Getting the Facts Straight // Detoxes

This post is adapted from one that I wrote for Glow Gathering earlier this year, just in time for the ‘New Year, New You’ messages that generally call us to overhaul our diet and lifestyle to make up for our ‘bad’ decisions and indulgences after the festive season. I don’t think I have ever really touched on this topic in much detail on the blog, other than the small #WednesdayWisdom feature I shared a number of months ago. After receiving a few questions from people asking if they should go on a ‘detox’ for the purposes of healing their gut, helping their skin, and for reducing inflammation, I thought it would be best to include a detailed post here for future reference.

What has been concerning me the most about this topic is how qualified medical professionals, including registered dietitians and medical doctors, are promoting detox plans, supplements, and products that they claim will ‘cleanse’ your body of toxins, when in reality the evidence behind most of these promises is super dodgy. There is lots of room for more research in this area, and investigating the role that dietary patterns and different types of foods play in assisting our natural detoxification pathways is warranted, however I do believe that it is unethical to make bold claims and make money off of false promises particularly where sick people are concerned.


The word ‘detox’ is thrown around on social media, food products, and in fad diet books all of the time, and whilst many of us have been or will be tempted by the attractive marketing behind juice cleanses, special teas, and supplements, their promises are nothing more than nicely packaged lies and half-truths. 

Debunking the detox myth

Do a Google search of the word ‘detox’ and you will find plans, books, and products that promise to promote health and wellbeing through the elimination of certain foods and use of special supplements. However, despite the fact that the detox industry is booming, there is not much scientific evidence to back up most of the claims made by these things. The few studies that are available are hindered by their poor methodologies and relatively small sample sizes, and at this point no randomised-controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of juice cleanses, detox teas, or restrictive detox diets. Although there are some preliminary studies suggesting that certain nutritional components, including chlorella, nori, and selenium, may support detoxification processes in the body, most of them have been conducted on animals and thus cannot be directly translated to humans.

Detox products are attractive to for a number of reasons, the main one I believe to be the fact that they promise us a quick fix. They promise to rid our bodies of environmental toxins, relieve us gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune disease, overall inflammation and chronic fatigue syndrome, and help with weight loss. The idea of ‘going on a detox’ is also often linked to a clean start, some kind of ritual of cleansing and purification. Although the word may mean different things to many people, it is usually linked to removing food groups from the diet, restricting food intake, and, more often than not, purchasing and consuming expensive products. 

Dangers associated with detoxes and cleanses

1.     LOW FIBRE AND HIGH SUGAR INTAKE

Juice cleanses may provide you with lots of vitamins and minerals, but they are also devoid of fibre and provide you with far more sugar than you need all in one go. Neither of these things are good for maintaining good health in the long-term.

2.     DESIRED SHORT-TERM GAINS

Juicing or ‘detoxification plans’ tend to result in a small amount of weight loss, mostly water weight, due to the fact that they lead to extremely low caloric intake for short periods of time. Although this might make you feel ‘great’ in the short-term (this is pretty subjective in itself, as the placebo effect is a pretty real thing), the weight will rarely stay off in the long-term.

3.     UNWANTED LONG-TERM DAMAGE

As with any fad ‘diet’, severe calorie restriction tends to cause metabolic damage by stimulating appetite and reducing  metabolic activity and energy expenditure, leading to a weight loss ‘plateau’ fairly quickly. Most detoxes literally starve you, and at the core are very low-calorie diets. Also, dieting in general can often be a stressful experience for the body, with evidence showing that stress and anxiety related to restriction and dieting might elevate cortisol levels that promote weight gain.

4.     PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS

Detox programs are often also psychologically damaging, feeding into anxious thoughts and an unhealthy relationship with food. This is because they involve resisting temptation and enduring physically uncomfortable feelings of hunger and deprivation for days on end.

 

Our bodies are AMAZING!

Detoxification (or detox for short) refers to the physiological or medicinal removal of toxic substances from an organism. In medicine, detoxification refers to a hospitalisation process that is required when someone has ingested poison, for example. On a day-to-day basis, the human body has a number of sophisticated physiological mechanisms that are responsible for removing unwanted toxins from the body, without the need for costly products. Every time you go to the loo, breathe, or even sweat your body naturally detoxes.

We have a liver, with hundreds of different enzymes that convert harmful compounds (many of which are actually naturally produced by our bodies through normal processes) into less toxic, water-soluble forms. Our lungs, kidneys, digestive system, and sweat play a critical role in eliminating these processed metabolites and other unwanted compounds from the body. Yes, there are things we can do and things we can eat to help our body detox itself more effectively, but no eating plan or product is going to ‘reset’ your body or ‘kick-start’ your detox mechanisms - your body needs to detoxify itself all of the time, otherwise you would probably get really sick and die.

 

An alternative answer

 Detoxes, like any other quick fixes, don’t work. Spending lots of money on a specially formulated juice detox or meal plan will not undo poor eating habits over the long-term. Although my advice might not be quite as attractive as a quick-fix, why not try to implement a few of these practical tips, which are far more sustainable, affordable, and achievable in the long-term: 

1.     Eat your fruits and veggies

Fruits and vegetables are packed with fibre, vitamins, minerals, and other amazing components. All of these things play a role in your body’s natural detoxification pathways, so why not try eat a new vegetable every week, or incorporate an extra serving of fruits or vegetables into each of your meals?

2.     CHEW MORE

Help out your digestive system by chewing your food properly and eating reasonable sized portions of food more often that it is able to digest with ease. Allow enough time between meals for your gastrointestinal tract to process the food that you’ve eaten.

3.     EAT MORE WHOLE FOODS

Eating foods in their natural, whole form is a great idea because the healthy compounds found in foods work well together, and are far better for you as part of a whole. Eating whole foods also means less waste than going on a juice cleanse, as these often lead to a whole lot of unnecessary waste, with pulp and skins usually being thrown in the bin.

4.     EAT YOUR GREENS

Broccoli, kale, and other cruciferous vegetables can do wonders in supporting your body’s natural detoxification mechanisms. Broccoli is a great source of a phytochemical known as sulforaphane, which does an amazing job of boosting out liver’s ability to process and eliminate foreign molecules.

5.     DRINK MORE WATER

Many of us don’t drink enough water, but it’s actually the most affordable way to support your body’s natural detoxification processes. Water is important for facilitating the excretion of metabolites in urine via our kidneys.

6.     GET MOVING

Gentle, enjoyable, purposeful movement is fantastic for so many reasons, including the fact that it can be calming, clears the mind, and can boost your mood. It also improves digestion and promotes blood flow around the body, which are both processes support natural detoxification.


References

[1] Klein AV, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015 Dec;28(6):675-86. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25522674

[2] Obert J, Perlman M, Obert L, Chapin S. Popular Weight Loss Strategies: a Review of Four Weight Loss Techniques. Nutr Obes. 2017 Dec;19:61

[3] Pixie Turner. 2 January 2016. A Scientific Guide to January Detoxing (http://www.plantbased-pixie.com/scientific-guide-to-detoxing/)

[4] Kate Brateskeir. 6 December 2017. What To Eat Instead Of Going On A Juice Cleanse (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/juice-cleanse-healthy-you-shall-be-hungry_n_7286668)

[5] Dara Mohammadi. 5 December 2014. You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy? (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/05/detox-myth-health-diet-science-ignorance)

[6] Michael Gregor. 12 April 2012. The Best Detox. (https://nutritionfacts.org/2012/04/12/the-best-detox/)