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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.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. Lucy Fisher

    Journalist

    Detox diets usually ban alcohol and smoking (and tea, coffee, cakes, biscuits and sweets). That can't be bad for you! And "detox" has become middle-class shorthand for giving up alcohol (for a month).

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  2. Edward John Fearn

    Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

    Thanks Tim
    Although the focus of your article was mostly in relation to standardised supermarket and chemist based detox kits, I would like to take a somewhat different approach to the topic.
    I think it is important to examine this concept of detoxification in a little more detail.
    (1) Firstly what are these toxins and what is their role in the formation of disease states and suboptimal health?
    (2) Can they be measured directly or indirectly both before and after treatment?
    (3) What evidence…

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    1. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Edward John Fearn

      fighting the good fight on behalf of alternative therapies Edward? Lol
      The benefits of the treatments you have outlined in the trials above may arguably, have some effect upon those with specific illnesses as you have suggested. However, I and those below, got the distinct impression that Tim was attempting to address the trend of otherwise healthy individuals, using detox kits for the wrong purposes.
      Surely you don't approve of that ?

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    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Edward John Fearn

      Edward - could you expand more on the different strains of E Coli, and the fact that the vast majority of commensals in the bowel are not enterotoxigenic?

      Also - in the papers promoting effectiveness of commercial products, where any of those funded by the manufacturer?

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    3. Edward John Fearn

      Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      Thanks Mitch
      If you are asking me if I support the Coles or Woolies detox, or the latest celebrity detox programme, my answer is no. I think Tim put a good argument across and I have the highest respect for the work of “Choice” it is a fantastic organisation. If Tim had argued in support of such programmes I would have been somewhat critical and would have asked for supporting evidence. It seems that much of what is sold as Detox products is simply a creation of clever marketing.
      I still hold the view however that endotoxins play a role in inflammation and are associated with a number of disease states.

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    4. Edward John Fearn

      Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Hi Sue
      I’m not sure about the funding of those trials as I only have access to the abstracts at present. I will try get hold of the full papers if possible.
      I didn’t mean to imply that Escherichia coli was the chief cause of adverse levels of lipopolysaccharide. LPS are present in all negative gram bacteria.
      While I have ordered CDSAs in the past the main form of testing I use for alterations of gut flora is the urinary indicant test, and it only implies excessive bacterial growth in the small…

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    5. Edward John Fearn

      Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

      In reply to Edward John Fearn

      Reading back through my last posts I came to realise that I had failed to clarify the link between SIBO and endotoxins sufficiently. It is likely that in the case of SIBO, translocation of bacteria occurs and this potentially leads to adverse systemic effects including hepatic inflammation which is in part due to a tumour necrosis factor α response to endotoxin from the bacterial overgrowth.
      (However it must be said that SIBO per se is not a major risk factor for liver damage in humans, even when…

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    6. Edward John Fearn

      Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

      In reply to Edward John Fearn

      Interestingly Gerard E. Mullin MD “Associate Professor of Medicine Johns Hopkins School of Medicine” Takes a similar approach to SIBO in relation to IBS treatments.
      Antimicrobial herbal preparations have been used by the author (G. Mullin) to resolve SIBO that is refractory to Rifaximin and triple antibiotics (Clindamycin, Neomycin, Flagyl) a number of products were suggested including herbs with a high Berberine content.
      Bovine Colostrum is also recommended.
      http://www.gidoctor.net/client_files/file/Turnbull_Chapter_Final.pdf
      Peppermint oil may also be of some value in SIBO, however further investigations are warranted.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12410625

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    1. Tim Crowe

      Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University

      In reply to Ken Harvey

      Thanks for that Ken - by pure coincidence I filed my piece a few days before this latest Choice report came out hence why I only referred to their earlier report.

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  3. rory robertson

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Tim, beyond alcohol and tobacco, the most obvious thing to eliminate in a genuine "detox diet" is added sugar.

    The evidence seems to be that it has no nutritional value, is somewhat addictive and poisonous in modern doses, and clearly is a key driver of global obesity, diabetes and related maladies: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1350939193-5587f9XgRbIXYsH/RoX4BA

    Given those health hazards, Tim, it's a bit of an embarrassment…

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    1. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to rory robertson

      an interesting conspiracy theory there Rory, and one that requires some fact checking. Thank you!
      You final comments about 'diets for a lifetime' and the level of suger intake, are the most pertinent to the above article, and a logical extention.
      cheers.

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    2. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      Mitch,

      It's the fact that my fact-checking has been extensive that makes this Australian Paradox episode so disturbing.

      In over six months, not one of the thousands of independent observers (excluding the authors, naturally) who have looked at this issue has seriously disputed my observation that the paper contains simple but major factual errors that invalidate its high-profile conclusion of "an inverse relationship" between sugar consumption and obesity (again, the basic facts are in Slides…

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    3. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to rory robertson

      Mr Robertson - we get it - you don't like the fact that the paper alleging there is an "Australian paradox" in sugar consumption hasn't been retracted - but what does it have to do with the uselessness of "detox" diets.

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    4. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue, I'm pretty sure you (still) don't "get it". After all, in a recent Conversation you were unable to tell me whether the steeply upward sloping line in a simple Australian Paradox chart (Figure 5A) in front of you sloped up or down (yes, it was up), so I'm not shocked that you also are struggling to get the point on your first reading in this Conversation.

      On your question of relevance, I wrote above: "...the problem for Tim and others working in the nutrition space at Australian universities…

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    5. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to rory robertson

      Mr Robertson, I may be more across this issue than you suspect.

      In over thirty years of practising my profession, I;ve seen a lot of concepts enter and leave the scientific literature - as evidence accumulates over time.

      Thirty years ago, "clot busting drugs" for heart attack were being trialled world-wide. They made a huge improvement in outcomes and became standard practise. Since then, there have been new regimes and new combinations of drugs used over time, with gradual improvements in…

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    6. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      No Sue. You are not. Your analytical skills and retention of facts are as acute as I had earlier assessed. As I've explained to you several times in recent months, my dispute with the University of Sydney is not at its core about science or nutrition, it's about very basic things like UP versus down, VALID versus invalid datasets, and the NEED to correct obvious errors and serious misrepresentations launched by ham-fisted scientists into important public debates.

      Sorry to keep correcting you…

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    7. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to rory robertson

      By the way, Sue, was there any good reason why you failed to inform other readers in this Conversation that the Green Pool report was paid for by the sugar industry?

      Maybe readers might also be interested to know that the sugar industry is one of the key revenue providers for the Australian Paradox authors' low-GI food-stamping enterprise?

      If you are health-conscious, then perhaps check out the sugary food products that the University of Sydney for a fee endorses as "healthy", on page 10…

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    8. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to rory robertson

      As as commenter on an opinion site, I "failed to inform other readers" ?

      Are you serious? I linked to the actual report, which describes its funding source in the executive summary. It also descibes the methodology and lists the data, for all to see.

      Mr Robertson, perhaps your obsession has affected your reasoning.

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    9. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Yes, readers can dig up it, Sue, but it might have been better to be upfront on the sugar-industry sponsorship of your "objective" and insightful Green Pool report.

      While we are at it, Sue, and I think I asked you something like this yesterday, do you have any links or history with the University of Sydney that may have influenced your enthusiasm in this Australian Paradox matter?

      Back on your nonsense-based Green Pool report, Sue, what did you make of section "11. The Role of Fructose…

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    10. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to rory robertson

      My "enthusiasm in this Australian Paradox matter"?

      Mr Robertson, I had never heard about the "Australian Paradox" until you started flooding this site with your opinion about it.

      I am no fan of excess sugar consumption - nor excess consumption of any individual nutrient. Nor obsession about an individual piece of research.

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    11. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      And yet, Sue, you are a fan of promoting nonsense-based "research". You were happy to introduce to these pages the sugar industry's Green Pool report - and Mr Bill Shrapnel's embrace of the Green Pool report - as objective contributions to the Australian Paradox dispute, despite both pieces relying on a nonsense-based "update" - applying the ABS's broken and abandoned methodology - of a sugar series abandoned as unreliable by the ABS over a decade ago.

      Yes, Sue, wise in the ways of science…

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    12. rory robertson

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to rory robertson

      Good afternoon. It was bad news this week for the University of Sydney. In what must have been a close decision, the University's "Australian Paradox" paper - a.k.a. the "Shonky Sugar Study" (www.australianparadox.com ) - missed out on a 2012 Shonky Award from Choice (http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/awards/shonky-awards/shonkys/the-2012-shonky-awards.aspx ).

      In the end, Australia's highest-profile academic defenders of added sugar as harmless - and leading academic service providers…

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  4. Sandy Halliday

    Nutritionist, Author and Blogger

    Tim, you say toxins have very little to do with it but it's hard to ignore the fact that people can ooze substances through their skin while on a detox program that had been in their bodies for years. I know of a woman who had a black substance oozing from her scalp while following the Gerson Therapy for cancer. It was thought to be hair dye that she had used some years previously.

    John Linstrom, Fire Chief, also tells of large volumes of paint thinner coming out of his forearms and a reddish-orange…

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Sandy Halliday

      Ms Halliday, the claims made in the story you linked to appear to be highly dubious, and not "facts" at all.

      For other readers - here is an extract:

      "I had been exposed to that solvent 21 years earlier and it was pouring out of my body while I was in the sauna. I was completely amazed. About three days later, I started to sweat from my neck a reddish-orange substance that turned out to be mercury. On about the 12th day, I started sweating large swaths of lead from the pores in my lower back…

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