Detox Diets 101: Do These “Cleanses” Really Work?

Woman Holding a Carrot, Looking SkepticalDetoxification (detox) diets are more popular than ever.

These diets claim to clean the blood and eliminate harmful toxins from the body.

However, it is not entirely clear how they do this, what they’re supposed to eliminate and if they actually work.

This is a detailed review of detox diets and their health effects.

What is a Detox?

Detox diets are generally short-term dietary interventions designed to eliminate toxins from the body.

A typical detox diet involves a period of fasting, followed by a strict diet of fruit, vegetables, fruit juices and water. Sometimes a detox also includes herbs, teas, supplements and colon cleanses or enemas.

This is claimed to:

  • Rest the organs by fasting.
  • Stimulate the liver to get rid of toxins.
  • Promote toxin elimination through feces, urine and sweat.
  • Improve circulation.
  • Provide the body with healthy nutrients.

Detox therapies are most commonly recommended because of exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment or diet. These include pollutants, synthetic chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful compounds.

These diets are also claimed to help with various health problems, including obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, bloating and chronic fatigue (1).

However, human research on detox diets is lacking, and the handful of studies that have been published suffer from significant limitations (2, 3).

Bottom Line: Detoxes are short-term interventions designed to eliminate toxins from the body. They are claimed to help with various health problems.

The Most Common Ways to Detox

Man Holding out Glass of Juice

There are many ways to do a detox diet, ranging from total starvation fasts and juicing to simpler food modifications.

Most detox diets involve at least one of the following (1):

  • Fasting for 1–3 days.
  • Drinking fresh fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, water and tea.
  • Drinking only specific liquids, such as salted water or lemon juice.
  • Eliminating foods high in heavy metals, contaminants and allergens.
  • Taking supplements or herbs.
  • Avoiding all allergenic foods, and then slowly reintroducing them.
  • Using laxatives, colon cleanses or enemas.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Completely eliminating alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and refined sugar

The different detox diets vary in intensity and duration.

Bottom Line: There are many kinds of detoxes. Some of them involve fasting, eating specific foods, avoiding harmful ingredients and taking supplements.

Which Toxins are Eliminated?

Pomegranate Juice and Arils

Detox diets rarely identify the specific toxins they aim to remove or how exactly they eliminate them.

In fact, there is little to no evidence that detox diets actually remove any “toxins” from your body.

More importantly, there is really no scientific evidence backing up the claim that our bodies are loaded with toxins and need to be cleansed.

Your body is actually very capable of cleansing itself, through the liver, feces, urine and sweat. The liver makes toxic substances harmless, and then makes sure they’re released from the body (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

Despite this, there are a few chemicals that may not be as easily removed by these processes, including persistent organic pollutants, pthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and heavy metals (3, 8, 9, 10, 11).

These tend to accumulate in fat tissue or blood and can take a very long time, even years, for the body to get rid of (12, 13, 14).

However, generally speaking, these compounds are removed from or limited in commercial products today (15).

All that being said, there is little evidence that detox diets actually help remove any of these compounds.

Bottom Line: Detox diets rarely identify the specific toxins they’re removing, and there is little evidence that they even remove any toxins. Your body can clear itself of most toxins through the liver, feces, urine and sweat.

Do Detox Diets Work?

Cut Oranges

Some people report feeling more focused and energetic during and after detox diets.

However, this improved well-being may simply be due to eliminating processed foods, alcohol and other unhealthy substances from your diet.

You may also be getting vitamins and minerals that were lacking before.

On the other hand, many people also report feeling very unwell during the detox period.

There is some evidence from animal studies that indicates coriander, an algae called Chlorella, and several types of fruit acids and pectin may help eliminate toxic metals and organic pollutants (2).

Detox Diets and Weight Loss

Currently, very few scientific studies have investigated the effectiveness of detox diets for losing weight (2).

While some people may lose a lot of weight quickly, this seems to be due to loss of fluid and carb stores, rather than fat. This weight is therefore usually regained quickly once you start eating normally again.

The weight loss effects of one detox diet, called the “lemon detox diet,” was studied recently in overweight Korean women. It involves consuming only a mixture of organic maple or palm syrups and lemon juice for 7 days.

This diet significantly reduced body weight, body mass index, body fat percentage, waist to hip ratio and waist circumference, in addition to reducing markers of inflammation in the body (16).

The results also indicate a beneficial effect on hormones by reducing insulin resistance and circulating leptin levels.

If a detox diet involves severe calorie restriction, then it will most certainly cause weight loss and improvements in metabolic health.

However, this type of “crash” dieting probably won’t lead to long-term results unless you change your lifestyle at the same time.

Bottom Line: Studies linking detox diets to weight loss are lacking. Some indicate that detox diets may help with short-term weight loss.

Detox Diets, Short-Term Fasting and Stress

Several varieties of detox diets may have effects similar those from short-term fasting, or intermittent fasting.

Short-term fasting may improve various disease markers in some people, including improved leptin and insulin sensitivity (17, 18).

However, these effects do not apply to everyone. Studies in women have shown that both a 48-hour fast and a 3-week period of reduced calorie intake may increase the levels of stress hormones (19, 20).

On top of that, crash diets can be a stressful experience. They involve resisting temptation and feeling hunger and deprivation (21, 22).

Bottom Line: Some detox diets may resemble intermittent fasting regimes, which can improve some biomarkers of health.

Beneficial Aspects of Detox Diets

Glass of water

There are a few aspects of detox diets that may have health benefits (4).

These include:

Following these guidelines is generally linked with improved health, no matter whether they involve a detox or not.

Bottom Line: Several aspects of detox diets are generally linked with improved health. These include avoiding environmental toxins, exercising, eating nutritious food, drinking water, limiting stress and relaxing.

Safety and Side Effects

Man Drinking Orange Juice and Turning Orange

Before doing any sort of “detox,” it is important to consider possible side effects.

Severe Calorie Restriction

Several detox diets recommend fasting or severe calorie restriction. Short-term fasting and limited calorie intake can result in fatigue, irritability and bad breath.

Long-term fasting can result in energy, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as electrolyte imbalance and even death (23).

Furthermore, colon cleansing methods, which are sometimes recommended during detoxes, can cause dehydration, cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting (24).

Overdosing

Some detox diets may pose the risk of overdosing on supplements, laxatives, diuretics and even water.

There is a lack of regulation and monitoring in the detox industry, and many detox foods and supplements may not have any scientific basis.

In the worst cases, the components of detox products may not match their labels. This can lead to overdose, resulting in serious, and even fatal, effects (25).

Who Should Avoid Detox Diets?

Some groups of people should not start any detox programs or calorie-restricting regimens, at least not without consulting with a doctor first.

This includes children, adolescents, elderly people, the malnourished, pregnant or lactating women and people who have blood sugar issues or medical conditions, such as diabetes or an eating disorder.

Bottom Line: Detox diets may severely limit energy and nutrient intake. Some also include approaches and supplements that can be harmful. Some groups of people should never do detox diets.

Don’t Put Junk in Your Body

People encounter toxic substances all the time.

Most of the time, your body does a perfectly good job of removing them without any additional help.

However, if doing a detox diet makes you start eating and feeling better, then it is a great thing.

But this probably has nothing to do with eliminating toxins, but simply the fact that you’re putting less junk in your body.

A much smarter approach is to avoid putting toxic things (junk food, cigarette smoke, etc) in your body in the first place.

If you don’t “tox” then there’s no need to detox!