Detox Diets: Bullshit or Brilliant?

Posted on Feb 06, 2019

The word ‘detox’ gets thrown around a lot.

Sometimes, people use it purely in a colloquial form, and say they’re detoxing from social media, or TV, or even just use it to mean they’re going to eat healthy and be a little more restrained with their food intake.

Other times though, it can mean something more serious. Many detox diets are based around the idea of avoiding a large number of foods, whole food groups, or even avoiding food entirely for a time. This is often combined with including special foods, supplements, or ingredients in order to ‘enhance’ the detox process.

This article breaks down why doing this makes absolutely zero sense.


Popular Detoxes

We all have our own idea of what constitutes a detox, but typically, they revolve around 2 things - 

  1. Extreme food restriction
  2. The addition of foods or ingredients in much larger quantities than you’d usually consume them in.

Popular examples include juice fasts, where you go a period of several days up to several weeks where you’re not allowed solid foods, and get your nutrition solely from vegetable and fruit juices.

You also have the maple syrup diet, where you survive for 2 weeks on nothing but water, mixed with maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper, and detoxes where you can eat anything, provided it’s raw. (Meaning your diet consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and little else.)

There are others, but these tend to be most people’s go-tos.


The Effectiveness of Detoxes 

So, do detoxes actually work? 

According to the science … No.

Our own bodies are pretty smart at knowing what to get rid of, and how to process certain foods, and as such, unless you’re suffering from a serious medical condition that prevents these processes from happening, there’s zero reason to detox.

Our body's’ own natural detoxification system includes the skin, respiratory system, immune system, intestines, liver, and kidneys. (1) If these aren’t functioning properly, you’ll know about it, and probably require hospital treatment, rather than a change in diet.

Many people do report that they ‘feel better’ when detoxing though.

This is understandable. Most of the time, when someone starts a detox, they’re going from a diet filled with junk food, alcohol, excess calories, and low micronutrient foods, to one full of fruits and veggies and lots of fibre.

Simply by removing lots of fast-digesting, low-nutrient foods, they’re going to feel better. Someone who goes from an already micronutrient-rich diet, however, would likely just feel hungry and groggy the whole time.

While there’s no need to actively avoid ‘junk food,’ for want of a better phrase, when trying to lose weight, taking it out and adding in more fruits and veggies is going to make almost anyone feel better temporarily.


Any Benefits? 


For many people, while they could simply lose weight by reducing their calorie intake, if a detox gives them a bigger boost, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Recent research shows that contrary to popular belief, slow, steady weight loss is not necessarily better or healthier, (2) and many people may find they’re more motivated with a bigger boost in weight loss at the start of a diet. 

That said, this could be achieved purely by a larger caloric restriction, and still eating normally.

There may also be some benefits to including periods of fasting into a diet. Not all detoxes are traditional fasts, but many do include very low-calorie days that mimic the effects of a full fast. It appears that fasting, while not necessarily a superior method of eating for weight loss, may improve insulin sensitivity and decrease appetite when dieting. (3)

Again though, this can be done without detoxing.


And the Downsides?

Try headaches, fatigue, fainting, weakness, hunger pangs, diarrhea, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance.

Oh, and companies being sued because their products contained illegal, potentially harmful ingredients, were marketed using false claims that they could treat serious diseases, or were marketed for unapproved uses. (4) 

Low-calorie diets can be sustained for short periods, particularly in obese subjects, but the moment you add performance or muscle preservation into the equation, you’re on a slippery downhill slope.

Detoxes are typically very low in protein, which eventually will cause a decrease in muscle mass. They also miss out key nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

From a social standpoint, too, it’s extremely difficult to follow a detox. You can’t eat at restaurants, socialise with friends, or even go and get a coffee, seeing as most detoxes ban any fluids other than water, juices, or certain teas. That might not sound like the worst thing in the world, but diets can be difficult enough to stick to anyway, without taking away the ability to socialise. 

If you like the idea of following a protocol that has no scientific backing, is potentially harmful for your health, will leave you feeling constantly hungry, and cause you to lose muscle mass, then a detox is probably for you. If not, well, you can skip it for now.


Do They Make Sense?

In a word, no.

To quote the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics: 

“Although the detox industry is booming, there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets. A handful of clinical studies have shown that commercial detox diets enhance liver detoxification and eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the body, although these studies are hampered by flawed methodologies and small sample sizes.”

Ergo, any research that does suggest benefits to detoxing hasn’t been done on a large enough scale in humans to accurately give us results we can apply.

The bottom line is that if you see someone advertising detoxes, it’s highly likely they’re making money from doing so somewhere along the line, or have been grossly misinformed. 

Considering weight loss can be as simple as reducing your calorie intake and increasing your expenditure, and the vast majority of people would feel a whole lot healthier and more energetic by just eating some more fruits and veggies, a little more fibre, and cutting down their intake of refined sugars, it just doesn’t make sense to do something as extreme and potentially dangerous as a detox.

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