Detox Diets Part 1: Do Detox Diets Really Work?
AUTHOR: Cliff Harvey, PhD (Clinical Nutritionist & Naturopath)
Detox diets are a fixture of the alternative and complementary health scene. They are extremely common and very popular but do detox diets really work? And if they do, do detox diets work as claimed to help the body eliminate dangerous and damaging toxins?
Let’s look at what the science says…
What Is A Detox Diet?
Detox diets and programs were once more commonly known as liver cleanses. They are typically promoted to rapidly ‘cleanse’ the body of toxins, usually through a combination of fasting or food restriction, and use of various nutrients and herbs to support the liver and other detoxification pathways of the body.
What Are Toxins?
Toxins are poisonous substances that are produced either within the body or by another organism (synthetically created ‘toxins’ are technically called toxicants). While they sound scary (and some are!), many toxic chemicals are actually produced as part of normal bodily processes. In fact, it is not uncommon for tiny amounts of toxins to be ingested as part of a normal healthy diet, or as a result of environmental exposure. So, it’s important to remember the old adage, the dose defines the poison!
Read our article ‘How Dangerous are Common Toxins?’ to learn more about common toxins and their effect on the body.
How Does The Body Detoxify?
Due to the creation of some toxic by-products in the body from metabolic processes, and the inevitability of exposure to some toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the environment, the body has developed sophisticated detoxification pathways to excrete these chemicals. The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin and lungs all play various roles in the excretion of toxins, with various processes such as methylation, metabolism and conjugation used to produce chemical end-products that can be more easily excreted. Some chemicals are difficult to convert to excretable forms and can accumulate in the body, especially in fat tissue (like organophosphate pesticides and herbicides, and heavy metals).
Do Detox Diets Work?
This is an interesting question. In order to answer this, we must first understand more about the outcomes of different detox diets (the ones that have been studied at least) and whether the diets work because of, or despite of their claims.
Do Detox Diets Help The Body Eliminate Toxins?
There has been limited research conducted on the many detox diets available. A 2014 review published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics highlighted the lack of thorough, scientifically robust studies on various detox diets. While one study noted a significant improvement in self-reported symptoms associated with poor health, no placebo control was used and other outcome measures (including some markers of phase 1 and 2 liver detoxification) did not significantly differ between groups. Other studies suffered from similar methodological flaws such as lack of a control group, no randomization, or inconsistencies in comparison groups1.
Will A Detox Help Me Lose Weight?
Many people do lose weight on detox diets. It is often claimed that this is because ‘toxins’ encourage the storage of fat, but in all likelihood, it is actually because while following a restrictive detox diet a person simply eats less. Most detox diets involve some combination of fasting, extreme food restriction or elimination of common foods, all of which result in less energy intake. As an example, a 2015 study demonstrated that the ‘Lemon Detox’ diet did help women to lose weight, but this effect was most likely due to calorie-restriction6.
Let’s face it, any time you drastically restrict calories you will lose weight…and this aspect of detox diets has little to do with toxins.
Can Certain Nutrients Improve Innate Detoxification?
While it’s unlikely that specific detox diets will help you to lose weight or detoxify any more than an otherwise good diet based on whole, natural, and unrefined foods, some nutrients might help the body to support its own innate detoxification processes and reduce the damage that toxins may cause.
Many nutrients help to support our innate detox pathways and either reduce the toxins that we accumulate or improve their elimination from the body. These include spirulina2,3,4,11,12 and chlorella10,11,12, dandelion4, folate5, alpha-lipoic acid9, glycine1 (in high doses), and a combination treatment of methionine, vitamin C and thiamine8.
The Bottom Line
It is unlikely that a detox diet will help you to remove toxins from the body or lose more weight than a good nutrition plan. Eating a whole-food diet that is rich in nutrients and low in toxins and toxicants will help to support the health and performance of the body and support your natural detoxification pathways. Additionally, certain nutrients found in the diet, or supplements could also be of benefit to the amazing, innate, natural detoxification pathways of the human body.