Detox Diets: Helpful or Harmful??

 Detox diets are all the rage right now despite the lack of research on their effectiveness.  There are many types of detox diets that are popular.  Some examples include:

  • Excluding all solid foods
  • Only eating fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking special drinks (i.e. a mixture of lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper)
  • Taking herbal supplements, laxatives or enemas

Just as there are many types of detox diets, there are also many reasons why people decide to try these diets.  Some people do it to lose weight, others do it to “detoxify their system” and yet others for religious reasons.  The later of which seems to be the only valid reason to go on a detox diet.

For weight loss, these diets are usually ineffective.  Yes, it is true that most people will lose weight on detox diets, but this will likely be regained when people go back to their normal eating patterns and most people will end up with a less desirable body composition (less muscle and more fat). These diets are usually very low in calories (so you are losing some fat weight), but they also provide insufficient protein and carbohydrates (so you are also losing muscle and water weight). The following is an example of what happens with 20 pounds of rapid weight loss:

Loss In Weight Gain back
10 lbs water 10 lbs water
5 lbs fat 10 lbs fat
5 lbs muscle 0 muscle

As you can see, you end up with less muscle and more fat after the diet.  The muscle loss ends up slowing down the metabolism which lowers calorie needs.  This is why it can get more difficult to lose weight after yo-yo dieting.

As for detoxification, our body has its own built-in detoxification system…the kidneys, liver and intestinal tract.  Some proponent of detox diets suggest that you need to give your system “a break” so that the cells in your intestinal tract can rid themselves of toxins and regenerate.  However, these cells are constantly regenerating at a rapid rate (even without detoxifying the system) and I would have to ask if you would ever consider giving your heart or lungs “a break”?  If not, I wouldn’t worry about giving the other organs a break.

For a healthy individual, following a liquid diet or eating only fruits and vegetable for 3-5 days will probably not cause harm.  However, following any extreme diet for long periods of time can lead to nutrient deficiencies or more serious problems.  Taking laxatives can lead to dependence and some herbal substances can be very dangerous, especially when combined with certain medications.  People with medical issues need to be even more careful.  For example, a person with diabetes could end up with hypoglycemia (low blood sugars) within a few hours on some of these extreme diets.  Physician supervision is always recommended for any extreme diet or adding laxatives, herbal supplements or enemas.

If you really want to keep your intestinal tract “cleaned out”, I would recommend a diet that is high in fiber and drinking plenty of water on a regular basis.  (Unlike detox diets, there is a lot of scientific evidence behind this recommendation.  Please see my post on the benefits of fiber.)  If you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume, but a more moderate approach (i.e. creating a 100-500 calorie deficit per day)is much safer and much easier to maintain in the long run.