Detox diets: Are they a path to better health — or just a fad?
by David Kates
‘Get to know a diet’ is a weekly series that takes a closer look at some well-known diet trends. This week, we ask a dietitian and a nutritionist about detoxification diets.
Of all the popular diet regimens touted in recent years, few have inspired more books,celebrity endorsements — and controversy — than detoxification (or “detox”) diets. What’s it all about? We take a closer look.
What is a detoxification diet?
The first and most important thing to know about detoxification is that it’s a natural process: the body, at the cellular level but particularly through the liver, kidneys, skin and digestive system, has its own built-in mechanism for processing and excreting toxic substances.
Detox diets purport to help that natural process function more efficiently, by adopting a strict, short-term diet regimen often comprising fruits, vegetables, nuts, juices and nutritional supplements. It is based on the premise that the compounds in certain foods can help boost the body’s natural detoxification capabilities, while others might hinder it.
“You start with eliminating certain foods, like processed foods, sugar, gluten — foods that you might have some sensitivity to — any chemicals in your food, preservatives, additives,” says functional nutritionist Josh Gitalis.
Other foods that are typically out during a detox program are: meat, dairy and eggs; added sugars, carbs and starchy vegetables; alcohol; and coffee. Given that there are dozens of such programs currently out there, the specifics vary and occasionally include fasting or the promotion of laxatives and enemas to “cleanse” the colon.
How do you know if it’s working? According to Gitalis, progress is measured at regular intervals by analyzing toxin levels in blood, urine or stool. The duration of a detox program depends on the practitioner’s determination of the participant’s progress.
“Let’s say we did an initial test and discovered there were some heavy metals, for example,” he says. “We can do a detoxification protocol for three months, which would be a fair trial. And then we would re-test to see where the levels are at at that point.”
The benefits of detox diets
In the long run, regular detoxification (Gitalis usually recommends once or twice a year) is supposed to help your body function more efficiently. The benefits, Gitalis says, are wide-ranging and often immediate.
“People will experience weight loss when they detoxify; more energy, better sleep,” he says. “They might have more focus, all sorts of things. It really varies from person to person.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit, according to Gitalis, is that these diets highlight the connections between our health and our environment.
“People need to clean up their environment – what they put in their body via food, what they put on their body with skin products – because what we put on our skin ends up in our bloodsream,” he says. “What we clean our homes with, what we wash our bodies with, what kind of things we wear, et cetera. Eliminating these toxins as much as possible becomes probably one of the first and most important steps in making sure that they don’t damage our health.”
Whether these are benefits either specific to, or resulting from, detox diets, however, is disputed by most physicians and dietitians.
A question of evidence
“There is very little in the peer-reviewed literature to support the many health claims associated with detox diets,” wrote the authors of a December 2014 critical review in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. “A handful of clinical studies have shown that commercial detox diets enhance liver detoxification and eliminate persistent organic pollutants from the body, although these studies are hampered by flawed methodologies and small sample sizes.”
The authors concluded by calling for further study: “To the best of our knowledge, no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans. This is an area that deserves attention so that consumers can be informed of the potential benefits and risks of detox programs.”
Furthermore, many of the reported benefits — more energy, weight loss, and better sleep, for instance — may simply be a result of the strict diet regimen, rather than anything related to detoxification.
“We have to agree that any potential weight loss that may occur would occur in any hypocaloric diet or energy restriction, and that it will almost certainly be regained once one’s usual diet is resumed,” says Tammy Fansabedian, a registered dietitian.
Any highly restrictive “crash” diet is going to carry with it some risks. Detox diets are no different.
“Just as we cannot correct our overall health in a few days or weeks, a few days of juicing, for example, is not going to create any nutritional imbalance in a generally healthy person,” says Fansabedian. “If we go beyond a few days or weeks, we can start to have a reduction in our metabolic rate and a lack of key nutrients.”
These problems can be amplified for anyone with pre-existing health concerns. Fansabedian points out that detoxification diets can cause immediate changes in blood pressure, blood sugar and electrolyte balance, and may even interfere with a patient’s existing medication. These risks are even higher if a detox diet requires fasting or an enema.
A worthy end, regardless of the means?
There is, perhaps, some value in some of the underlying message behind detoxification: that we — as consumers, but also as food producers, regulators and health care professionals — should pay closer attention to how pollutants in our environment affect our food supply and, ultimately, our health. We know that these are interconnected in many ways, and that often our health is negatively impacted.
That basic premise is widely accepted, and yet we’re still learning how to respond to these challenges. Detox diets are one such response, the popularity of which is a testament to growing public concern around these issues. Whether these diets are an effective remedy, however, remains uncertain.
Ultimately, what’s most important is a healthy diet and lifestyle. If a detoxification diet serves as a periodic check on one’s eating habits and provides a catalyst for greater awareness about nutrition and a long-term resolve to eat a more balanced diet rich in whole foods, then it can be of some benefit. But it is neither the best way, nor the only way, to achieve that objective.