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Do Detox Diets Really Work?

Detoxification, or detox, diets are more popular than ever. These diets claim to clean the blood and eliminate harmful toxins from the body.

However, it is not entirely clear how they do this, what they're supposed to eliminate or if they actually work.

Detox diets are generally short-term dietary interventions designed to eliminate toxins from the body.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

This is a detailed review of detox diets and their health effects.

What is a Detox?

Detox diets are generally short-term dietary interventions designed to eliminate toxins from the body.

A typical detox diet involves a period of fasting, followed by a strict diet of fruit, vegetables, fruit juices and water. Sometimes a detox also includes herbs, teas, supplements, colon cleanses or enemas.

These methods claim to:

  • Rest the organs by fasting
  • Stimulate the liver to get rid of toxins
  • Promote toxin elimination through feces, urine and sweat
  • Improve circulation
  • Provide the body with healthy nutrients

Detox therapies are most commonly recommended because of exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment or diet. These include pollutants, synthetic chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful compounds.

These diets are also claimed to help with various health problems, including obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, bloating and chronic fatigue (1).

However, research on detox diets is lacking and the handful of studies that have been published suffer from significant limitations (2, 3).

The Most Common Ways to Detox

There are many ways to do a detox diet, ranging from total starvation fasts and juicing to simpler food modifications.

Most detox diets involve at least one of the following (1):

  • Fasting for 1 to 3 days
  • Drinking fresh fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, water and tea
  • Drinking only specific liquids, such as salted water or lemon juice
  • Eliminating foods high in heavy metals, contaminants and allergens
  • Taking supplements or herbs
  • Avoiding all allergenic foods and then slowly reintroducing them
  • Using laxatives, colon cleanses or enemas
  • Exercising regularly

The different detox diets vary in intensity and duration.

Which Toxins are Eliminated?

Detox diets rarely identify the specific toxins they aim to remove or how exactly they eliminate them. In fact, there is little to no evidence that detox diets actually remove any toxins from your body.

More importantly, there is really no scientific evidence backing up the claim that our bodies are loaded with toxins and need to be cleansed. Your body is actually very capable of cleansing itself, through the liver, feces, urine and sweat. The liver makes toxic substances harmless and then makes sure they're released from the body (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

Despite this, there are a few chemicals that may not be as easily removed by these processes, including persistent organic pollutants, pthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and heavy metals (3, 8, 9, 10, 11).

These tend to accumulate in fat tissue or blood and can take a very long time, even years, for the body to get rid of (12, 13, 14). However, generally speaking, these compounds are removed from or limited in commercial products today (15).

Read page 1

Do Detox Diets Work?

Some people report feeling more focused and energetic during and after detox diets.

However, this improved well-being may simply be due to eliminating processed foods, alcohol and other unhealthy substances from your diet. You may also be getting vitamins and minerals that were lacking before.

On the other hand, many people also report feeling very unwell during the detox period. There is some evidence from animal studies that indicates coriander, an algae called chlorella and several types of fruit acids and pectin may help eliminate toxic metals and organic pollutants (2).

Detox Diets and Weight Loss

Currently, very few scientific studies have investigated the effectiveness of detox diets for losing weight (2). While some people may lose a lot of weight quickly, this seems to be due to loss of fluid and carb stores rather than fat. This weight is therefore usually regained quickly once you start eating normally again.

The weight loss effects of one detox diet, called the “lemon detox diet," was studied recently in overweight Korean women. It involves consuming only a mixture of organic maple or palm syrups and lemon juice for seven days.

This diet significantly reduced body weight, body mass index, body fat percentage, waist to hip ratio and waist circumference, in addition to reducing markers of inflammation in the body (16). The results also indicate a beneficial effect on hormones by reducing insulin resistance and circulating leptin levels.

If a detox diet involves severe calorie restriction, then it will most certainly cause weight loss and improvements in metabolic health.

However, this type of “crash" dieting probably won't lead to long-term results unless you change your lifestyle at the same time.

Detox Diets, Short-Term Fasting and Stress

Several varieties of detox diets may have effects similar those from short-term fasting or intermittent fasting. Short-term fasting may improve various disease markers in some people, including improved leptin and insulin sensitivity (17, 18).

However, these effects do not apply to everyone. Studies in women have shown that both a 48-hour fast and a 3-week period of reduced calorie intake may increase the levels of stress hormones (19, 20). On top of that, crash diets can be stressful. They involve resisting temptation and feeling hunger and deprivation (21, 22).

Beneficial Aspects of Detox Diets

There are a few aspects of detox diets that may have health benefits (4). These include:

  • Avoiding heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants
  • Eliminating toxins from body fat by losing excessive fat
  • Exercising and sweating regularly

Following these guidelines is generally linked with improved health, no matter whether they involve a detox or not.

Safety and Side Effects

Before doing any sort of detox, it is important to consider possible side effects.

Several detox diets recommend fasting or severe calorie restriction. Short-term fasting and limited calorie intake can result in fatigue, irritability and bad breath. Long-term fasting can result in energy, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, electrolyte imbalance and even death (23).

Furthermore, colon cleansing methods, which are sometimes recommended during detoxes, can cause dehydration, cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting (24).

Some detox diets may pose the risk of overdosing on supplements, laxatives, diuretics and even water. There is a lack of regulation and monitoring in the detox industry and many detox foods and supplements may not have any scientific basis.

In the worst cases, the components of detox products may not match their labels. This can lead to overdose, resulting in serious and even fatal, effects (25).

Who Should Avoid Detox Diets?

Some groups of people should not start any detox programs or calorie-restricting regimens, at least not without consulting with a doctor first.

This includes children, adolescents, elderly people, the malnourished, pregnant or lactating women, and people who have blood sugar issues or medical conditions, such as diabetes or an eating disorder.

Don't Put Junk in Your Body

People encounter toxic substances all the time. Most of the time, however, your body does a perfectly good job of removing them without any additional help.

If doing a detox diet helps you to start eating and feeling better, then it is a great thing. But this probably has nothing to do with eliminating toxins, but simply the fact that you're putting less junk in your body.

A much smarter approach is to avoid putting toxic things (junk food, cigarette smoke, etc.) in your body in the first place.

This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.

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