Some time ago, the topic of detox diets came up for my #NutriChats. This is just one of those things I’ve never quite understood why people would want to do, but I also understand it’s also a part of some cultures. When I was a kid, my parents and grandmum would mention Epsom salts for when your poops were smelling a bit unsavoury, or they felt like you needed to be “cleaned out”. Granted, stool never smells like lemons, but I’m sure you know the particular stink of certain poos…that eggy, sulphur-smelling goodness. Look at how mature we’re being talking about stool on the internet🙃.
Nowadays detox diets/supplements/teas are a whole sophisticated and lucrative industry where diet culture perpetuates. Promising improved health, weight loss, reduced stomach bloating, improved circulation and liver function, beautiful skin… the works! All stemming from the removal of toxins from the body. But is it worth our time, money and effort?
Here’s what you should know before you try:
- What are detox diets?
- The benefits of diet detoxification
- Is it necessary to detox?
- The risks of detoxing
- What a nutrtionist recommends
What is a detox diet?
The practice of detoxing has been around for hundreds of years and has been seen in traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic customs, some African tribes, European practices such as blood-letting and even Biblical text where there are rituals of cleansing prior to and after certain life events. As you could tell, many of these practices revolve around cultural norms. Yet, in this modern-day, we have entire industries based on “removing toxins from the body”.
I will say, although we have evolved to know more about the science behind health and well-being, there is still a lot we can learn from some of these historic customs. But as a studied health professional, I do question the legitimacy of modern detoxes. Is it just based on user feelings, or is there actual scientific evidence to prove that works?
Detox diets in particular promote the removal of “toxins” from the body through eating or not eating certain things. For example, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption along with unprocessed, organic foods during detox is common, while strictly avoiding alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and refined sugar. Many detoxes encourage juicing and smoothie-making, simply drinking liquids such as special tea blends and having large amounts of water.
Detox diets are just one in many detoxification practices people swear by. There is also nasal irrigation, intestinal cleansing, foot detox (usually sold as patches, or a full spa treatment), oxygen detoxes, and of course, my favourite to love-to-hate…skincare detox regimens and treatments. They’re probably more out there too. I’ve definitely tried my fair share of detoxifying hair and skincare products, and I still wonder if they work at the molecular level.
What are the benefits of a detox diet?
I am always happy when diets promote fruit and vegetables, but the idea of juicing and making smoothies from them significantly reduces their fibre content, one of the key reasons why eating whole vegetables and fruits have been seen to promote good colon health. And these processes also release their natural sugars… So they’re not as healthful as you may think.
One thing detoxes promote is rapid weight loss, but that’s mostly from fluid loss and decreased glycogen storage. Not sure that’s something I’d want…dehydration and lower energy stores? No thanks.
Some people even say they feel “cleaner”, lighter and healthier after detoxing. I’m still on the fence about the reason behind this. A bit TMI, but when I do a #2 I also have that lighter, cleaner feeling. Is that just a coincidence?
So is a detox diet/supplement/drink necessary?
Short answer, no.
In a healthy person, your immune system, gut, liver, kidneys, bladder and skin are very effective at eliminating excess or unwanted matter.
Contrary to the belief that there are many “toxins” in food, typically countries have stringent laws about what is allowed in foods including:
- the types of chemicals used to grow produce,
- the antibiotics and feeds used in livestock rearing,
- the amount of bacteria allowed in finished products,
- the use of genetically modified foods and additives (which are usually tested for toxicity levels before they’re even allowed near food products),
- ingredient and nutrition information, especially allergen warnings,
- even the health claims of a finished product.
Produce and livestock are routinely tested for the level of contaminants, and there is a standard range to ensure the safety of our food supply. Gone are the days where bakers would add alum to bread to make it heavier, whiter and more appealing. Yes, this actually happened in the 19th century!
There are a lot fewer cases of heavy metal poisoning from what we eat. I can’t say as much good quality evidence is available for some of these detox pills, teas and regiments. Most detox diets promote eliminating high salt, high fat and sugary foods, which is good, but they also may remove other processed and fortified foods which means you may end up with micronutrient deficiencies without recognising it. Did I already mention there are very few scientific studies showing the long term effects of these diets?
Chemicals such as BPA, phthalates and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are of more worry today, due to industrialisation. Traces of which can accumulate in fat tissue or blood. But, they’re not simply removed through dietary means. We can, of course, change our lifestyle habits to reduce our exposure to these chemicals.
What are the dangers?
My biggest question with “detoxifying” usually is, what are we removing that is terrible for our health?
Typically this is never explicitly stated by marketers of detox products. We tend to see the words toxins and impurities thrown around quite often. In remembering my chemistry and toxicology classes, I worry about the fearmongering and scare tactics used to sell these products. In modern medicine, there are specific combinations of drugs to be taken to remove excesses for example in alcohol- or heavy meatball poisoning (don’t let the word drug scare you either). So how can a one-size-fits-all detox tea or diet suddenly cure me of these mysterious toxins?
Anyway, here’s what risks you expose yourself to through detoxing:
- ❌Lack of energy and micronutrients because you may be avoiding carbohydrate-rich foods.
- ❌Some diets promote a fasting pattern which if misinformed can lead to dizziness, lack of energy, low blood sugar, hangry feelings (you know what I’m talking about…).
- ❌Lack of fibre often results from fasting or having a mainly liquid diet. Even fruit and vegetables which are typically great sources, lose their fibre content when juiced or blended.
- ❌Diarrhoea… as if having a liquid diet wasn’t hard enough.
- ❌If you have a pre-existing medical condition, detoxing (and fasting for that matter) without the advice of a healthcare professional can also be very dangerous. Herbs from teas can often interact with medications and cause complications, despite all their benefits. If you want to learn more about medicinal herbs and their drug interactions, the US National Institutes of Health is a great resource.
Would I recommend it?
As I’ve said earlier, I think there is merit to some of the principles of detox, but I’m waiting for the scientific evidence to back it up before I recommend it to anyone. So, NO.
What I can suggest to support a healthy diet and lifestyle is (as always) a diverse, plant-based diet with lo of servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and moderate (much smaller amounts than currently) amounts of lean protein and dairy. Reduce your consumption of high fat, salt and sugary foods, try to rest when you are tired and get a bit of exercise every day.
If you think you need more support, you can speak to a Registered Associate Nutritionist like me, a Registered Dietitian or a registered medical practitioner with nutrition training who should be able to give a nutrition assessment and then further advice.
Have you ever tried a detox diet or detox products? What was your experience?
- BDA, 2019. Detox Diets [WWW Document]. British Dietetic Association. URL https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/detox-diets.html (accessed 8.13.20).
- Dr B. J. Hardick, 2016. The History of Detox – Decreasing Exposure to Toxins | DrHardick [WWW Document]. DrHardick.com. URL https://www.drhardick.com/history-of-detox (accessed 8.13.20).
- Harvard Health Publishing, 2008. The dubious practice of detox [WWW Document]. Harvard Health Publishing. URL https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-dubious-practice-of-detox (accessed 8.13.20).
- Katherine Zeratsky, 2020. Detox diets: Do they work? [WWW Document]. Mayo Clinic. URL https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/detox-diets/faq-20058040 (accessed 8.13.20).
- National Institutes of Health – Office of Dietary Supplements, n.d. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets [WWW Document]. National Institutes of Health – Office of Dietary Supplements. URL https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/ (accessed 8.13.20).
- The history cook: The English Bread Book [WWW Document], 2013. URL https://www.ft.com/content/2be889d8-257a-11e3-b349-00144feab7de (accessed 8.13.20).