Are Detox Diets Safe?
What Is a Detox Diet?
The name sounds reassuring — everyone knows that anything toxic is bad for you. Plus, these diets encourage you to eat natural foods and involve lots of water and veggies — all stuff you know is good for you. You hear about celebrities going on detox diets, and people who go into drug or alcohol rehabs are said to be detoxing. So shouldn’t a detox diet be a good bet?
Not really. Like many other fad diets, detox diets can have harmful side effects, especially for teens.
A toxin is a chemical or poison that is known to have harmful effects on the body. Toxins can come from food or water, from chemicals used to grow or prepare food, and even from the air that we breathe. Our bodies process those toxins through organs like the liver and kidneys and eliminate them in the form of sweat, urine, and feces.
Although detox diet theories have not been proven scientifically, the people who support them believe that toxins don’t always leave our bodies properly during the elimination of waste. Instead, they think toxins hang around in our digestive, lymph, and gastrointestinal systems as well as in our skin and hair causing problems like tiredness, headaches, and nausea.
The basic idea behind detox diets is to temporarily give up certain kinds of foods that are thought to contain toxins. The idea is to purify and purge the body of all the “bad” stuff. But the truth is, the human body is designed to purify itself.
Detox diets vary. Most involve some version of a fast: that is, giving up food for a couple of days and then gradually reintroducing certain foods into the diet. Many of these diets also encourage people to have colonic irrigation or enemas to “clean out” the colon. (An enema flushes out the rectum and colon using water.) Others recommend that you take special teas or supplements to help the “purification” process.
There are lots of claims about what a detox diet can do, from preventing and curing disease to giving people more energy or focus. Of course, eating a diet lower in fat and higher in fiber can help many people feel healthier. But people who support detox diets claim that this is because of the elimination of toxins. There’s no scientific proof that these diets help rid the body of toxins faster or that the elimination of toxins will make you a healthier, more energetic person.
What Should You Watch Out For?
Detox diets are supposedly to help “clean out the system” but many people think they will lose weight if they try these diets. Here’s the truth:
- Detox diets are not recommended for teens. Normal teenagers need lots of nutritional goodies; like enough calories and protein to support rapid growth and development. So diets that involve fasting and severe restriction of food are not a good idea. For teens who are involved in sports and physical activities that require ample food, fasting does not provide enough fuel to support these activities. For these reasons, detox diets can be especially risky for teenagers.
- Detox diets aren’t for people with health conditions. They’re not recommended for people with diabetes, heart disease, or other chronic medical conditions. Detox diets should be avoided if you are pregnant or have an eating disorder.
- Detox diets can be addicting. That’s because there’s a certain feeling that comes from going without food or from having an enema — for some, it’s almost like the high other people get from nicotine or alcohol. This can become a dangerous addiction that leads to health problems, including serious eating disorders, heart problems, and even death.
- Detox supplements can have side effects. Many of the supplements used during detox diets are actually laxatives, which are designed to make people go to the bathroom more often, and that can get messy. Laxative supplements are never a good idea because they can cause dehydration, mineral imbalances, and problems with the digestive system.
- Detox diets don’t help people lose fat. People who fast for several days may drop pounds, but most of it will be water and some of it may be muscle. Most people regain the weight they lost soon after completing the program.
- Detox diets are for short-term purposes only. In addition to causing other health problems, fasting for long periods can slow down a person’s metabolism, making it harder to keep the weight off or to lose weight later.
Eat Right and Your Body Does the Rest
Of course, it’s a great idea to eat lots of fruits and veggies, get lots of fiber, and drink water. But you also need to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need from other foods, including protein (from sources such as lean meats, fish, eggs, and beans) and calcium (from foods like low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt).
The human body is designed to purify itself. You can help by eating a variety of healthy foods. If you have questions about detox diets or are concerned about your weight, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012