It’s easy to toss the word “detox” or “cleansing” into a health ad. Whether it’s Dr Oz describing the “cleansing” effects of his 10-day detox diets, health spas that claim their aromatherapies trigger the body’s “detox mode” or even dive shops espousing the “detoxifying” effects of salt water, it can be hard to avoid the terms.
But what do those words mean, exactly? What toxins are cleanse diets supposedly detoxing? And are these approaches actually healthy?
The short answers to those questions are “nothing”, “nothing” and “no”.
Although cleanse and/or detox diets may help people lose weight, there is no evidence to suggest that they are any more effective than ordinary diets and exercise plans, and you may actually deprive your body of critical nutrients while you’re trying to “purge” all that bad stuff that’s meant to be lurking inside of you.
Nobody really knows what a toxin is
Most “cleanse” diets don’t actually define what, exactly, is being cleansed. Instead, they use vague language like “impurities”, “chemicals” and “scrubbing the body clean”.
So what are toxins, exactly? The medical definition includes things that are literally poisonous to the body – common examples are nicotine and alcohol. Fortunately, your body has a liver, kidneys, lungs and other time-tested equipment for filtering out and breaking down these chemicals.
You can’t actually “flush” things out of your “system”
Saturated fat, processed sugar and cholesterol often get tossed into the “toxin” basket as well. While they might be unhealthy, there’s nothing actually poisonous about them, and no amount of carrot juice or hot yoga will make them magically vanish through your sweat or down the toilet.
Cleanse diets often eliminate vital nutrients
One hallmark of cleanse diets is that they cut entire categories of food, or even restrict you to a few, limited categories. Usually these are things that sound fresh and clean, so “yes” to citrus and leafy vegetables, “no” to potatoes, pork and beans. But the body needs the complete set of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals – cutting out whole nutritional swaths can harm other critical systems, such as your immune system or metabolism.
Fasting can be bad for you
Many cleanse diets restrict the amount of food you eat rather the amount, calling for partial or total fasts to give the body a chance to “clean itself out” or to “restart the metabolism”.
Of course, intermittent fasting as a way to cut down one’s calorie intake can be an effective weight loss tool, but it doesn’t give your kidneys or liver any help with detoxing. Long-term fasting can also have seriously bad effects on the body, including the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which itself is very harmful (one might even call it a “toxin”).
Juice cleansing is definitely bad for you
Many cleanse diets are all-liquid, usually calling for special smoothies of fruits, veggies, milk, eggs, yogurt and other blendable ingredients. While smoothies can be simple, easy and very nutritious, there is nothing particularly “cleansing” about drinking a liquid versus eating a solid food. In fact, the act of chewing causes the body to release important digestive enzymes.
Perhaps the most popular of these liquid diets are juice cleanses, which call for nothing but juice (and maybe herbal tea). Unfortunately, while juice contains vitamins and minerals, pure juice lacks most of the fibre that actually does play a role in cleaning the digestive tract. The high sugar content is a fast-track to weight gain.
Detox diets have basically no backing in science
“There isn’t any convincing evidence that detox or cleansing programs actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health,” according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Detox diets might help you lose weight, but regular dieting works, too
“Almost everything that makes you think about what you’re intaking will make you a healthier person,” said Maria Konnikova, science writer for the New Yorker, when discussing the detox fad.
Many fad diets seem to work, but it is difficult to tell if there is something special about the diet itself or if its adherents are simply beginning to watch what they eat.
The moral of the story: Don’t detox. Just diet.
The best way to cleanse your body of impurities is to put fewer of them into it. That means cutting back on alcohol, processed foods and (for smokers) nicotine, and giving your body the nutrition it needs to perform its own filtration.