I decided to write about detox diets because of the controversy surrounding them in the nutrition world. I’ve heard many nutrition experts say they are great but I have also heard others view detox diets as nonsense. I believe that my article may not be welcomed by all, but I am more than happy to hear your thoughts on this.
Elements of a detox diet
The idea of detoxing is a popular trend in the health and beauty world. The idea behind detoxing is that in order to stay healthy, we need to clear ‘toxic waste’ from our body. Regimens vary, but they generally involve a juice fast lasting days or weeks and often involve:
- fasting for short periods of time
- consuming only fruits and vegetables
- cutting out wheat and dairy foods
- consuming a limited range of foods such as meat
- avoiding caffeine and alcohol
- “detoxifying” supplements for e.g. bitter formulas
The most common claim is that a regimen detoxifies the liver. Some of the other claims made in relation to detox diets include:
- more energy & weight loss
- improved digestion
- improved hair, nails and skin
- boosting of the immune system
The upside of detox diets
Fruit & Vegetables-Detox diets often promote the benefits of fruits and vegetables, which are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet and we should all eat at least five portions a day.
Hydration-Detox diets also often promote drinking water, which is a healthy habit.
Abstaining from unhealthy habits– Another positive of ‘detox diets’, is that it discourages excessive intakes of caffeine, alcohol and high-fat, high-sugar foods. Cutting out bad eating habits and helping the body eliminate waste more easily makes good sense.
Bitter formulas & digestive health– Bitter formulas are various concoctions made from bitter and digestion-enhancing herbs and have been found to promote digestive health (by stimulating digestion and increasing bile secretion & function). Moreover, there is some evidence that milk thistle which is a type of bitters, contains silymarin that has antifibrotic activity (thus protecting the liver) ¹.
The downside of detox diets
The science behind it
Despite the popularity, there doesn’t seem to be much scientific research & evidence on this type of diet². I did a literature research on detox diets and really struggled to find anything and what I did find was mainly animal research, where results are not always transferable to humans. Furthermore, another issue is the theory behind detox diets. There isn’t much light shed on which toxins detox diets are removing and there isn’t a before & after assessment, in terms of how much toxins have been removed after the diet. Also, there is an issue with the scientific rationale to back up the mechanisms by which detox diets work. For example:
-Sugar is often considered a toxin, but forms of sugar (juice and maple syrup) are used to detoxify.
-It is assumed that the liver, the organ responsible for detoxification, gets clogged up & needs to be detoxified; but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of high quality scientific research to support this claim.
Dietary restrictions & fasting.
Excluding whole food groups from your diet makes it difficult to meet nutritional needs and can be dangerous, especially for children, adolescents, pregnant or breastfeeding women and older adults.
Detox diets often promote excluding wheat and dairy products to detox. However, these foods provide us with important nutrients and it’s potentially harmful to simply cut them from the diet especially if you are not replacing them with other foods to replace the lost nutrients.
Detox diets also often promote fasting, which will limit the intake of calories and important nutrients needed for health and wellbeing. Rapid weight loss can occur, but this weight loss is largely water and glycogen (the body’s carbohydrate stores), rather than fat. Also, if after finishing the detox diet you return to your old eating habits, you are likely to put back on any weight you lost and possibly more. In fact, the deprivation during fasting may result in an impulsive return to junk-food eating³ .
Due to dietary restriction including fasting, symptoms of being on a detox diet could potentially include headaches or migraines (commonly due to caffeine withdrawal), flatulence, runny or loose bowel motions, constant hunger, fatigue, inability to concentrate & skin outbreaks.
Detox diets do promote some healthy habits and there is evidence that bitters, especially milk thistle used to detox, can be beneficial to the liver and improve digestion.
However, in my opinion, I don’t think detox diets are necessary. I don’t believe that there is enough scientific research & evidence to support the usefulness of a detox diet. If you are a healthy individual, your liver & other organs should function efficiently enough to remove toxins from the body. In addition, the American Dietetic Association warns that there is no scientific evidence to suggest our bodies need ‘help’ to remove these toxins.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the claims made about detox diets is that they:
- detoxify the liver
- give you more energy & weight loss
- improve digestion
- improve hair, nails and skin
- boost the immune system
However, I feel that these claims are all things that could be obtained by simply having a healthy diet & lifestyle. Rather than a detox diet, the best way to detox, is to stop eating unhealthily & ingesting chemicals that are poisonous to the body and that the liver has to eliminate.
My tips to feeling healthier & reducing toxins
- Cut down on alcohol- ethanol in alcohol is toxic to the body, so ensure your intake is within the government recommendations.
- Cut down on sugary foods & drinks.
- Cut down on saturated fat and added salt.
- Don’t smoke.
- Avoid processed foods.
- Don’t eat burnt foods.
- Drink more water.
- If possible, choose organic foods⁴
- Increase your fibre and wholegrain intake.
- Increase your fruit & vegetable intake.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day.