It’s a new year and January is traditionally a great time to start over or start completely new health goals. Many people ask me about how to get started and if “detoxing” is the first step. So, this month I’m tackling some of the hype around detox diets and cleanses. And best of all, I have some scientifically-sound nutrition advice on how to detox with the power of whole nutrient-dense food.
What is detoxification?
Detoxification is your body’s own natural process involving multiple organs––liver, stomach, kidneys, intestines, lungs, skin, etc.––that cleans your system from unwanted products by transforming them, neutralizing them, or simply getting rid of them by breaking them down and eliminating them. We are all exposed to toxins every day through food, water, and the air we breathe. In fact, the body makes its own toxins through normal everyday processes like digestion, metabolism, and physical activity (e.g., converting ammonia to urea which is excreted in the urine). Toxins even include those naturally found in tiny quantities in foods (e.g., methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables—which are very healthy). There are also synthetic toxins found in medicines, pesticides, and preservatives (e.g., sulfur dioxide is used to preserve some fruits and vegetables).
But what does this have to do with nutrition?
These detoxification systems are made from many biochemicals in our bodies, such as enzymes. Part of what makes enzymes work are key essential nutrients from vitamins and minerals. So, getting quality nutrition helps your body maintain all aspects of your health—including detoxification.
Nutrition plays a vital role in your body’s ability to naturally detoxify and eliminate toxins. (And you don’t need to follow an overly restrictive or extreme detox diet or cleanse to support them.)
What are “detox diets” and “cleanses”?
Search the internet and you’ll find thousands of website pages and posts on these topics. There are so many different types of detox diets and cleanses being advertised. Many make bold promises of weight loss and improved health.
Detox diets and cleanses often include at least one of the following:
● Eating more nutritious foods
● Reducing ‘junk’ foods
● Avoiding alcohol and/or caffeine or even whole food groups (like all grains or protein)
● Eliminating some common allergens (e.g., wheat, dairy, soy)
● Replacing meals with only smoothies, juices, teas, or powders and pills
● Short or long-term fasting (moderation is key)
● Only eating/drinking a handful of recommended foods/beverages
● Taking several dietary supplements and/or laxatives
● Getting “colon cleanses” (enemas)
Of course, it’s not hard to argue that replacing fast foods and highly processed (a.k.a ‘junk food’) foods with more nutritious whole foods is a great step towards better health. So, one of the risks of extreme diets and excessive fasting, in the long term, is nutrient deficiencies. As you can imagine, the more healthy foods you eliminate from your diet, the fewer nutrients you will get. As we discussed, it’s counterintuitive to cut out too many foods because there are critical nutrients scientifically proven to be necessary for your body’s natural detoxification enzymes to work efficiently. Proper, balanced nutrition is key.
Another risk with certain detox supplements or teas can be serious side effects. You may have heard about cases of excess herbal intake, unsafe ingredients or contaminated ingredients that have harmed people.
Overall, there is a lack of good-quality research into detox diets and cleanses, as most studies have been conducted on animals, not people. As Dr. Robert H. Schmerling from Harvard Health says, “It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.”
There’s no evidence that supplemental detoxes or cleanses actually help your body eliminate more toxins than it normally does. A few studies show that they can help with initial weight loss, however, experts believe that’s due to a reduction in calorie intake. The weight lost is often water and carbohydrate (not fat), so it’s easily regained as soon as the dieting stops. There are no studies showing the long-term effects of detox diets or cleanses.
It’s true that some people claim to feel better and more energized when they’re on these diets. This may be because they’re eating more nutritious foods and fewer highly processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
Having said this, there may be medical conditions for which eliminating certain foods is recommended. For example, if you have a food allergy or intolerance (e.g. gluten or dairy), or if you need to be on a low-fiber diet due to a specific digestive issue, you have a valid reason for eliminating certain foods. Before jumping into a detox diet or cleanse, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first.
How to use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification
You probably don’t need to eliminate a long list of foods from your diet. In fact, getting enough of your daily nutrients is what can help ensure your detoxification enzymes
have what they need to keep up their ongoing very important work.
Here are a few simple things you can do every day to “detox” yourself:
● Give your body a break from things like tobacco, alcohol and highly-processed food.
● Eat plenty of Fiber by eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and 1-2 servings of whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants. (25-35 g per day is the recommendation).
As I have been blogging and posting about fiber over the last 2 months, FIBER is essential in binding with toxins and by promoting bowel regularity, these help to eliminate toxins via the stool.
● Drinking water is one of the best and fastest ways to flush out toxins from your system. Water transports toxins through your system via your bloodstream, making sure they're excreted via the urine. Try adding a slice of lemon, lime, or orange to your water for flavor. You can brew a tasty non-caffeine tea as well. (I like cinnamon-apple)
● Include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower or brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, and arugula. These contain compounds that help support detoxification pathways.
● Enjoy some naturally fermented foods like yogurt (plain with no sugary fruit), kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These promote digestive health with probiotics and help rebalance your gut microbiome.
● Consume lean protein. Protein is needed for many things including maintaining optimal levels of a “master” detoxification enzyme called glutathione.
Nutrition is a key aspect of detoxification. Your body’s own natural detoxification pathways in the liver, kidneys, etc. include many enzymes that require vitamins and minerals to function optimally. By getting enough of your essential vitamins and minerals, you’re supplying your detox enzymes with what they need to work.
Detoxification diets or cleanses that you see advertised online are usually different. They often oversell their abilities to improve health. There are almost no quality human studies showing benefits and there are no long-term studies. I recommend speaking with your healthcare professional before embarking on a detox diet or cleanse. If you are looking to lose weight, consider a nutritious and varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, reduced portion sizes, and be active every day.
If you have questions about nutrition, detoxification, or need nutrition support because you have an underlying health condition, click the button below to book an appointment with me to learn if my personalized research-based nutrition programs/services can help you with your health and lifestyle goals.
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British Dietetics Association. (2019, May). Detox Diets: Food Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/detox-diets.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2020, Jan 3). Are You Planning a Cleanse or Detox? Read This First. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-you-planning-a-cleanse-or-detox-read-this-first/
Eat Right. (2019, May). What's the Deal with Detox Diets? Retrieved from
Harvard Health. (2020, March 25). Harvard Health Ad Watch: What’s being cleansed in a detox cleanse? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/harvard-health-ad-watch-whats-being-cleansed-in-a-detox-cleanse-2020032519294
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/detoxing-your-liver-fact-versus-fiction
Kesavarapu, K., Kang, M., Shin, J. J., & Rothstein, K. (2017). Yogi Detox Tea: A Potential Cause of Acute Liver Failure. Case reports in gastrointestinal medicine, 2017, 3540756. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/3540756
Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, April 18). Do detox diets offer any health benefits? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/detox-diets/faq-20058040
Medical News Today. (2019, March 11). What to know about the lemon detox diet. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324670
NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019, September). “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know
NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Methanol. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/methanol
NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Sulfur dioxide. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/sulfur-dioxide
NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Toxicology 101. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/key-concepts-and-glossary/toxicology-101