With a price tag ranging from thousands of dollars for an intensive spa-based program to a $15-book purchase or internet subscription plus food and supplement costs, detox diets have attracted a wide variety of supporters.
Detoxification, or “detox,” diets aim to purge the body of harmful 21st century toxins including food additives, pesticides, pollutants, and other synthetic compounds in order to achieve a state of body purification. These diets often promise increased energy, clearer skin, headache relief, decreased bloating, and perhaps even weight loss.
The only element that all detox diets share is the goal to rid the body of toxins with some combination of fasting, food restriction, and supplementation. Most detox diets include elimination of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, and many restrict meat and solid foods altogether. The diets also tend to involve consumption of large amounts of liquid, fiber, and raw vegetables ingredients that are thought to purge the gastrointestinal system of accumulated harmful substances. A variety of “cleansing boosters” such as herbal laxatives, “colonics”, probiotics to repopulate the natural intestinal flora, and antioxidants may be incorporated into a detox regimen. Relaxation therapies such as massage, sauna, aromatherapy baths, deep breathing exercises, and walking are also included in some programs.
The prototypical detox diet begins with a cleansing phase, which is typically liquid only. This is followed for 2 to 3 days before other foods such as brown rice, fruit, and steamed vegetables are added. Then about a week later, other foods may be reintroduced with the exception of red meat, wheat, sugar, eggs, and prepackaged foods. This final phase of the diet is expected to be followed indefinitely for maintenance. Of course, with no standard definition of a “detox diet,” programs vary considerably.
What Science Says?
Beyond the testimonials and committed detox followers, many questions remain unanswered.
What exactly is a detox diet, and does it really work? Do these regimens safely help the body to get rid of toxins of daily living better than the normal metabolic processes of the liver, kidney, skin, lymph nodes, and other body systems? Does a “toxin purge” lead to the diets’ proclaimed health benefits?
At first glance, a detox diet may seem to make sense. In a world filled with synthetic chemicals, processed foods, pesticides, and pollutants, a thorough body cleansing via a detox diet once a year seems logical enough. But no evidence supports the notion that harmful chemicals accumulate in the body (in fact, the liver and kidneys efficiently rid the body of toxins). And even if toxins did accumulate to the body, it is unlikely that “detox” diets would get rid of them.
Points to notice
Toxicologists A. Jay Gandolfi, made the following points in an article in the Los Angeles Times:
(1) high volumes of liquid consumption could theoretically help to remove water soluble chemicals like arsenic, but not fat soluble chemicals (which make up most pollutants).
(2) fiber consumption may help to eliminate toxic chemicals that accumulate in the liver, but not chemicals that are located in other parts of the gastrointestinal system.
(3) raw vegetables have no special detoxifying properties other than that their high fiber content can further help to bulk up stools.
(4) most chemicals of concern are fat soluble and so are stored in fat
The researchers note that the best way to get rid of these potential toxins is not through a detox diet, but through weight loss, as more slender people eliminate toxins more quickly than overweight and obese individuals.
What actually HAPPENS?
Benefits of detox diets may exist, but they likely are not due to detoxification. The decreased bloating is likely from eating less food; the clearer skin from increased hydration; and the decreased headaches from elimination of caffeine and alcohol, improved energy levels and sense of well being likely result from a combination of more natural food intake, the exercise and relaxation components of the program, and psychological factors.
While consuming ample fiber and staying well hydrated are healthy when done in moderation and relatively harmless, use of colonics and laxatives to “purify” the digestive tract are dangerous. Their use can lead to metabolic disturbances, fainting episodes, dehydration, and muscle cramps among other complications. The more extreme programs also leave individuals protein and nutrient-depleted. Among other consequences, this can lead to decreased lean muscle mass and slowed metabolism.
There may be some utility in a short term (1 to 3 days) laxative-free detox program, but not for the purposes of purification. As a health-promoting practice, committing to a detox regimen helps people to stop and consider the healthy and unhealthy components of their lifestyles and make changes such as eating less, examining health habits, and omitting consumption of processed foods, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.
Some dietitians even recommend a “gentle cleans” to clients. That is, consuming a healthy diet of primarily fruits, vegetables, non-meat proteins, and a large volume of water, and excluding substances such as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.
(Note: though peer-reviewed journal articles, and not newspaper stories, are generally the best source of credible scientific information, in the case of detox diets, very little peer-reviewed research has been published.)