It may seem like everyone you know has tried a detox diet lately. Although regimens vary, these diets generally involve a juice fast lasting days or weeks and often include a “cleanse” with limited food and/or “detoxifying” supplements. Serving up a small allotment of calories can produce dramatic weight loss, which makes detoxing tempting to typical dieters.
But what’s unique about this trend is that it’s also attracting people not trying to lose weight. That’s because these fasts are billed as a way to improve health or cure chronic health conditions by removing impurities from the body. All this gives detox diets more street cred than the typical fad diet. But are they based on real science? Do you really need to detox? Martica Heaner, PhD, MA, MEd, who is a columnist for MSN, is on Twitter: @DrMartica and who has a doctorate in behavioral nutrition and physical activity, examines this trend.
Are They Scientific?
“Extreme detox diets are not nutritionally balanced,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD, a Maryland-based medical doctor and registered dietitian. Even diets that incorporate a meal or smoothie can have too few calories, especially if you exercise while on them. The risks are considerable.
“When you’re not getting enough protein or calories, you can lose muscle mass and experience dangerously low blood sugar, which can cause you to pass out and create electrolyte imbalances that, in extreme cases, can lead to a heart attack,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RD, CDN, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who has a private nutrition-consulting practice in New York City.
Of course, some detox diets take a more sensible route, providing juices or supplemented shakes with adequate calories (around 1,200 per day) and protein. “As long as you’re healthy and only follow [a diet like this] for a few days, you will probably lose a few pounds, [but] it’s doubtful that you are going to cure a disease,” says Cohn.
In other words, it’s true that these exercises in portion control can produce weight loss. But the bigger question is whether a detox diet truly “de-toxes.”
Removing Toxins From the Liver?
The most common claim is that a cleanse regimen detoxifies the liver, the body’s own self-detoxification organ. It’s assumed the liver gets clogged like an air conditioning filter and must be cleaned so it can continue detoxifying.
“But there is no evidence showing that a normal liver gets clogged with toxins,” says hepatologist Nancy Reau, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago who treats patients who have liver cancer. “The liver is a sophisticated filter. Everything you inhale, put on your skin or eat enters the bloodstream and is brought to the liver. It then generates specific enzymes to help remove things that are unhealthy or change them to a healthier form. The liver is self-cleaning, you just have to give it good fuel in the form of healthy food.”
Pros and Cons of Detoxing
The upside of a detox regimen is that cutting out bad eating habits and helping the body eliminate waste more easily make good sense. Eating less processed food and more plant foods means more fiber, more nutrients and fewer chemical additives. Detox diets may even have a valid detox effect if people forgo alcohol that they might otherwise drink.
Some people think that a regimented, strict plan helps them mentally prepare to embark on a healthier way of eating. However, people often return to their former eating vices when their cleanses are over. So, the belief that it can kick-start a healthier life may only be a fantasy.
And if your routine consists of alternating an occasional detox week to fix a chronic pattern of poor eating habits, what’s the point? “A lifetime of good, healthy eating is going to be more effective than a sometime, short-term cleanse,” says Reau.