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Defining Cleanses and Detox Diets

By: Michelle Huber, RD & Jillian Reece, RD

What is a cleanse OR detox diet?

The word “detox” or “cleanse” refers to the elimination of synthetic chemicals, pollutants, toxins or processed foods from the body. When applied to a diet however, a detox or cleanse could mean any number of things depending on who you ask. Many “detox diets” can simply refer to the reduction of a particular food or nutrient, such as eliminating added sugars or alcohol. Some detox diets can involve a calorie reduction through fasting, starvation, or drinking juices only. Others go so far as to suggest the use of laxatives, diuretics, herbal supplements, extra vitamins, or cleansing foods to rid the body of unhealthy compounds.  

What types of detoxifying products, services or programs are on the market?

  • Special diets and programs
    • Elimination of whole food groups, processed foods, added sugars etc.
  • Liquid fasts
    • Cleanse or “lemonade diet” : Consume 6-12 glasses/day of water mixed with fresh lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper, take a laxative before bed, nothing else.
    • Juice Cleanse:  32-64 oz. of juice made from whole fruits and vegetables.
    • Food or water fasting: Consume no calories or drink water only
  • Colon hydrotherapy
    • Also called “colonic irrigation”, colon hydrotherapy involves gently flushing the colon with large quantities of water using a tube inserted through the rectum. Occasionally herbs or even coffee are added.
  • Cleansing dietary supplements
    • Tea and tea blends, enzymes, laxatives, fiber, or other supplements are taken orally to clean out waste in the colon. 

What claims do these types of products, services and programs make?

The claims will vary by product or method, though many detox diets and cleanses claim to help someone lose weight quickly, improve health and beauty, promote digestive health, elicit happiness, and reduce the effects of aging, among other things. 

Do they actually live up to their claims?

While the theory behind detox diets and cleanses may sound intriguing, there is little scientific evidence to support their efficacy. Claims supporting weight loss are a good example of this. A detox or cleanse may trigger a shift in weight during the brief time that it’s being used however once the detox method is discontinued, weight can rebound quickly as the body settles back into a normal eating routine. This type of approach to weight loss is not sustainable and rarely meets the body’s nutritional needs for calories, protein, vitamins and minerals etc. 

Is there health risk involved with using detox products?

Yes. Dietary supplements including detox products are difficult for the government to regulate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can review a product for safety and effectiveness once it is on the market; however they are not involved in the initial manufacturing, labeling, distribution or advertising of the product to consumers. Some products contain exactly what they claim to, while others might contain very little of the active ingredients. Additionally, some products contain ingredients that do not appear on the label. Without knowing what the product is fully comprised of, there is risk involved for the consumer (i.e. electrolyte imbalances, lactic acidosis, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies or toxicities, possibly death). Also, herbs such as Licorice Root, Ginkgo Biloba, and St. John’s Wort added to detox products can interfere with the metabolism and absorption of medications prescribed by a physician, potentially lowering their effectiveness. 

Do we actually need to detox?

Our body does a pretty good job of detoxing on its own. Our digestive track, lungs, and skin are all barriers to possible toxins, thus limiting what can enter our system. If a foreign substance does make it into our body, our liver can detoxify it and our kidneys can excrete it. 

Can we instead prevent the need for detoxing?

When it comes to almost all health issues, prevention plays a key role. If someone is concerned about toxins, they may consider analyzing their current environment and exposure risks. Looking into personal hygiene products, food packaging & storage, and cleaning products are several areas to start with. 

I’m still convinced I want to detox. What’s a safe and sustainable approach to this?

There are many ways we can support our body’s natural ability to detox. Choosing organic foods and those with limited additives, including a daily serving of cruciferous vegetables, increasing fiber intake, drinking more water, and working up a sweat with regular exercise are all great ways to achieve this. Ultimately, a healthy approach will involve implementing positive changes that you can stick with overtime. If at any point you do wish to use a dietary supplement, cleanse or detox product, always consult your primary care physician first.