Why Detox Diets Don't Work

Science Features Detox diets
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Why Detox Diets Don't Work

This new year is still fresh. But before we even get too deep into 2017, there’s an important subject to talk about: Don’t begin by falling victim to a detox because it’s a hoax.

As new year’s resolutions go, it’s common for many people to “cleanse” themselves and eliminate “toxins” from their bodies. But we humans already have two amazing organs that are doing this job for us: our liver and kidneys. “The kidneys and liver are quite effective at filtering and eliminating most ingested toxins,” says Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D of The Mayo Clinic. In fact, if you think that by ingesting digestive enzymes, shakes or laxative-based teas will help speed up this process, the reality is “there’s no scientific evidence to prove it does assist.”

The Myth:

According to Christy Brissette, M.S., R.D., and President of 80 Twenty Nutrition, the idea of detoxifying and cleansing the body and mind is not a new concept — it goes back thousands of years and is still part of many religious practices such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But unlike religious fasting to attain spiritual enlightenment, the detoxes we are exposed to are done in hopes of losing weight or ridding oneself of “toxins” we’ve accumulated over the holidays. It is why we often see a plethora of new or revised detoxes (sometimes advocated by the latest celebrity or “influencer”) that promise that you”ll feel better and get what is perceived as a “reset button” for the body to begin the new year refreshed and rejuvenated.

Whether you hear the terms cleanse or detox, Brissette explains that they’re used interchangeably: “With a cleanse, it usually involves ingesting a special product to go with the diet, items such as juices, soups and even charcoal now—in the hopes that it will not only “clean” your insides but that it will also assist with weight loss.” In fact, Brissette says that there is often this mentality that our body is “dirty” and that there is a buildup of “toxins” we need to eliminate. Moreover, Brissette says that detoxes continue to pique the interest of many people, even those who are not regular dieters, because of the claims that this method of “cleaning” is completely natural and quick.

The Truth:

The Placebo Effect
Detoxes and cleanses that claim to be “quick, effective and natural” appear to work because of the placebo effect. Brissette explains, “Firstly, you’ve adopted the mentality that you’re going to eat healthy, so when you switch from heavy indulgences to salads, nuts and fibrous foods, you’re going to feel better—regardless if you’re on a cleanse or not.” A detox plan will also tell you to cut out alcohol, refined sugars and junk food. “Any time you eliminate any of these foods, you’re obviously going to feel less fatigued and have more energy. In actuality, the detox has nothing to do with you feeling better. It’s just a matter of supporting what your body needs: healthy food and water.”

Purging Fat From The Body
The myth that your body is congested from all the fatty and rich foods consumed over the holidays doesn’t exist. Brissette says that there is no evidence or research to prove this is true. “Your liver and kidneys are natural filters. You don’t need to ‘clean’ them. If anything, we need to focus on healthy eating year-round.”

Detoxes Are NOT Safe
More dangerous is the fallacy that “natural” detoxes are safe. “Oftentimes detoxes and cleanses will encourage a low-calorie diet along with the consumption of special herb shakes, laxative teas and other supplements. But this can cause more harm to your body than help it.” Brissette says that if you use laxative-based products for an extended period of time, your body will begin to rely on them for bowel movement. Brissette also notes that overconsumption of laxative teas is not only stressful on the digestive system, but that you’ll also be dehydrated and lose electrolytes, sodium and potassium. The latter two are essential for regulating your blood pressure and heart rate. In extreme cases, if you lose too much sodium and potassium as a result of diarrhea or dilution (via excess consumption of fluids), you can actually suffer or even die from a cardiac arrest. Brissette advises that before considering any form of dieting or detox, you should always consult your physician or a dietitian.

Losing Weight And/Or Fat
Despite celebrity endorsements and faux-doctors claiming that the miracle of a detox will assist with weight loss, the reverse is actually true: you’ll gain weight. “You won’t lose weight or fat, even though it may seem like you are. In fact, these individuals are most likely depleted of essential nutrients and proteins. This results in decreased muscle mass and a slower metabolism because your body thinks it has entered a state of starvation and is now trying to conserve calories rather than burn them off. Inevitably, doing this kind of detox will make you ravenous. When you succumb to your cravings and overeat, the now slowed metabolism will cause you to gain extra weight, and as a result, you’ll be heavier than when you began.”

Realistic Practices For Good Health:

We all lead busy lives and have respective game plans to manage the chaos, so the same mentality should be adopted when it comes to our eating habits. But this doesn’t mean obsessive calorie counting or shortcut detoxes which make unrealistic promises. “Generally speaking, the pressure of a new year’s resolution is a fast-track to failure. What’s more realistic is small sustainable changes overtime, which will result in long-term, positive effects.” Always strive to eat fiber-rich foods such as beans and lentils, healthy protein such as almonds and complex carbs such as whole grain bread and pasta.

How To Eat Well:
It’s easy to fall into mindless eating traps; from social engagements to working at your desk, the first step is to have an awareness of what you’re putting into your mouth—to chew and savor your food. And if you are constantly plagued with distractions, Brissette suggests keeping a simple food journal that tracks not only what you eat but notes when you’re most hungry. “This way, you’ll be ready and have a quality snack on hand, such as walnuts or almonds. This will not only prevent that 3pm energy lull, but you won’t be tempted to make a trip to the coffee shop or vending machine for that cookie or bag of chips.” Whether you like to snack or have several small meals a day, Brissette advises the following: “Structure eating times around your schedule. And don’t go more than 4 hours without eating something; otherwise, you may fall victim to a hunger attack and eat anything in sight.”

Eating Healthy Should Not Mean Suffering:
Eating should always be a joyful and pleasurable experience. Anything fat-free, low-fat or low carb will not offer satiation. Brissette explains: “For instance, if you’re having a salad for lunch, opt for full-fat dressing made with olive oil. Not only will this healthy fat keep you satisfied, but it will aid in the absorption of the leafy greens and vegetables you’re eating.”

Rather than succumb to the extremes of fad detoxes that can put your body into shock and make you miserable, Brissette endorses her 80/20 rule: “80 percent of the time, eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and lentils; and 20 percent of the time, allow yourself that splurge on your favorite beer or burger.”

Trust the wisdom and design of your body; thank your liver and kidneys for a job well done, and for the new year, try Brissette’s mindful method of eating and avoid being ensnared by a detox trap.

Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel, and science writer.

Also in Science