Detox or liver cleansing diets have been around for many years. With amazing claims of rapid and easy weight loss, improved health, together with a heavy dose of Hollywood celebrity endorsement, it is no wonder these diets are in the public spotlight. The case for detox diets shouldn’t just be based on personal testimonials, so read on for the essential guide to detox diets pros and cons.
So what is the rationale behind a detox diet? Promoters of detox diets claim that the diet is intended to purge the body of a supposed build-up of toxins in order to regain good health. These ‘toxins’ are claimed to arise from our body being overloaded with pollution, cigarette smoke, a poor diet, eating refined foods, food additives, alcohol and caffeine.
‘Toxin’ build up is supposed to be the main culprit for weight gain, constipation, bloating, flatulence, poor digestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, lack of energy and fatigue. ‘Detoxing’ is a way for the body to eliminate these toxins and as a result, a person will feel healthier and lose weight.
Detox diets make amazing promises, including dramatic weight loss and more energy – all achieved by ‘flushing’ toxins from the body. Weight loss seen on such diets though is entirely due to their restrictive nature, and has little to do with the ‘elimination of toxins’. A few days on a detox program does not absolve a person from a poor diet and lifestyle.
What does a detox diet involve?
Detox diets can vary from a simple diet of raw vegetables and unprocessed foods and the elimination of caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars, to a much stricter diet bordering on a starvation diet with only juices consumed. Detox diet programs can last from anywhere from a day or two, up to several months.
Foods allowed or banned can vary dramatically among popular detox diets, but typically ‘healthy’ foods such as fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, herbal teas and water are allowed. Common foods normally banned include wheat, dairy foods, meat, fish, eggs, caffeine, alcohol, salt, sugar and processed foods. Some detox programs may also recommend vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements.
Do detox diets work?
There is no shortage of glowing testimonials from people who have gone on a detox diet, claiming to feel cleansed, energised and healthier. But if you go searching, evidence-based scientific research to support the testimonials is very thin on the ground indeed.
The principle that we need to follow a special diet to help our body eliminate toxins is not supported by medical science. Healthy adults have a wonderful system for removal of waste products and toxins from the body. Our lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and immune system remove or neutralise toxic substances within hours after we eat them. Promoters of detox diets have never put forward any evidence to show that such diets help remove toxins from the body at any faster rate than what our body normally eliminates them.
One fact conveniently ignored by promoters of detox diets is that many fruits and vegetables have more natural toxins present in them than those found in meat, fish, and milk. Our body, especially the liver, has little trouble dealing with the toxins naturally found in foods.
Many people do feel better for following a detox diet, yet this has little to do with the elimination of toxins from the body. Any person, especially someone who has a poor diet to start with, who eats more fruits and vegetables, drinks more water and eats less foods high in fat, salt or added sugar, and drinks less alcohol and caffeine will naturally feel better.
Many people do feel better for following a detox diet, yet this has little to do with the elimination of toxins from the body
As for the dramatic claims of weight loss, this is easily explained by the restrictive nature of detox diets, which can cut kilojoule intake dramatically. The more extreme detox diets so severely restrict kilojoules that the body losses most of its carbohydrate stores (as glycogen in the muscle and liver) resulting in several kilograms of ‘weight loss’. This weight will go back on as soon as a person resumes their normal diet and carbohydrate stores are replenished.
Claims made that the typical physical side effects of detox diets such as bad breath, fatigue and various aches and pains are evidence that the body is getting rid of toxins just does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. ‘Bad breath’ on a detox diet is simply a symptom that the body has gone into starvation mode (called ‘ketosis’) and is using more fat as an energy source because of a dramatic reduction in carbohydrate intake.
Lemon detox – a case study
A popular detox diet heavily prompted in Australia is the Lemon Detox Diet It involves purchasing a supplement which is based on tree sap, and adding lemon juice, chilli powder and water to it.
Following the diet for the full seven days as recommended, with no other food consumed apart from the ‘detox drink’, does indeed result in dramatic weight loss as ample testimonials to the diet proclaim.
Unfortunately, because the detox is essentially a fasting diet, the initial weight loss is mostly water and carbohydrate stores which will be rapidly regained once the detox is finished.
For most people, ‘losing weight’ means wanting to reduce body fat stores. The amount of exercise needed to achieve true loss of body fat in the time period of the Lemon Detox Diet to match the weight loss claims made about it, would amount to needing to run over 50 kilometres each day!
Detox diets pros and cons
While there may not be much credence to many of the health claims made about detox diets, they do have some positive aspects. Many of the recommendations of a detox diet do encourage good habits such as eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking more water and cutting back on junk food and alcohol. Detox diets can also help people to think more about what they are eating. For some people, a detox diet can be the start of a change to a more healthy diet and lifestyle long term.
Apart from the false belief that a detox diet is actually ‘detoxifying’ the body, these diets have many well-described downsides including:
- Feelings of tiredness and lack of energy initially
- Expense of buying organic food
- Cost of the detox kit if a commercial program is followed
- Purchasing of supplements if recommended by the diet
- Needing to be more organised than usual to ensure plenty of ‘allowed’ foods at home and work
- Stomach and bowel upsets
- Difficulties eating out and socialising as most restaurants and social occasions do not involve detox-friendly meals
The biggest downside of detox diets, especially the more extreme ones, is that any weight loss achieved is usually temporary and is more the result of a loss of water and glycogen rather than body fat. This means that the weight is easily and rapidly regained once the person reverts back to a more ‘normal’ eating plan. These dramatic weight fluctuations can be demoralising and lead to yo-yo dieting.
The detox fad may also encourage the idea that a person can lead an unhealthy lifestyle most of the year and then undo the damage in a few days with a rapid detox. A theory that simply does not work.
Are detox diets safe?
Following a typical detox diet for a few days has few real health risks in otherwise healthy individuals. Very restrictive detox diets such as water or juice only fasting though are not the safest form of weight loss and should not be used for more than a few days. These diets, if done improperly or for too long, may result in nutrient deficiencies. Of particular concern is the lack of protein, which may result in wasting of muscle tissue, due to insufficient amino acids for repair.
Children under 12 and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t follow a detox program, as they have specific nutrition needs for growth and good health. For anyone with specific dietary requirements, a chronic illness, or who are on any type of medication, they should seek medical advice before embarking on a program.
The verdict of Choice
In 2005, Choice carried out a survey and expert review of popular detox diets sold in supermarkets and chemists. They examined seven popular detox kits and put them under the scientific microscope by a panel of expert nutritionists and medical professionals.
Choice found that most of the programs recommended a restriction of key food groups (like red meat and dairy), but gave no clear justification for this. While the kits contained diet plans, some of them were unnecessarily restrictive, and some gave diet advice with poor or no rationale. For example, one kit advised not mixing fruit and vegetables in the same meal, and another avoiding citrus fruits, but lemons were okay. When following a diet plan, recommendations like these can be restrictive and are certainly confusing.
The conclusions made by Choice about detox diets were:
- There’s no sound evidence that we need to ‘detox’, or that following a detox program will increase the elimination of toxins from your body.
- Some detox kits have diet plans that are far too restrictive, and give dietary advice with poor or no rationale.
- Detox supplements provide little or no known benefit over a healthy diet.
- A week or two on a detox program won’t absolve a person from a year of unhealthy eating, smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
- A person is better off saving their money and making small but sustainable changes that will benefit their health in the long term.
What it all means
Rather than a detox diet, the key to feeling more energised and healthy is to reduce the amount of negative things in your diet and lifestyle in the first place. Nutritionists the world over consistently advise people to reduce alcohol, cigarettes, saturated and trans fats, and foods and drinks high in added sugar in the diet. Eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and getting plenty of activity each day are the cornerstones of dietary and health guidelines for the population.
Detox diets may do little harm to most people, except perhaps for their bank balance, but neither do they do a lot of good just on their own. Concerted changes to diet and lifestyle habits are far more valuable than detox diets and supplements.