer from any of the mentioned symptoms, you should seek the opinion of a medically trained professional and not rely on the contents of this post. I’m a nutritionist guys, not a dietitian or a medical doctor.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.