Detox diets and ‘cleanses’ are incredibly popular at the moment as a way of increasing your energy, losing weight and clearing up your skin. If the marketing is to be believed, detox diets will ‘kickstart your metabolism’, stave off the effects of aging, and treat a huge variety of ailments, but is any of that true? To answer that question, we must first examine what goes into a detox or cleanse.
What Are Detox Diets?
Detox diets and cleanses can vary massively. Some simply involve cutting out certain ‘bad’ foods or drinks (such as wheat, dairy, alcohol or caffeinated beverages), some involve fasting for a day or even several days, and some involve using pills or herbal remedies. In some detoxes, you may eat or drink only a certain limited number of substances.1
Do Detox Diets Really Work?
Detox diets will change the way that you feel in the short term. You might feel groggy and weak for a short period or have headaches as you go through caffeine withdrawal, but you probably will eventually feel better for a while. You might even notice that you lose some weight, however that weight loss is most likely a combination of water weight and weight from having less food waste in your system. Detox diets are not sustainable, and the positive impact that they have is not so much from ‘the removal of toxins’, but rather from the reducing in processed foods and, in the case of ‘whole food’ centric detox diets the new introduction of nutrient-dense foods.2
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Detox diets are questionable, but in the case of short-term ones, there could be a case made that they can help someone to get started with their diet since they encourage the person to cut out all ‘bad’ foods while their willpower is high. They may get some motivation from seeing the scale move a lot in those first few days and that could help them ease into a more sustainable way of eating. If used in that sense, detox diets could be helpful.
Cleanses, on the other hand, can be far more questionable. Some companies manufacture herbal detox kits that promise to clean the intestines. These kits often contain laxative products which are intended to be used on a daily basis. The laxatives themselves may be effective, however, they carry with them the risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances through the rapid loss of food and water, disruption to your gut flora and also damage to your digestive health. Regular use of laxatives may actually make you more susceptible to constipation in the future.3
Is ‘Detoxing’ Safe?
Every detox diet and cleanse is different, but in general you should be wary of any promoted detox or cleanse product because there can be serious safety concerns.4
- Drinking large amounts of juice could lead to kidney problems for those who have, or are at risk of, kidney disease.
- Those who have diabetes or who are prediabetic could be putting their health at risk if they radically change their diets without the support of a doctor.
- Detoxes that require following a very low-calorie diet create the risk of malnutrition.
- Colon cleansing products can be risky for those who have heart disease, GI issues or kidney problems
- Detoxes can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
Given those risks, it makes sense to be wary of ‘cleanses’ or ‘detoxes’, and instead to look at more sustainable ways of improving your health.
Finding the Good in Detoxes and Cleanses
One of the reasons that detoxes and cleanses are so popular is that there is some sound science behind them. However, the ‘good science’ is taken and twisted to sell products of questionable performance. There are a handful of studies that show that certain foods can help to enhance the ability of the liver to remove toxins from the body, for example.5 However, the extreme and unsustainable way that detox diets advocate people live is not something that will help in the long term. It makes more sense to stick to a sensible way of eating every day, balancing fruits and vegetables with healthy protein sources and healthy fats.6
Another example of some sound science that gets co-opted by the detox community is the idea of fasting. Studies show that intermittent fasting can help to improve your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels.7 Intermittent fasting is not the same as long term fasting. With intermittent fasting, a person would stop snacking throughout the day and eat all of their meals in a narrower time period. They are still getting enough nutrition each day to support their bodies, they are just eating it in a smaller time window. Someone who goes on a longer fast will be depriving their body of nutrients. Fasting for short periods can help to reduce chronic pain and even improve metabolic syndrome and other conditions. Fasting has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and when it is followed sensibly, with careful monitoring and appropriate refeeding practices, it is considered to be quite safe.8
The challenge here is that when someone embarks upon a fasting challenge that they have read about in a magazine or seen online, they may not do so with the same rigor or understanding as a person who is trying a fast under medical supervision. They may have medical conditions that contradict following a fasting protocol, or they may unwittingly break the fast by consuming certain beverages. Fasting can be beneficial, but only when done in the right way.
Detox diets may make you feel better in the short term, however, they are not a long term solution to a health issue or to digestive troubles. If you want to improve your digestive health, you should learn which foods are good for you, which you tolerate well, and which offer a short term endorphin rush followed by a crash. Eat a diet rich in fiber, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and protein and drink plenty of water. That is the only ‘cleanse’ that you really need.
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