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Do Detox Diets Work?

In the first part of a two part series on detox, Cliff Harvey PhD looks at the evidence to answer the question, 'Do Detox Diets Really Work'?

Key points

  • Detox diets do not promote improved clearance of toxins from the body
  • Detox diets achieve weight loss due simply to calorie restriction
  • Overall, a detox diet is unlikely to improve the clearance of toxins or weight/fat loss over a healthy diet based on unrefined foods
  • Some nutrients can help to support the innate detoxification pathways in the body, but these are typically supplied in greater abundance in a good diet based on natural, unprocessed foods

Detox diets are a fixture of the alternative and complementary health scene. They are extremely common and very popular but it’s unclear whether they work, or more importantly, if they work as claimed to help the body eliminate dangerous and damaging toxins.

What are Detox Diets?

Detoxification diets and programmes were once more commonly known as liver cleanses. They are typically promoted to rapidly ‘cleanse’ the body of toxins, usually through some combination of fasting or food restriction, and the use of various nutrients and herbs to support the liver and other detoxification pathways and channels.

What are ‘Toxins’

Toxins are poisonous substances produced either within the body or another organism (synthetically created ‘toxins’ are technically called toxicants). While they sound scary (and some are!) we need to also remember that many toxic chemicals are produced as part of normal bodily processes, or are ingested in tiny amounts as part of a normal, healthy diet, or as a result of environmental exposure, so, it’s important to remember the old adage, the dose defines the poison!

The dose defines the poison!

How does the body detoxify?

Due to the creation of some toxic by-products in the body from metabolic processes, and the inevitability of exposure to some toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the environment, the body has developed sophisticated detoxification pathways to excrete these chemicals. The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin, and lungs all play various roles in the excretion of toxins, with various processes such as methylation, metabolism, or conjugation used to produce chemical end-products that can be more easily excreted. Some chemicals though are difficult to convert to excretable forms and can accumulate in the body, especially in fat tissue (like organophosphate pesticides and herbicides, and heavy metals).

Do Detox diets work?

This is an interesting question because we need to first understand a little more about the outcomes of the diets (the ones that have been studied at least) and whether the diets work because of, or despite the claims made by promoters of detox diets.

Let’s first delve into whether detox diets work for various outcomes.

Do detox diets help the body to eliminate ‘toxins’?

There has been limited research conducted on the many detox diets available. A 2014 review published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics highlighted the lack of thorough, scientifically robust studies on the various detox diets.

A 2014 review highlighted the lack of scientifically robust studies on the various detox diets

While one of the studies noted a significant improvement in self-reported symptoms associated with poor health, there was no placebo control and other outcome measures (including some markers of phase 1 and 2 liver detoxification) did not differ significantly between groups. Other studies suffered from similar methodological flaws such as lack of a control group, no randomisation, or inconsistencies in comparison groups. (1)

Will a detox help me to lose weight?

Many people do lose weight on detox diets. It’s often claimed that this is because ‘toxins’ encourage the storage of fat, but in all likelihood,  it is actually because while following a restrictive detox diet the person simply eats less. Most detox diets involve some combination of fasting, drastic food restriction or elimination of common foods, or unpalatable foods that all result in less energy intake. As an example, a 2015 study demonstrated that the ‘Lemon Detox’ diet DID help women to lose weight but this effect was most likely due to calorie-restriction. (2)

Let’s face it, any time you drastically restrict calories you will lose weight…and this aspect of detox diets has little do with toxins.

Let’s face it, any time you drastically restrict calories you will lose weight…

Can certain nutrients improve innate detoxification?

While it’s unlikely that specific detox diets will help you to lose weight or detoxify any more than an otherwise good diet based on whole, natural, and unrefined foods, some nutrients might help the body to support its own innate detoxification processes and reduce the damage that toxins may create.

It’s unlikely that a detox diet will help you to lose more weight than a good nutrition plan

Many nutrients help to support our innate detox pathways and either reduce the toxins that we accumulate or improve their elimination from the body. These include spirulina and chlorella, dandelion, (3-8) folate, (9) alpha-lipoic acid, (10) glycine (in high doses), (11) and a combination treatment of methionine, vitamin C and thiamine. (12)

Conclusion

It’s unlikely that a detox diet will help you to lose more weight than a good nutrition plan or remove toxins from the body. Instead, just eat a natural, unrefined diet that is rich in nutrients and low in toxins and toxicants, and this will help to support the health and performance of the body and support your natural detoxification pathways. Additionally, certain nutrients found in the diet, or supplements could also be of benefit to the innate, natural detoxification pathways of the human body. 

References

1.            A. V K, H K. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015(6):675.

2.            Kim MJ, Hwang JH, Ko HJ, Na HB, Kim JH. Lemon detox diet reduced body fat, insulin resistance, and serum hs-CRP level without hematological changes in overweight Korean women. Nutrition research (New York, NY). 2015;35(5):409-20.

3.            Gargouri M, Ghorbel-Koubaa F, Bonenfant-Magne M, Magne C, Dauvergne X, Ksouri R, et al. Spirulina or dandelion-enriched diet of mothers alleviates lead-induced damages in brain and cerebellum of newborn rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012;50(7):2303-10.

4.            El-Desoky GE, Bashandy SA, Alhazza IM, Al-Othman ZA, Aboul-Soud MA, Yusuf K. Improvement of mercuric chloride-induced testis injuries and sperm quality deteriorations by Spirulina platensis in rats. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59177.

5.            Takekoshi H, Suzuki G, Chubachi H, Nakano M. Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice. Chemosphere. 2005;59(2):297-304.

6.            Uchikawa T, Yasutake A, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y. The influence of Parachlorella beyerinckii CK-5 on the absorption and excretion of methylmercury (MeHg) in mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2010;35(1):101-5.

7.            Uchikawa T, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y, Yasutake A. The enhanced elimination of tissue methylmercury in Parachlorella beijerinckii-fed mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2011;36(1):121-6.

8.            Doshi H, Ray A, Kothari IL. Biosorption of cadmium by live and dead Spirulina: IR spectroscopic, kinetics, and SEM studies. Current microbiology. 2007;54(3):213-8.

9.            Heck JE, Gamble MV, Chen Y, Graziano JH, Slavkovich V, Parvez F, et al. Consumption of folate-related nutrients and metabolism of arsenic in Bangladesh. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2007;85(5):1367-74.

10.         Rogers SA. Lipoic Acid as a Potential First Agent for Protection from Mycotoxins and Treatment of Mycotoxicosis. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal. 2003;58(8):528-32.

11.         Alcaraz-Contreras Y, Garza-Oca, #241, as L, Carca, #241, et al. Effect of Glycine on Lead Mobilization, Lead-Induced Oxidative Stress, and Hepatic Toxicity in Rats. Journal of Toxicology. 2011;2011.

12.         Nandi D, Patra RC, Swarup D. Effect of cysteine, methionine, ascorbic acid and thiamine on arsenic-induced oxidative stress and biochemical alterations in rats. Toxicology. 2005;211(1–2):26-35.

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