Detox diets offer the promise of cleansing your body and losing weight – but does science back this claim?
Even if you’ve not tried it, chances are you have heard of the concept of ‘detoxing’. From social media feeds to infomercials, detox enthusiasts tell us to rid ourselves of the systemic build-up of toxins that has accumulated over the years, either from wayward habits or our hazardous environment. These toxins, however vague and unidentifiable they may be, are said to be the cause of our fatigue, stress and ill-health – and only a detox will exorcise your body of these toxins.
While the contemporary detox craze has the modern flavour of purging the toxins of industrialised living, the message is hardly a new one. People have been trying to rid their bodies of perceived toxins for centuries now; the enemas and bloodletting therapies of the past, which were once considered common-sense medical treatment, were grounded on a similar belief of ridding the body of its internal poisons.
But do detox practices really offer the benefits claimed for them?
What is detoxification?
Medically, detoxification means the process of ridding the body of harmful levels of toxic substances, such as alcohol, drugs and poisons. It is a treatment carried out in hospitals or clinics, and involves the use of drugs or other forms of therapy, depending on the type of toxicity treated.
In the more colloquial sense these days, detoxing tends to be equated to a ‘spring cleaning’ of our bodies, usually through a restrictive dietary regime. There may be variations, but the basic foundation of most detox diets include cutting out processed foods, upping the intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, and drinking lots of water.
While these are generally healthy choices to make in the long-term, our bodies are in fact detoxing all the time – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The main organs involved in detoxification are your liver and kidneys. Through specific types of enzymes and process, these organs convert toxins in your blood into a more water-soluble form to be passed out of the body.
Since our bodies come into contact with numerous toxins, be it from the surrounding environment or those produced internally, the liver and kidneys need to keep ‘detoxing’ to prevent these toxins from building up. For most healthy individuals, this process is efficient enough for our day to day needs – if the body is unable to excrete such toxins, you are more likely to need immediate medical intervention rather than just switching your diet.
However, it is possible that our natural detoxification system may find it hard to handle some chemicals, or be ‘overloaded’ by them. For example, overdosing on prescription drugs such as Tylenol can lead to rapid liver failure, because the organ cannot cope with the high level of toxicity.
Feeling good – temporarily
Research does suggest that a balanced consumption of certain types of foods will help your liver and kidneys do their work.
For example, broccoli is frequently touted as a prime health food, with many detoxing advocates praising its liver-enhancing qualities. Science however, shows that the vegetable helps the liver out in a rather unexpected way. Broccoli in fact, contains a tiny amount of cyanide – this accounts for its slightly bitter taste. This amount of cyanide stimulates the liver to produce enzymes to not only rid the cyanide from the body, but also any other toxins present.
But there is a still a gap of credible research into whether an excessive intake of such ‘detox’ foods can actually speed the body’s natural filtration system. And since our bodies are complex systems, it is unlikely that you can eliminate years of poor dietary choices with a few days of ‘cleansing juices’.
Those who have tried a detox diet often report feeling better and more energetic; and science does say that they may be rightfully feeling that way. “The first thing you need to do with most detox diets to get rid of refined sugar, processed foods and caffeine – you will definitely feel better,” says nutritionist Pamela Ng.
“Cutting out junk food also means you’re cutting down on the calories you’re consuming; plus, increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet is good news for the body as well. Since many detox regimes also prescribe more exercise, or wellness activities such as yoga, that’s going to up your energy levels as well. It’s not so much about ‘cleansing’, but just adopting more healthy practices into your routine – particularly if you’ve not done enough of that before.”
Ng however, sees some merit in trying a ‘mild’ detox plan in terms of kicking-off a long-term healthy lifestyle. “If you’re looking at the idea of detoxing in the first place, you’re already thinking about eating healthier. So you start making conscious choices when it comes to what you eat – so, instead of reaching out for a bag of cookies, you opt to snack on a piece of fruit. Barring any medical conditions, intermittent fasting (where you limit your fast to a few hours a day) has also been shown to have some benefits – but not as a ‘cleansing’ mechanism.”
What nutritionists worry about however, are when detoxing measures are taken to the extreme. “This is especially in the case of people simply drinking a glass of juice for 10 days straight – you’re essentially starving yourself.”
A classic example of such extremes is the Master Cleanse diet, with celebrities like Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow having been proponents – the latter however, subsequently denounced the diet, saying that she had been ‘hallucinating’ while she was on it.
Under the Master Cleanse regime, dieters are only allowed liquid concoctions throughout the day. One starts with a glass of warm salt water in the morning; followed by a mix of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper; before rounding off the day with a relaxing cup of laxative tea. Dieters are meant to stick to this for at least 10 days to see the purported benefits of increased energy, weight-loss, as well as a relief from chronic illnesses.
However, there is no scientific evidence that the diet is beneficial for the body, and the weight loss can be credited to the lack of food as well as the frequent bowel movements caused by the salt water and laxatives. Dieters also risk dehydration and impairment of their bowels from the continued use of laxatives.
Ng adds that while it may feel like you are losing weight in the short term on such diets, you may actually gain weight once you get off the diet.
“First of all, you’ll initially just lose water weight,” explains Ng. “Stick to that sort of hardcore detox diet for longer, then you start losing nutrients and proteins that the body needs. When that happens, your body is going to kick into starvation mode; it will start to retain all the calories it can, and slow down the metabolism process. Eventually what happens is that you’re going to get really hungry, and that’s when you tend to over-eat. Since you’ve now got a slowed-down metabolism, which is going to make you gain even more weight than before. Seriously, I think the best ‘detox’ anyone needs is to have a balanced diet and exercise throughout the year.”