Myth: ‘Detox diets are a good way to promote health, rid our bodies of ‘toxins’, and lose weight’
What are they?
It’s hard to escape advertisements for detox diets, especially following periods of indulgence like Christmas, or in preparation for the summer holidays. The reason why these detox plans are so popular is that people are often desperate for a quick fix, and companies are ready to exploit this commercially.
These diets are often advertised as a quick-and-simple way to achieve a number of goals, such as weight loss, improved digestion, increased energy levels, boosted immune system, and even cellulite reduction.
Rather than focusing on healthy eating, they tend to involve a highly restrictive diet for a short period of time. This could include:
- only eating fruits and vegetables
- only consuming liquids
- taking herbal supplements or laxatives
- cutting out food groups
- eliminating alcohol or caffeine.
It’s worth noting that there is a difference between making healthy changes and going on a detox diet. For example, reducing our intake of ultra-processed foods, such as crisps, biscuits, or cakes, will always benefit our health. However, there is little scientific evidence for a drastic detox diet positively impacting our health in the short or long term.
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Do they work?
It’s not that these diets don’t work for weight loss. They will work. However, what we’d strongly argue is that they are the wrong way of losing weight. Plus, the weight you lose won’t stay off.
You’ll most likely experience some short-term weight loss with any form of strict detox diet. The main reasons for this are:
You’ll be consuming a lower amount of total calories. Your body will also go into fasting mode for extended periods of the day.
You’re reducing your intake of high-calorie foods with little nutritional value such as ultra-processed foods and alcohol.
While they may result in rapid weight loss in the short term, these diets aren’t helpful when we look at the bigger picture of long term health. Arguably, the biggest problem with extended detox diets is that you lose muscle mass.
The lack of protein contained in fruit and vegetable juices will cause your muscles to waste away. So, while you’ve lost overall weight (which appears good on the surface), you’ve also lost muscle mass (which is bad). This will reduce your longer-term metabolism, meaning that you will burn fewer calories at rest.
The goal of weight loss is to reduce body fat while maintaining muscle levels. This is achieved by ensuring you are consuming a portion of protein at main meals and doing a variety of resistance exercises.
So in theory, detox diets will result in short-term weight loss, which isn’t sustained in the long term, and will reduce our muscle mass. But what does the science say?
A review published by the British Association for Dietetics highlighted that there’s no clinical evidence supporting the effectiveness of detox diets for long-term weight loss.
However, there’s data suggesting that when we dramatically reduce our energy intake (as we would with a detox diet), our body adapts to try and conserve energy.
As a result, we experience a compensatory increase in appetite and a decrease in energy expenditure. This often leads to a plateau in weight loss, after the initial short-term weight loss, and even subsequent weight gain when we return to normal eating patterns.
- Detox diets are normally very restrictive and will usually result in short-term weight loss.
- Detox diets lack protein, which leads to a reduction in muscle mass.
- In the long-term, the loss of muscle combined with the compensatory increase in appetite and decrease in energy expenditure will most likely lead to a weight loss plateau or even weight gain.
Removing ‘toxins’ from the body
There is no scientific evidence supporting the need for a detox diet to eliminate ‘toxins’. This idea isn’t logical and doesn’t make biological sense.
The human body has very complex systems that take care of any detoxing. These include the kidneys, liver, digestive system, immune system, lungs, and even skin. If there were toxins left floating around our body that weren’t being removed by these systems, we’d feel extremely unwell and most likely be hospitalised.
On top of this, the term ‘toxin’ is regularly used but poorly defined. Many diets claim to ‘rid your body of toxins’ but they don’t actually name what these toxins are or why detox diets get rid of them. Conventionally, ‘toxins’ relate to drugs or alcohol in the medical world. However, in the commercial world, anything can be called a ‘toxin’, which makes it challenging to explore specific claims.
Ironically, if we take a number of herbal supplements and/or fast for an extended period of time it can actually end up damaging our health. With very little evidence behind and definition around detox diets, we can’t say for sure that any particular one that promotes supplementation is safe in the long-term.
- The idea that our body needs help removing ‘toxins’ makes no biological sense.
- The term ‘toxin’ is used often in commercial diets but poorly defined.
- Supplementation, even of herbal remedies, can be dangerous.
More reasons to question detox cleanses
- Detox diets set you up with the wrong attitudes and behaviours about weight loss. Living an unhealthy lifestyle for the majority of the year and then trying to fix this with spontaneous detox diets isn’t a healthy or sustainable approach.
- If you buy detox diets from a company, they are expensive. You are unnecessarily wasting your money, especially considering there’s no strong evidence they work or do anything.
- Maintaining a balanced and varied diet ensures that you won’t be deficient in vitamins. It’s unnecessary to do a detox diet with the rationale that you are loading up on vitamins. Water-soluble vitamins are actually excreted in the urine when consumed in excessive amounts and increasing your intake won’t provide any additional health benefits.
- If you’re hugely restricting your calorie intake for a short period of time (a few days or a week), you’ll likely feel weak, irritable, and low on energy. This doesn’t seem worthwhile if there’s no evidence for benefits.
Alternatives to detox diets
If you’re looking to improve your health, lose weight, or increase your energy levels, the best way to do this is to focus on eating varied, healthy, satisfying meals. Our diet plan guide shows an example of how to build healthy meals, alongside an example 7-day diet plan.
Eating a lower carbohydrate diet can also help promote weight loss and reduce our chances of developing lifestyle diseases.
Overall, eating a balanced, lower carbohydrate diet is more likely to result in long-term, sustainable weight loss than any detox diet. You also won’t feel weak, or irritable if you’re eating healthily rather than restricting your bodies’ energy intake.
Take home message
- Detox diets promote reducing/eliminating ultra-processed foods as well as alcohol for a period of time, which is obviously a healthy move.
- There is no scientific research supporting the notion of ‘cleansing’ your body of ‘toxins’.
- ‘Toxins’ are very poorly defined, which makes it challenging to make any concrete conclusions about the benefits of any detox diets.
- You can reduce unhealthy, processed foods without going to the extreme of a detox diet.
- Focusing on building healthy, balanced meals, and following a satisfying, lower-carb diet will result in more long-term weight loss and improvement in health compared with a detox diet.