“By restricting what you eat for a period of time you can rid your body of any built-up toxins, and probably shed a few pounds while you are at it.” With ads for various versions of the so-called detox diets appearing in magazines, health food stores, and on the Internet, detox diets are hard to ignore. It’s no wonder then, that as other diets have come and gone, the popularity of detox diets has remained. But do these diets really work?
The concept of detoxifying one’s body through diet has been around for centuries. Today, there is a plethora of detox diets—from one-day fasts to five-day juice diets to three-week detox programs. Although the diets may differ, what they all have in common is a focus on severe food restriction for a limited time period.
The Case for the Detox Diet
The main premise of detox diets is that detoxification through diet is the only way to rid our bodies of the chemicals and toxins that seep into our bodies through air, food, and water on a daily basis. Proponents believe that if not removed, these toxins build up, eventually leading to damage and diseases like cancer.
Although there are thousands of variations on the detox diet, the most common type allows fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, but not other commonly eaten foods such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. A variation on this is the juice diet, which allows only juiced vegetables and some fruits. Finally, there is fasting, which basically means consuming only water, although in some cases herbal teas and fruit juices are okay. It should be noted that fasting is also commonly done for religious or spiritual reasons, not just for health.
Advocates of detox diets claim that following the diet will result in benefits such as:
- Improved complexion
- Weight loss
- Decreased bloating
While these may be real benefits of a detox diet, it is interesting to note that the most likely explanations are not so mysterious. Weight loss and decreased bloating can both be attributed to calorie deprivation. Less salt intake will also decrease bloating.
Scientific Evidence Lacking
To date, there has been little research on the various detoxification diets, and as a result, there is no scientific support for or against any of their health claims. Instead, both pro and con arguments rely on what is known about the functioning of the human body, as well as toxicology (the study of toxins).
What we do know is that certain components of many of the detox diets are actually quite healthful, including:
- Focus on fruits and vegetables—It is not new news that fruits and vegetables are healthful, and the most recent dietary guidelines have upped the recommended daily servings for these foods. For example, the Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate project recommends using them to make up half your plate. These nutritious options are low in calories and packed with vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants that all work to promote health and fight disease
- Reduced calorie intake—Detoxification diets reduce total calorie intake by eliminating whole groups of food, such as meat and dairy. Since most Americans consume too many calories, reducing total calorie intake a bit would be beneficial and most likely lead to gradual weight loss. The catch is that these diets often reduce calories too much, which may lead to nutritional deficiencies and side effects such as fatigue and headaches.
The Body’s Way of Detoxifying
Our bodies are remarkable systems that filter out toxins on an ongoing basis. The organs responsible for detoxification are the liver, lungs, kidneys, and skin. When nutrients and other substances enter the body the first place they go is the liver, which filters out and eliminates harmful toxins such as drugs and alcohol. Additionally, the kidneys filter out wastes by creating urine for excretion. The skin allows us to sweat out toxins, and the lungs allow us to filter the air that we breathe.
Since our bodies are primarily water—around 60%—it makes sense that staying hydrated through drinking adequate amounts of water also helps us stay healthy. However, to date there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that extra water flushes out toxins.
If you still, despite their questionable benefits, decide to go on a detox diet, be sure to consult with your doctor first. Certain groups of people should never follow this type of diet, including children of all ages, pregnant women, and individuals with diabetes. Finally, because most detox diets severely limit calorie intake, vigorous exercise should be avoided while on these diets.
The Bottom Line
Without research available to support the claims made about detoxification diets, consumers should be skeptical.
Rather than going on a short-term detox diet, make healthful long-term changes to your diet such as eating a more plant-based diet, drinking more water, and cutting back on your caffeine and alcohol intake.
Choose My Plate—Department of Agriculture
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Dietitians of Canada
Are detox diets safe? Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/dieting/detox_diets.html. Updated September 2015. Accessed July 8, 2016.
Detox diet. Healthy Weight Forum website. Available at: http://www.healthyweightforum.org/eng/diets/detox-diet.asp. Accessed July 8, 2016.
Detox diet: methods, pros, cons, and safety. Every Diet website. Available at: http://www.diet-blog.com/16/detox-diet.php. Accessed July 8, 2016.
MyPlate daily checklist. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/MyPlate-Daily-Checklist. Accessed July 8, 2016.
The water in you. US Geological Survey website. Available at: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/propertyyou.html. Updated May 2, 2016. Accessed July 8, 2016.
Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 7/8/2016