Do Detox Diets Really Work?

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November 6, 2018
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Although wildly popular for weight loss, detoxes are not all the same—or even effective.


Do Detox Diets Really Work
The promise behind a detox sounds enticing: Rid yourself of what ails you—a few extra pounds, an illness, that “blah” feeling—by downing a few healthy drinks. From Oprah to Beyoncé, celebrities have given various detoxes their star-studded stamp of approval.

But are these diets too good to be true? In most cases, yes.

Generally, a detox diet is defined as “a temporary eating style designed to rid the body of toxins,” explains Isabel Maples, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

People tend to turn to detoxes when they want to lose weight, feel healthier, or simply give their digestive system a rest. One survey found that cleanses and detoxes are often used to treat patients under naturopathic care as preventive medicine or for environmental exposures, gastrointestinal disorders, or autoimmune diseases.

The diets themselves vary widely. Some detox diets eliminate inflammatory foods, such as sugar, dairy, gluten, alcohol, and caffeine. Some involve drinking juices or “detox” teas. Others involve more drastic measures, such as laxatives, enemas, or colon cleanses.

What Detoxes Do and Don’t Do

Unfortunately, research on the weight loss and health-boosting effects of detox diets in humans is sparse, and many health experts have deemed them all hype.

But here’s the thing: Our bodies do need to detox. Every day, we encounter a variety of pollutants during the course of our daily activities, such as pumping gas, using dryer sheets, and even applying makeup, says Brittany Scanniello, a registered dietitian.

Our bodies remove those toxins naturally—no drastic diet required. “Our bodies already have detox systems in place: the liver, intestines, kidneys, and skin,” Maples explains. In other words, we get rid of toxins when we go to the bathroom and sweat.

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As for the claim that detoxes give our digestive systems a rest? That’s not necessary for most people, Maples says. She explains that individuals with certain diseases, like ulcerative colitis, may require a gut rest via a modified diet. But in these cases, it’s important to consult a physician before trying any cleanse or detox.

Finally, you may have heard of intermittent fasting, which is another type of detox diet that people turn to primarily to lose weight. During intermittent fasting, people alternate between periods of eating and not eating to give their bodies time to completely process the calories they consume.

This type of diet may be beneficial, but not for weight loss, Scanniello notes. A study published in the Annual Review of Nutrition found that certain fasting plans were linked to decreases in insulin levels, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, and overall body inflammation. Another study in the journal PLOS One found a link between intermittent fasting and a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Intermittent fasting can be difficult for people who are especially active, and it can even be harmful to those with diabetes, so be sure to consult with your doctor before giving it a try.

How to Detox the Natural Way

If done right, a detox can actually help you stay on track with your health and generally feel better, says Scanniello. Plus, you may feel more in control of your eating habits, Maples notes.

However, both Maples and Scanniello recommend avoiding juice or tea cleanses, which eliminate the vitamins, minerals, and protein that are important for your overall health. Think of the proper way to “detox” as a diet that provides the best nutrients possible, thereby allowing your body to do its job in an efficient way, she suggests.

In other words, eat a diet that’s rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, says Scanniello. At the same time, limit grains, dairy, sugar, and alcohol. Commit to it for a day, and then week, and then a month. Soon, you’ll have developed a healthier way of eating, no detox required.

“This type of clean-eating diet,” Scanniello says, “will give your body everything it needs to cleanse and recharge.”

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