How Safe Is That Detox Diet?

By

Judith Hurley, RD

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The detox trend is hot. Popular websites, books, and celebrities tout extreme diet plans and “cleanses” that claim to flush toxins from your body. Just what are these detoxification diets? Do they work? And are they safe?

The detox concept

The premise of detox diets is that your body needs help clearing away toxins. These toxins might be natural waste products, pesticides, air pollutants, or other harmful substances.

There’s no one detox diet. Most revolve around some combination of fasting; eliminating certain foods; drinking juices, tea, or other liquids; and taking herbal supplements. Many detox diets exclude wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Detox regimens may last from a few days to a few weeks.

Some of the claimed benefits of a detox diet are better health, more energy, improved digestion, decreased inflammation, better immune function, and weight loss.

Are detox diets effective?

There’s little doubt that we’re exposed to more toxins from pesticides, air pollution, plastics, mercury in fish, and other sources than in the past. However, waste and toxins are routinely eliminated by the liver, kidneys, lymphatic system, digestive tract, and lungs.

Currently, there is no evidence that a detox program aids the release of toxins from fat tissue and organs, and there are no scientific studies that indicate a detox diet is beneficial. Although you may experience rapid weight loss when you severely restrict your intake of calories, most of the weight lost is water and muscle, not fat. The weight is likely to be regained quickly once you return to your normal eating pattern.

Are detox diets safe?

Detox diets can cause problems such as dehydration, loss of muscle, nutrient deficiencies, and harmful metabolic changes. They can also lead to headaches, diarrhea, fatigue, and trouble concentrating.

Detox diets can be especially unsafe for:

  • People with diabetes, because they might develop extremely low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia

  • Children, teens, and pregnant women, who need calories and protein for growth

  • Older adults, who often have a hard enough time getting all the nutrients they need from their normal diet

  • People who take medication or are under a doctor’s care for a medical condition, including heart disease, kidney diseasecancer, arthritis, digestive disorders, obesity, or infection

Other ways to banish toxins

The nutrients in healthy foods help your body’s natural detox systems work. For instance, vitamin E helps your lungs detoxify harmful substances in cigarette smoke and polluted air. Vitamin C protects cells against damaging compounds that form when food is broken down. Other dietary tips for avoiding toxins include:

  • Consume a balanced diet with plenty of phytochemical-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

  • Avoid processed foods, which can be high in fat, sodium, added sugars, and food additives.

  • Consider buying organic produce, grass-fed beef, and organically raised poultry.

  • Don’t eat fish that have high levels of mercury, such as ahi tuna, orange roughy, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark.

You can also take steps to limit your exposure to toxins:

  • Don’t smoke.

  • To decrease indoor air pollution, use environmentally safe cleaning products and keep rooms well-ventilated.

  • Avoid exercising outdoors when air pollution levels are high.

Key takeaways

  • The premise of detox diets is that your body needs help clearing away toxins.

  • Currently, there’s no evidence that a detox program aids the release of toxins from fat tissue and organs.

  • Detox diets can cause problems such as dehydration, loss of muscle, nutrient deficiencies, and harmful metabolic changes.

  • To banish toxins from your body safely, eat plenty of phytochemical-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods, consider buying organic produce, and don’t eat fish that have high levels of mercury.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 31, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Deconstructing Detox Treatments: Myth or Health Restorative? Salomon, S.B. Environmental Nutrition. 2010;33(1):1,6.
  2. Detox and Cleansing Diets: Fact or Fiction? Current Issues (Canadian Dietetic Association). January 2007;1-4.
  3. Vitamin C. Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-QuickFacts/
  4. Vitamin E. Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-QuickFacts/?print=1
  5. I Have Type 1 Diabetes. Can I Do a Detox Program? American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/ask-the-expert/ask-the-dietitian/arc...
  6.  The Truth about Detox Diets. Food Fact Sheet. Johnson, A. British Dietetics Association. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/tiredness-and-fatigue/Documents/TruthDetoxDiets.pdf
  7. Spring Cleansing: Assessing the Benefits and Risks of Detox Diets. Schaeffer, J. Today’s Dietitian. 2008;10(5):34. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/tdmay2008pg34.shtml

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