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Monday’s medical myth: detox diets cleanse your body

Detox diets make amazing promises of dramatic weight loss and more energy – all achieved by flushing toxins from the body. Toxins have very little to do with it; detox diets “work” because of the very…

Detox diets may do little harm, except to your bank balance, but neither do they do a lot of good. katstan

Detox diets make amazing promises of dramatic weight loss and more energy – all achieved by flushing toxins from the body. Toxins have very little to do with it; detox diets “work” because of the very severe dietary and energy restrictions they require someone to follow.

Detox or liver-cleansing diets have been around for many years. With amazing claims of rapid and easy weight loss and improved health, together with a heavy dose of Hollywood celebrity endorsement, it is no wonder these diets are in the public spotlight.

Toxin build up from our environment and poor diet and lifestyle habits is claimed to be the main culprit for weight gain, constipation, bloating, flatulence, poor digestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, lack of energy and fatigue. “Detoxing” is a way for the body to eliminate these toxins and as a result, a person will feel healthier and lose weight.

Detox diets can vary from a simple plan of raw vegetables and unprocessed foods and the elimination of caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars to a much stricter diet bordering on starvation with only juices consumed.

Some detox programs may also recommend vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. Detox diet programs can last anywhere from a day or two to several months.

Do detox diets work?

There is no shortage of glowing testimonials from people who have gone on a detox diet, claiming to feel cleansed, energised and healthier. Promoters of detox diets have never put forward any evidence to show that such diets help remove toxins from the body any faster than our body normally eliminates them.

The idea that we need to follow a special diet to help our body eliminate toxins is not supported by medical science. Healthy adults have a wonderful system for removal of waste products and toxins from the body. Our lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract and immune system are all primed to remove or neutralise toxic substances within hours of eating them.

Detox diets promise dramatic weight loss and more energy. Caitlinator

As for the dramatic weight loss typically seen, this is easily explained by the very restrictive nature of detox diets, which can cut kilojoules dramatically.

Claims made that the typical physical side effects such as bad breath, fatigue and various aches and pains are evidence that the body is getting rid of toxins just do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Bad breath and fatigue are simply symptoms of the body having gone into starvation mode.

The many downsides of detox diets

Apart from the false claim that a detox diet is actually “detoxifying” the body, these diets have many well-documented downsides including:

  • Feelings of tiredness and lack of energy
  • Cost of the detox kit if a commercial program is followed
  • Expense of buying organic food if required
  • Purchasing of supplements if recommended by the diet
  • Stomach and bowel upsets
  • Difficulties eating out and socialising, as most restaurants and social occasions do not involve detox-friendly meals.

The biggest downside of detox diets, especially the more extreme ones, is that any weight loss achieved is usually temporary and is more the result of a loss of water and glycogen (the body’s store of carbohydrate) instead of body fat. This means that the weight lost is easily and rapidly regained once the person reverts back to a more normal eating plan. These dramatic weight fluctuations can be demoralising and lead to yo-yo dieting.

Following a typical detox diet for a few days has few real health risks in otherwise healthy individuals. Very restrictive detox diets, such as water or juice only fasting, can be an unsafe form of weight loss and should not be used for more than a few days.

The verdict of Choice

In 2005, Choice carried out a survey and expert review of popular detox diets sold in supermarkets and chemists.

Choice found no sound evidence that we need to “detox”, or that following a detox program will increase the elimination of toxins from your body. Some of the popular detox kits have diet plans that are far too restrictive, and give dietary advice with either poor or no rationale.

Detox diets may do little harm to most people, except perhaps for their bank balance, but neither do they do a lot of good just on their own. Concerted changes to diet and lifestyle habits are far more valuable than detox diets and supplements.