We live in a quick fix society. Detox diets or ‘cleansing’ diets are widely advocated by many who supply nutrition advice and products. These are often based around ‘juicing’, and are marketed to appeal to people who feel guilty about the content of their regular diet.

So is it a quick fix, or even a fix at all?

In this article I will look at the scientific basis of these protocols and whether it is possible to actually detox or cleanse your body? Detoxing or cleansing are actually interchangeable terms so while I will use detox, it equally applies to cleansing.

What is a detox and what are we detoxing from?

A major problem with the concept of detoxing is that there is no specific definition of what it is. This can lead to people claiming mystical benefits about detoxing that are not evidence based.

Those who advocate detoxing or detox diets argue that the goal of a detox is to eliminate toxins by flushing them out through a combination of calorie restriction and a liquid-only diet. These are often aimed at specific organs such as the liver or colon.

These liquid-only diets are usually fruit and vegetable based. Some are unhealthily restrictive like the Master Cleanse, which prescribes six to twelve glasses daily of lemonade containing maple syrup and cayenne pepper. It is claimed by it’s creator that it will remove toxins from the body, and support the “elimination of every kind of disease.”

Whichever version of these protocols you care to look at they are all based around the premise that because we are exposed to a cocktail of pesticides, pollutants and additives daily or are inadequate at flushing out these toxins, we accumulate them within the body.

While it is true that we are exposed to these toxins (we even choose to take toxins like alcohol and drugs) and we do store some of them, the human body is remarkably resilient at dealing with low levels of toxins on a constant basis. Our livers, kidneys, skin, lungs and immune systems remove most potentially harmful substances and excrete them along with our own waste products.

The body does this whether or not we include detox products in our diets. Since most of these diets are based around fruit and vegetables, why not just make sure you consume lots of vegetables and a little fruit in your diet all the time.

In fact, not only are you being sold a pup by detox diet advocates, but many of them can’t even name the toxins that are targeted by their treatments, define accurately the process of detoxing or provide evidence of their efficacy.

While there is no doubt that the body can store toxins, such as some heavy metals or some other fat soluble substances that are stored in soft tissues or fat cells, there is no evidence that any of the most commonly promoted detox protocols have any effect on removing these toxins.  

This begs the question as to why some people feel better and lose weight on these protocols. They no doubt feel better in the short term because they are eating a more nutrient dense vegetable and fruit based diet rather than what is their normally lower nutrient diet. However, continued use of very low calorie diets, no matter how good the content, will soon leave you feeling much worse. 

Any weight loss generally occurs due to the low calorie nature of these diets, however, most of this loss will be glycogen and water weight and reversed once the person returns to their more regular diet.

There are some substances identified that warrant further investigation for their potential ability to increase the natural removal of toxins. There has been some promise shown by a number of things like coriander, chlorella, citric acid, selenium, mallic acid and citrus pectin. However, to date any evidence has been mainly restricted to studies on rodents, so the same effects may not be shown in humans.

Steer well clear of any detox programme that involves laxatives, diuretics or ‘cleansing foods’. These are quack programmes and don’t deserve your attention.

Another important point to consider is why these diets are so appealing? Most are based around the promise of purification and redemption, ideals that are deep-rooted in our society and psychology. Parallels can be seen between detoxing and the many forms of fasting that are popular. It is also a practice adopted by many religions at certain points of the year.   

At the root of detoxing and it’s appeal is in its promise to free you from guilt, sin and contamination. Equating any of those emotions with food is unhealthy and can lead to people adopting more and more extreme diets and develop a disordered relationship with food and eating.

At the end of the day the best thing to do is lead as healthy and active a lifestyle as you can, with a diet that includes quality sources of protein and fat, vegetables, fruit and lots of water. Do that and you have no need for any kind of detox or cleanse. 

Published by Neil Elbourne