Detox Diets & Cleanses: What’s The Deal?

A friend of mine recently told me she’d done a “cleanse” that lasted 9 days. It cost her $150. It involved a regime of supplemental shakes and powdered cleansing drinks (this product was the reason for the $$), fasting days of only juice and water, alongside other recommended dietary changes. The main claims? Weight loss, cleansing the body of toxins, improved energy and digestion.

My friend is hardly the first person to go on such a regime. It seems like, these days, every other celebrity is talking about this, and I’ve had countless patients tell me they’re “doing a cleanse”.

So here’s my question: Do detox diets and cleanses actually benefit your health? Do they live up to their claims?

Or, put another way: does a detox diet cleanse anything other than your wallet?

My friend said, after the 9 days, she felt great, and she had lost “inches”. And this wasn’t the first time she’d done this particular cleanse. She was telling me this, of course, as we munched our way through a big tub of movie popcorn. Had she changed her diet long-term? Nope. The last few times she’d done this cleanse she’d also lost weight, and inches, and felt great. Had she regained the weight each time? Yep.

So, naturally, as we talked I was formulating an opinion on this particular diet, but I decided I needed to do some research. Here are the positions of some reputable institutions on “detox-ing”:

TIME Health

Mayo Clinic

Harvard Health

Essentially, what everyone seems to say is this: there’s no evidence to support these sorts of “cleanses” or “detox diets”. But does that mean there hasn’t been sufficient research done yet? Or does it mean there is definite evidence against it? That bit is a little unclear.

I think it’s helpful to tease out the reasons for using a cleanse. And there appear to be two different camps. One primary goal is to rid the body of toxins. The other is to lose weight. There are all sorts of side-benefits mentioned in these programs, but as far as I can tell, these are the two primary goals. And they can be considered separately.

The consensus is pretty clear on the weight loss goal: it will work, but it will be short-lived, and you will likely have rebound weight gain–often more than your initial loss. See, the thing is, your metabolism is now slower. Your body has gone into starvation mode.

As for the detoxification goal, I think this one is still up for debate. I do believe that our bodies need detoxification. But the fact is, we were born with internal systems designed to do this job for us (liver, kidneys, and skin, via sweating). However, whether these systems are sufficient for this job in our modern age, and with our North-American-ized diet, is perhaps not totally certain.

I really, really wish I’d been able to find some solid scientific studies on this topic. But I didn’t. I’m going to keep checking, and maybe something will be forthcoming. As Dr. Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary Medicine, in a paper that reviewed detox diets (in Australian Family Physician) said: “lack of evidence for an effect does not mean lack of effect”. Which is quite true.

That being said, I would personally expect there to be some pretty convincing evidence available to prove a system’s effectiveness before shelling out $150.

Here are some prominent physicians’ viewpoints:

Dr. Andrew Weil

Dr. Mark Hyman

Here is what Dr. Weil said about cleansing/detox-ing diets:

Fasting and near-fasting routines such as the Master Cleanse are not effective weight loss tools – they alter your metabolism in a way that actually may make it harder for you to lose weight or easier to regain the weight once you go back to the way you normally eat. Most people compensate for the deprivation of the regimen by increasing their caloric consumption afterward.

I mean, if someone like Dr. Weil doesn’t even endorse this kind of thing (and he’s a fan of some pretty out-there stuff sometimes), it’s quite likely you’ve really got something pretty ineffective on your hands.

I have little doubt there’s a placebo effect to these pre-packaged detox systems. I mean, you’ve got a vested interest in believing that something is working when you’ve forked over a big chunk of your paycheque, don’t you?

The diet system my friend used also required that she eliminate dairy, meat, alcohol, and caffeine from her diet during the 9 days. And drink plenty of water. I asked her what she thought might happen if she tried just doing the diet cleanup part, without all the pricey shakes. Any chance she might feel better, slim down, have more energy…all without the hyped-up product?

And I guess that’s my opinion in a nutshell. If you’re looking to detox from junk food and processed food and all those other toxins…how about not eating junk food and processed food? How about having a healthy, bountiful diet of whole food? How about drinking plenty of water anyway? How about exercising, and sweating, and getting lots of sleep?

Hmm.

Any thoughts? Anybody have any experiences doing a cleanse?

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6 Comments on “Detox Diets & Cleanses: What’s The Deal?

  1. Great article, thank you! I am currently investigating a detox and cleanse by Dr. Don Colbert. I have changed my lifestyle in the sense that I eat whole foods, no fatty meats, no gluten, and organic vegetables and fruit, and nuts 85% of the time. I have been having some major GI problems and recently had an upper endoscopy/biopsy to check for Celiac disease. It came back negative. Now I’m back to square one with blood tests etc to try to figure out what is going on, in the meantime I am considering Dr. Colberts fast/cleanse but only for 10 days total, 1 week on the fruits, vegis, nuts, gluten free grains then the juice cleanse for 3 days following it. I’m doing this to see if it wil help me, I’m not doing it for weight loss I’m doing it to see if I have improved health, energy, ability to combat depression, and an elimination of my GI issues. All that being said, I’ll let you know how it turns out! Thanks again for your insights!
    PS. I spent $9.99 on the book and will buy a juicer but already have great supplements so I won’t be out all that money like your friend!
    Piper
    Atlanta, GA

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Piper! Sounds like you’re working hard on making some healthy changes–and that’s great. Your dietary changes sound smart and reasonable. I’ll be interested to hear how things turn out if you try that cleanse. (and happy to hear you didn’t spend a ton of cash!)
      Cheers!

  2. I totally support the knowledge that the body is a self cleaning machine, and also question if our modern north american lifestyle allows it to function to its full potential. i think if anything, a cleanse can help kickstart a healthy way of life if you use it like that. As a person that did not eat well, just tasting whole fruits and veggies, was kinda of repulsive, my taste buds were not used to it. A “cleanse” seems to be both a physical and mental thing- i dont have any data to back this up, but, what it feels like is your mind and body can get over the connections you have with processed and poorly balanced foods and re engage you with satisfying boh hunger and nutrition needs with real food. during that time you can meditate on the lifestyle change and anticipate any hardships and use the cleasning as a reset when things (as they always do) go astray in your diet. sometimes life gets the best of me and i lose track of my Healthy and i find it again with a “cleanse”. A water cleanse, master cleanse juice cleanse, etc can really be helpful. I hope people become smart enough to kind of repurpose the word for their own use a bit and go on a salad cleanse or a oatmeal cleanse …. you know, learn how to press their reset button.

    • Yes, I think you’re right–that’s a totally valid reason for using a cleanse. Making changes in your lifestyle is a huge head game, and if there’s something that helps you plug in to that, there’s value in that. Mind and body are most definitely connected!

  3. Any retailer selling a diet / product / protocol that features the word “detox” needs to be viewed with the highest degree of skepticism. As you know, in the world of genuine science, “toxins” have names. We know what they are. We know what they do. Most importantly, we know how to measure them.

    Accordingly, every retailer’s claims for “detoxification” are incredibly vague.

    Sure, some customers may claim to “feel better” after adopting such a protocol, but this is meaningless; feelings of increased well-being can often be attributed to the improved nutritional habits that accompany the cleanse.

    Whether or not further research finds “detox” diets do help purge the body of environmental toxins (highly unliklely given the relatively ordinary ingredient / nutrient profile untilized by detox products / diets) is moot at this point – there currently is no evidence to support any of the “detox” claims, and merchants who profit from the sales of such products are obligated to support their assertions with proof.

    The fact that none have made any effort to do so – despite the fact it would be realitively simple to demonstrate some “detoxing” activity – doesn’t have me “holding my beath”.

    You may also interested in this; the British charitable trust “Sense About Science” published a lovely little dossier where they tried to discover the evidence behind the “detox” claims for popular products and diets. Needless to say, they found that for the most part, “detox” is a meaningless marketing term.

    It’s well worth the read, and can be downloaded from…

    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/resources.php/48/detox-dossier

    All the best,

    Paul

  4. I bought the Lady Soma Detox ($84.99) to kick off my 2012 resolution to be healthier and more aware of my body. I saw the infomercials but didn’t want to buy it on TV.

    I bought online and I’m on week two and I feel really great!

    The Detox is easy to take. Since starting I am regular, I have less gas, and I have better awareness for how certain foods have been affecting my body. And my pants are much, much looser. This is not just a colon cleanse, but is a whole body cleanse. It has herbs that work on all your body’s systems (like the skin and liver), so it really works on detoxifying and removing all the toxins from a month of holiday splurging.

    It has motivated me to really cut back on snacking and sugar and bread. I want to eat more vegetables and plants based foods. And I’ve started drinking way more water. It is a 7 day commitment, but I already know I’m going to be incorporating this into my new lifestyle changes. And if you look at other cleanses online or in stores they are much more expensive. Overall, highly recommended!

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