By: Nicolette Durkin, MS, RD, LDN
Feeling fatigued and bloated? Wanting to lose weight quickly? Had a long vacation with too many cocktails and carbs? A detox diet claims to be the perfect reset to get back on track. What exactly is a detox diet? A detox, or “detoxifying”, diet usually advocates for the elimination of added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol with the goal of ridding the body of toxins. Some promote very low calorie meals or fasting for a certain period of time. While reducing sugars and overly processed foods is a great step towards eating healthier, these detox diets often take it to the extreme. So why do people repeatedly try them?
Are Detox Cleanses Good For You?
Detox diets are romanticized as the answer to all of your health woes, but do they actually work? The answer is complicated. They are not supported by any evidence-based research to “remove toxins from the body” and are not recommended by trained and licensed dieticians. But still, there seems to be enough anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies to sway others to try.
People are drawn in by the alleged benefits of cleanses that include:
- Weight loss
- Reduction in bloating
- Managing appetite
- Boosting energy and metabolism
- Resetting gut health
- Flushing out toxins
Types of Detox Diets and Cleanses
These “benefits” all sound great, right? So what does an individual have to do to get these benefits? Some popular types of detox diets or cleanses include:
- Juice Cleanse: Only drinking fruit and/or vegetable juice for several days depending on the plan you select. Juices are promoted as a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to “reset your body”. Some companies charge upwards of $50-75 per day for these cleanses.
- Herbal Tea Detox: Similar to a juice cleanse, but these supplements contain “cleansing” herbs supposedly used for centuries by ancient cultures. Most plans recommend only drinking these teas for several days without any other foods. They claim to boost metabolism, improve energy levels, or even cleanse your colon. Many of these teas also contain caffeine.
- 24 Hour Fast: As the name implies, this fast involves abstaining from all food and calorie-containing beverages for 24 hours. Prolonged fasting claims to jump start weight loss and reduce inflammation in the body.
- Extreme Calorie Restriction: Promotes eating 500-1200 calories per day for several days a week regardless of activity level (It’s generally recommended men and women eat no fewer than 1500 and 1200 calories per day, respectively). Eating very low calorie is touted as a way to quickly drop pounds and reset unhealthy eating habits.
What Does a Cleanse Do To Your Body?
Many people do lose weight after sticking to a cleanse or detox for several days. But this rapid weight loss is usually from the depletion of water and carbohydrate stores in your body (glycogen). This can happen after eating far less calories than your body needs. These stores are easily replenished once you resume eating sufficient calories. The bottom line is that the weight loss doesn’t last. It’s better to achieve long-lasting weight loss through sustainable lifestyle changes.
What about boosting metabolism? Some cleanses or detoxes can actually inhibit your metabolic rate. Your metabolism is the process of breaking down food and converting it into energy. Less food being consumed means a less active metabolism. A certain food or herbal supplement won’t “speed up” your metabolism.
Are toxins flushed out of your body when doing a detox diet? Sure! But our bodies are always removing “toxins” that are byproducts of normal metabolism. Our liver, kidneys, and digestive system filter out these waste products. Eating or eliminating certain foods will not promote the removal of more “toxins”. There is some merit in drinking fewer cocktails during a detox since the liver works hard to break down alcohol.
Reducing inflammation is a popular health claim of detoxes or cleanses. Nutrient rich foods – like fruits and vegetables (and nutrient dense shakes - like Soylent) – are high in antioxidants and polyphenols which can work against inflammatory processes in the body. However, only increasing fruits and veggie intake from a juice cleanse for a few days will not provide the same long term benefits as regularly including them in your diet.
The most important outcomes of a detox diet to be aware of may be the undesirable side-effects. Some things to be aware of include:
- Lack of energy: Following a juice cleanse or fast will result in taking in insufficient calories to keep your body fueled. Food is energy, so depriving yourself of adequate calories may increase the fatigue you were setting out to reduce in the first place! In addition, drinking only high-sugar juices with no fiber, fat, or protein can result in blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes. These crashes may exacerbate feelings of fatigue and hunger.
- Digestive issues: Juice cleanses can cause gastrointestinal distress. These juices are very high in sugar, and drinking bottle after bottle for several days straight can result in stomach cramping and subsequent diarrhea. Prolonged diarrhea can lead to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration. Herbal teas, especially ones with caffeine, can also trigger gastrointestinal distress for some individuals.
- Unbalanced Nutrient Intake: Juice and tea cleanses do not provide protein, fiber, or healthy fats. Extreme calorie restriction likely results in insufficient protein intake. Protein is essential to support satiety, blood sugar balance, and muscle health. Fiber is needed for normal digestion. Healthy fats are essential for hormone production, cell structure, and energy levels. Each nutrient and food group has a role to play in supporting a healthy lifestyle. Remember you can get a perfect balance of micro and macro nutrients in nutrition shakes like Soylent!
There are more sustainable alternatives to get back on track with your health and nutrition. Weight loss, increased energy levels, and even reducing inflammation are possible without an extreme detox.
- Weight loss: Reaching a calorie deficit for weight loss is possible without extreme restriction. Work with your doctor or dietitian to determine your calorie goal to lose weight. You’ll be able to lose extra pounds while consuming more than several bottles of juice per day! Additionally, changing one small behavior in your day can also result in weight loss without calorie counting. Try skipping the vanilla syrup in your latte, replacing your fast food lunch with a Soylent shake, and listening to your hunger and fullness cues at meal times.
- Reducing Fatigue: A key to more sustained energy levels throughout the day is good blood sugar control. This is accomplished by including a source of protein, healthy fats, and high-fiber carbohydrates at each meal. An example of a balanced meal is a breakfast of eggs (fats and protein) with whole wheat toast (fiber) smeared with peanut butter (fat and protein), or a complete meal nutrition shake like Soylent. If you only ate the toast for breakfast, you’d get a larger blood sugar spike and subsequent crash midmorning. The fat and protein help slow the digestion of this carbohydrate to keep energy levels steady until lunchtime.
- Fighting Inflammation: Regularly consuming foods rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables can mitigate inflammatory processes in the body. There is also research that points to fasting as a way to help improve metabolic markers that are associated with inflammation. Fasting for twenty four hours is not necessary to see these benefits. A twelve hour fast, for example 7PM-7AM, is also thought to confer similar benefits!
- Increasing Vitamins and Minerals: Focusing on eating more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats will increase the amount of vitamins and minerals in your diet. Balancing these essential nutrients will promote a healthy metabolism, energy levels, and help regulate appetite. An easy way to pack in 28 vitamins and minerals is by adding a Soylent shake to your day.
People often feel better after doing a cleanse because they pay more attention to the types of foods and portion sizes they are consuming. While most healthy people can follow an extreme diet for a few days and be fine, there are potential undesirable side effects to be aware of. Focus your energy on making each meal balanced with a source of protein, healthy fats, and high-fiber carbohydrates. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues to keep your portion sizes in check. The best thing we can do to “cleanse” our body is focusing on consuming wholesome nutritious foods everyday, not just with crash dieting.