What is a Cleanse/ Detox Diet and Does it Actually Work? (or is Misguided?)
Let’s talk about so-called detox or cleanse diets. First things first. I recognize that there may be distinctions between detoxing and cleansing depending on your definition, but generally speaking these terms are interchangeable and I’m going to use them as such.
What is it?
Cleansing can roughly be defined as the act of “flushing” toxins out of your body. Typically, goals are either weight loss or to purify your body, detox diets are used for both purposes and they are not exclusive to each other. Cleansing hinges on the premise that your body accumulates “toxins” over time, mostly from eating, drinking and breathing, and these toxins can theoretically be flushed out of your system for improved health and wellness. Typically, this is accomplished by some form of calorie restriction and/or restriction of solid foods. Examples of types of cleanses include the “master cleanse”, juice fasting, raw or vegan cleanses. They can also target certain organs like the liver or colon. They can last anywhere from two days to a week or more.
While there are certainly distinctions between these different types of cleanses, the purpose of this post is not to dissect them individually. Rather, the goal is to shed light on what cleansing is, and what, if any, health benefits they claim to have can be backed up by evidence.
What are the claimed health benefits?
There are a lot of claims, some plausible and some laughable, about the health benefits of cleansing. I’m going to quickly list them. Please don’t take that as my endorsement that cleansing actually does any of these things, rather this is what the so called experts claim.
- Energy booster
- Rid the body of excess waste
- Weight loss
- Immune system booster
- Improved skin
- Better breath
- Promote “healthy changes”
- Clearer thinking
- Healthier hair
- Anti-aging benefits
- Improved sense of well being
- And certainly there are many more claims...
Should you cleanse?
One question you may be asking, does your body need to be cleansed? Are there toxins accumulating in your body? The short answer is no, probably not. If you're otherwise healthy; that is to say that the organs of your body are working well, then you do not need to cleanse to remove toxins from your body.
Those organs, specifically the kidneys and the liver, are the primary metabolic organs of the body. If they are functioning properly, then your body is more than capable of eliminating and excreting harmful products or toxins. If you are specifically concerned about weight loss, you should talk to your doctor about making long term dietary changes and increasing your level of activity.
Dose cleansing/ detox actually work?
A very informative study, published in 2009 (link below) attempted to evaluate the benefits of detox diets by surveying the producers of 15 different mainstream products. They drew 3 conclusions:
- No two companies seem to use the same definition of ‘detox’.
- Little, and in most cases no, evidence was offered to back up the detox claims.
- In the majority of cases, producers and retailers contacted by the young scientists were forced to admit that they are renaming mundane things, like cleaning or brushing, as ‘detox’.
The authors concluded that the claims made by marketers and producers of detox / cleansing products were almost virtually without merit, generally wrong, and in some cases, the suggested remedies were dangerous.
The study results also found that marketers are unable to identify or agree on one single toxin that was being removed by these cleanses. In other words, they are selling you a detox diet without even being able to describe to you what it’s removing and/or without knowing if it works.
Pubmed is the gold standard database for scientific publications. If you want to know what the relationship is between, say, aspirin and heart attacks, you can type those terms into the search engine and get hundreds of responses. When you type terms like “detox diet” or “cleanse diet” into the search engine, there are no links to scientific studies or randomized clinical trials. I point this out to illustrate the clear lack of evidence or research into whether there are any benefits to these diets.
Furthermore, many professional organizations such as the american dietetic association, the professional organization that represents all registered dieticians in the US, has state that these fad diets make “misdirected claims” that can carry both long and short term consequences.
If there is any benefit to detox diets, like there may very well be with fasting, then it is likely simply related to caloric restriction and a reduction in processed foods, especially fats and carbohydrates. This can lead to short term, but not sustained, weight loss.
Lastly, you have to ask: are detox diets unhealthy? do they do harm?
The short answer is that there is no studies saying they are bad for you, per se. However, there are risks associated with extreme dieting. You may develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Cleansing can cause symptoms including nausea, vomiting, cramping, dehydration and global malnutrition. It can also lead to irritability, fatigue, headaches, bloating, diarrhea and hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. There is definitely risks associated with this type of dieting, despite the lack of definitive research on the subject.
If you are considering a detox or cleanse diet, my advice is to re-consider, and at the very least, discuss it with your healthcare provider first.
In conclusion, fad diets, which certainly includes detox or cleanse diets, are not good long term solutions to your health or wellness. The best thing you can do is to consistently consume a healthy diet, sleep and exercise regularly. A healthy diet is rich in fruits & vegetables, complex carbs, healthy fats and lean protein. Good luck!
Klein, A. V., & Kiat, H. (2014). Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28(6), 675-686. doi:10.1111/jhn.12286
Acosta, R. D., & Cash, B. D. (2010). Corrigendum: Clinical Effects of Colonic Cleansing for General Health Promotion: A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 105(5), 1214-1214. doi:10.1038/ajg.2010.111