Written by Andrea Clares
As with every start to a new year, social media platforms, magazines and work and family chats become infiltrated with messages about starting the year with a detox diet (or cleanse) often in pursuit of weight loss. These detox or cleanses are sold as a quick-fix for weight gained throughout the year, or over the holiday period, or to "reset" after a period of over-indulgence over Christmas. So what are detox diets and are they really as miraculous as what we've been told?
What are detoxification, aka “detox” diets?
Detox diets or cleanses are popular approaches marketed as a solution or quick fix to help "detoxify" the body from a build-up of toxic substances and to support weight loss. These diets include different approaches such as fasting and meal replacement juices, supplements (usually quite expensive ones), diuretics, diets pills and laxatives (1). Be careful as some detox juices, teas and supplements are really just a laxative in disguise!
Is there evidence to support detox diets?
Currently, research around detox diets remains in its infancy with no robust evidence showing any health benefits for its use. What’s more, the few studies investigating the impact of detox diets lack strong clinical trials and reliable research methods including limited numbers of participants, no comparison groups and a high risk of bias from the use of self-reported questionnaires (2).
In terms of weight loss, studies remain highly controversial and inconclusive and although detoxes may seem effective in the short-term they’re unsustainable and certainly futile in the long-term. Remember that many of the claims that you might come across in the media around the effectiveness of detoxes for inducing weight loss, improving digestion or immunity, eliminating toxins and so forth are purely anecdotal and included for marketing purposes. If detox diets truly worked, everyone would be using them and qualified health professionals and the government would be advocating for them.
Associated health risks
Detox diets usually result in a significant reduction in energy intake over the course of several weeks or months. In the short-term, this might result in a significant decrease in weight. This is primarily due to the loss of water from glycogen (carbohydrate stores) depletion (3) and from an increase in bowel movements resulting from the use of laxatives.
The restrictive nature of detox diets can place dieters at an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, decreased metabolic rate, diarrhoea and abdominal pain (from laxatives), headaches, fatigue, poor concentration and nausea (a long list!). Many of these side effects are associated with semi-starvation which you can read more about here.
In extreme cases, more severe complications can occur such as lactic acidosis (an imbalance in the acid-base concentration of the blood) which can lead to coma and death (4). The part not often talked about is that most people who engage in detox diets or cleanses for weight loss, usually experience "re-bound" weight gain i.e. they regain all the weight originally lost because the diet is not sustainable and normal eating resumes without any long-term behaviour or diet change.
The best detox diet plan
The good news is that our body already has a sophisticated detox system! It's been protecting our bodies for thousands of years! Our incredible system of body organs and biological processes which include the liver, kidneys, gut, skin and lungs help to detoxify the body from unwanted substances such as waste products, alcohol and drugs... every day, all day!
A healthy balanced diet including lots of wholefoods and fresh fruits and vegetables, daily movement, adequate fluid intake and getting enough sleep are the best things you can do to support the functioning of these organs. These processes work more efficiently than any juice, supplement, expensive tea or restrictive detox diets you will find.
Remember that quick fixes including those marketed by commercial detox diets are likely to
1. Set you up for failure
2. Take your money without teaching you how to nourish your body for long-term health
3. Lead you to develop an unhealthy relationship to food.
Andrea is a Registered Nutritionist and Intern at TCN! Her mission is to empower and equip you with all you need to live a healthy and fulfilling life, diet and guilt free. You can find Andrea on instagram @andreacm_nutrition and check out her website here.
Ernst E (2012) Alternative detox. British Medical Bulletin. 101(1): pp. 33–38
Klein AV & Kiat H (2015) Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 28: pp. 675– 686
Fine EJ & Feinman RD (2004) Thermodynamics of weight loss diets. Nutrition & metabolism. 1(1): pp. 15
Johnstone AM (2007) Fasting – the ultimate diet? Obesity Reviews. 8: pp. 211-222
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.