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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Detox Diets -- Purification or Pure Fabrication?


October 04, 2012


By Heather S. Fagnant, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Cleanse! Purify! Restore! These are words commonly used to describe the philosophy behind one of the most radical diet plans — the detox diet. But what exactly does it mean to "detoxify?" And do these diets actually hold the key to physical and spiritual rejuvenation? This article explores the common theories behind detoxification and discusses what it means for your health.

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The Detox Diet Theory

The word "detoxification" describes any type of therapy thought to remove toxins from the body. The word "toxin" often refers to anything synthetic that we ingest or inhale. Pesticides on food and the additives (preservatives and colors) in processed foods are common examples of what might be labeled as toxins.

Here's the general theory behind detoxification:

  • Prolonged exposure to low levels of toxins leads to the buildup of toxins in our gastrointestinal tract. This buildup is often described as "sludge" or "waste."
  • The buildup of toxins decreases immunity, leads to chronic disease, decreased energy and a slower metabolism.
  • Detox diets cleanse the colon of this toxic waste and restore the body's natural balance.
  • The low-calorie nature of the detox diet promotes fat loss; when we lose fat, we also lose toxins.
  • As toxins are flushed out, the body functions better and our metabolism returns to normal.

Supporters of detoxification claim it gives our bodies a fresh start, so we feel energetic, rejuvanted and perhaps even several pounds lighter.

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How Do They Work?

One of the most popular detox diets, known as the "Master Cleanse" or "Lemonade Diet," was first developed in the 1940s. You drink a concoction made of spring water, organic maple syrup, freshly squeezed organic lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Depending on whose advice you follow, this drink may be the only thing you eat for two days or more days. You may also take laxatives.

While not all detox diets are as extreme as the Master Cleanse, many do require at least 24 hours of a strict liquid diet. Green juices and smoothies made with fruit, vegetables and juice or water are especially popular. Some detox diets may also recommend herbal supplements, enemas and colon cleanses. The raw food diet is becoming more popular, too. This long-term diet plan restricts the eating of cooked produce.

Research has shown that we are exposed to low levels of environmental pollutants, such as pesticides, that may increase the risk of cancers. This exposure may also lead to a loss of neuron functions that affect balance, movement, breathing and heart function.

But before you decide to go on a green liquid fast, consider these points:

  • Your body's own organs, namely the liver, are part of a natural detoxification system that converts toxins into non-toxic substances, which are then excreted. Furthermore, this process requires energy that may not be provided with low-calorie detox diets such as juice fasts.
  • Detox diet enthusiasts may describe detoxification as a form of enlightenment and talk about the "high" they get from the experience of a fast. However, most people will experience other less appealing side effects of prolonged fasting. These include decreased energy, lightheadedness, headaches and nausea. Some people may relate these symptoms to the release of toxins from the body. It is more likely that these symptoms are due to hunger from the fast itself.

While weight loss is likely to occur, most of this is water loss. Additionally, research suggests that diets less than 1,200 calories a day, as most detox diets are, actually decrease metabolism. So you quickly regain any weight you lose once you resume your normal diet. And possibly gain a few extra pounds in the process.

While detox diets lasting only a few days are generally safe, there are people who should avoid them all together.

  • Women who are nursing or pregnant
  • Children
  • Elderly people
  • People with a medical condition such as diabetes or kidney disease

Before you start a detox diet, talk to your doctor first.

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Healthy Alternatives

Thankfully, there is a safer and healthier way to detox. Foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, along with plenty of water, aid in moving material through our intestines. There's no need for bowel-purging laxatives.

Research has shown that specific foods and food groups are especially good at supporting our natural detoxification system. At the top of the list are cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, watercress and Brussels sprouts. And antioxidants such as vitamins C and E can help to prevent the formation of free radicals during the detoxification process. (Why is this important?) Antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Foods that Help You Detox Naturally

Cruciferous vegetables
Broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, watercress, Brussels sprouts
Foods in the allium family
Garlic, leeks, onions
Curcumin
Turmeric (found in curry powder)
Citrus peel
Lemons, limes, oranges, etc.

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The Bottom Line

Evidence does not support the use of detox diets to prevent chronic disease, lose weight or improve overall health. Detox diets can be expensive, cause unpleasant side effects and can lead to rapid weight gain once the detox is done.

The best way to detoxify is to support your body's natural detoxification system by eating a well-balanced, plant-rich diet that includes plenty of detox-supporting foods. After all, why drink your broccoli when you can just eat it?


Liska, DeAnn J., Ph.D., and Robert Rountree, M.D. "The Role of Detoxification in Prevention of Chronic Degenerative Diseases: A Summary." Advanced Nutrition Publications, 2002.

Percival, Mark, Dr. "Phytonutrients & Detoxification." Clinical Nutrition Insights 5.2 (1997): 1-4.

Zelman, Kathleen, MPH, RD, LD. "The Truth about Detox Diets." WebMD, 2012.

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Heather S. Fagnant received her B.S. in Nutrition from Rutgers University, New Jersey and just completed a dietetic internship at Brigham & Women's Hospital, Boston, MA. She is interested in clinical nutrition and nutrition research with a special focus on cancer prevention.

 

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