The Truth About Detox Diets

Touted as a way to remove harmful toxins in the body and promote weight loss, detox diets are hotter than ever. Hollywood stars do it days before gracing the red carpet, Dr. Oz has his own formula, spa retreats feature them, and many diet books are based on detox beliefs.

But despite the popularity of detox diets, nutrition experts say they are neither necessary nor scientifically proven to work.

Frank Sacks, MD, a leading epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “There is no basis in human biology that indicates we need fasting or any other detox formula to detoxify the body because we have our own internal organs and immune system that take care of excreting toxins.”

What Is a Detox Diet?

Detox (short for detoxification) diets are extreme weight loss diet plans that claim to flush toxic chemicals from your body. Detoxing is based on the concept that your body needs help getting rid of unwanted toxins from contaminants in processed foods and the environment. In theory, once free of toxins, your body functions better and your metabolism soars so you can shed those extra pounds.

There are a variety of different detox diets. Most follow a pattern of very low calorie fasting with the addition of small amounts of fruits, vegetables, water, and assorted supplements. Some diets recommend herbs, pills, powders, enemas, and other forms of intestinal and colon cleansing. Methods vary and frequently include products that are only available from the author’s web site.

The underlying principle of detox diets and the selling of questionable products raises a red flag, says Washington University nutrition director, Connie Diekman, RD. “Detox diets prey on the vulnerability of dieters with fear tactics while gaining financially by selling products that are not necessary and potentially dangerous,” she says.

Do Detox Diets Work?

Yes and no.

Beyonce made the maple syrup, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper Master Cleanse formula (also known as the Lemonade Diet) famous when she dropped 20 pounds quickly for her role in Dreamgirls.  But she regained the weight soon after and, in interviews, warned dieters away from the regimen.

Weight loss occurs on most of these plans because they are so low in calories, says Diekman, past president of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “These fad diet detox plans are nothing more than a quick fix and not recommended for weight loss by registered dietitians,” she says.

When you dramatically reduce your calorie intake, you will lose weight. But doing so can also cause all kinds of health problems, including muscle loss. And when you start fasting, your body goes into conservation mode, burning calories more slowly.

Keep in mind that the initial weight lost on a fast is primarily fluid or “water weight” not fat. And when you go back to eating, any lost weight usually gets a return ticket. Not only do most people regain the lost weight from a fast, they tend to add a few extra pounds because a slower metabolism makes it easier to gain.

“Dieters end up in a worse place than where they started, and the weight that is regained is likely to be all fat,” Sacks, a cardiologist and researcher at Harvard Medical School, says. “Lost muscle has to be added back at the gym.”

Scientific Evidence Is Lacking

There is little scientific evidence that detoxification is necessary or effective for good health or weight loss. Sacks says, “Your body is designed to remove toxins efficiently with organs such as the kidneys, liver, and colon. You don’t need detox diets, pills, or potions to help your body do its job.”

Experts agree there is no credible science to support claims that detox diets work or that there’s any need for detoxification, lymphatic draining, and frequent bowel cleansing. There are no studies available to document the benefits. Instead, most claims are based on testimonials.

Detox Dangers

Some detox plans sound like a very scientific approach to cleansing your body of harmful substances.

Unfortunately, most detox diets lack the fundamentals that dietitians, doctors, and health authorities know are essential for weight loss and good health. The risks outweigh any benefits, making traditional detox diets both ineffective and potentially dangerous. Detox diets are based on unrealistic fears and dieters’ lack of understanding of how the body works.

Most people don’t feel good on low-calorie, nutrient-poor diets. Potential side effects include low energy, low blood sugar, muscle aches, fatigue, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and nausea. Prolonged fasting can lead to more serious health problems. Colon cleanses are not recommended because they can alter your body’s electrolyte and fluid balance.

Whether or not a detox diet is safe depends on the plan and how long you stay on it. Fasts lasting a day or two are unlikely to be harmful for most healthy adults. But high-risk people — the elderly, anyone with a chronic disease, pregnant women, and children — are advised against any type of fasting.

Healthier Way

You can detox in a healthy way, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author of Doctor’s Detox Diet. “Extremes like colonics, starvation, and prolonged juice cleanses are not recommended. But if you view detox diets as a way of ‘clean eating,’ then it means eating natural, less-processed foods that are closer to the earth without artificial ingredients,” she says.

Gerbstadt’s two-week plan encourages lots of water, whole fruits, vegetables, fiber, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. It allows 1,500 to 1,600 calories per day to help shed up to 3 pounds a week. “The plan is not restrictive, satisfies hunger, can be followed long-term, and focuses on getting more fluids and fiber and [limiting] alcohol,” Gerbstadt says.

Her list of the top natural detox foods includes: green leafy vegetables, lemons, watercress, green tea, broccoli sprouts, sesame seeds, cabbage, psyllium (powdered fiber), and fruits. “Beyond weight loss, minimally processed foods are healthy and nutrient-rich and contain fewer chemicals,” Gerbstadt says. “The fiber and fluids speed up transit time to relieve gastrointestinal issues like constipation.”

So instead of a detox fast, opt for a healthy diet plan that you can stick with long-term. Healthy diets provide at least 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day and include a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, beans, healthy fats, and plenty of fluids — along with regular physical activity.

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Expert Column

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. The opinions and conclusions expressed here are her own.


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