The truth about detox diets and cleanses

Published Apr 29, 2024 • By Laury Sellem

The popularity of detoxification diets or “detox diet”, is higher than ever. Promising to rid your body of toxins, boost energy levels, and kickstart weight loss, these diets are hard to escape when looking for nutritional advice online or in health magazines. But despite their widespread popularity and promises for results, detox diets and cleanses can pose serious health risks, especially for those living with chronic conditions. 

How to recognise detox diets? What are the hidden dangers of these diets and why are they not as beneficial as they seem?  

Keep reading to find out! 

The truth about detox diets and cleanses

Detox diets and cleanses are more appealing than ever 

Detox diets and cleanses revolve around the concept of eliminating toxins from the body to promote health and well-being. They are often promoted as a quick fix for a multitude of health struggles, promising to boost weight loss, improve gut health and digestion, or reduce fatigue. Most of all, these diets often boast transformative results in a matter of a few days or a few weeks. With such promises, added to flashy marketing strategies and celebrity endorsements spread over online and traditional media, it is easy to see why so many people are attracted to these diets! 

Detox diets and cleanses: what are they and how to recognise them?  

Detox diets and cleanses typically involve various strategies, such as restricting food intake, eliminating certain food groups, consuming specific foods or beverages, and sometimes incorporating supplements or herbal remedies. The primary goal is to support the body's natural detoxification processes, primarily through the liver, kidneys, skin, and digestive system. 

Some common features of detox diets and cleanses include: 

  • Fasting: Some detox diets involve periods of fasting when individuals must refrain from consuming solid food and/or liquids for a specified period. This can also include consuming only specific liquids like juices, herbal teas, or detox drinks. 
  • Elimination of Certain Foods: Many detox diets require to completely stop consuming certain foods that are believed to contribute to toxin buildup or inflammation in the body. These may include processed foods, refined sugars, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, gluten, and animal products. 
  • Herbal Supplements and Teas: Some detox diets and cleanses incorporate herbal supplements, teas, or other botanical remedies believed to promote detoxification and support organ function. Examples include dandelion root tea, milk thistle extract, green powders, and detoxifying herbal blends. 
  • Colon Cleanses: Some detox programs include procedures or supplements aimed at cleansing the colon or promoting bowel movements to eliminate toxins and waste products from the body. 

Detox diets and cleanses may vary widely in their approach, duration, and specific recommendations. The underlying promise is to “cleanse” the body by eliminating alleged toxins and impurities. However, the scientific evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of these regimens is often very limited or conflicting. 

The risks and hidden dangers of detox diets and cleanses 

Aside from a lack of scientifically proven benefits, following such diets regularly and/or for a long period of time can lead to physical and mental health risks, such as: 

  • Nutritional deficiencies: Many detox diets severely restrict calorie intake and eliminate essential nutrients, such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. Furthermore, cleanses often aim to accelerate the digestive function to “flush out” toxins, increasing the risk of intense diarrhoea and bloating. These symptoms further contribute to the potential deficiencies in minerals and vitamins. For individuals with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders, these deficiencies can worsen symptoms and compromise overall health.  
  • Metabolic disruption: Extreme dietary changes, such as prolonged fasting or drastic calorie reduction, can disrupt the body's metabolism. This disruption can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, hormonal imbalances, and even metabolic damage. For those with metabolic disorders or thyroid issues, these changes can have serious consequences for their health. 
  • Impact on mental health: The restrictive nature of detox diets and cleanses can take a toll on mental well-being. Constantly thinking about what you can and cannot eat, feeling guilty for deviating from the diet plan, and obsessing over weight loss goals can exacerbate anxiety and stress. For individuals already struggling with mental health issues, these diets can worsen symptoms and trigger harmful behaviours. 
  • Potential for eating disorders: Detox diets and cleanses can blur the line between healthy eating habits and disordered eating behaviours. The emphasis on restriction and deprivation can trigger binge-eating episodes or feelings of guilt and shame. For those with a history of eating disorders or a predisposition to develop them, these diets can be especially dangerous. 

Our body’s natural detox mechanisms 

The body has several natural metabolic pathways dedicated to detoxification, which work together to process and eliminate toxins, waste products, and other harmful substances from the body, without the need for detox diets. Here are some of the key metabolic detox pathways: 

  • Liver detoxification: The liver is the primary organ responsible for detoxification. It performs two main phases of detoxification: Phase I and Phase II. In Phase I, enzymes called cytochrome P450 enzymes help break down toxins and convert them into intermediate compounds. In Phase II, these intermediate compounds are further processed to make them water-soluble and easier to excrete via urine or bile. 
  • Kidney filtration: The kidneys play a crucial role in filtering waste products and toxins from the bloodstream and excreting them in the form of urine. They help maintain electrolyte balance, regulate fluid levels, and eliminate metabolic waste products such as urea, creatinine, and excess minerals. 
  • Gastrointestinal elimination: The gastrointestinal tract is involved in the elimination of toxins and waste products through bowel movements. The colon absorbs water and electrolytes from digested food, while the intestines help excrete waste products, bile acids, and other toxins through faeces. 
  • Skin detoxification: The skin serves as a secondary detoxification organ by eliminating toxins through sweat. Sweating helps regulate body temperature and excrete metabolic waste products, heavy metals, and other toxins. 
  • Antioxidant defense system: Antioxidants such as glutathione, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium help neutralize free radicals and protect cells from oxidative damage caused by toxins and environmental pollutants. These antioxidants support the body's natural detoxification processes and help maintain cellular health. 

Conclusion: a balanced approach to wellness 

Rather than resorting to extreme measures like detox and cleansing diets, it's essential to adopt a balanced approach to wellness. This means nourishing your body with whole, nutrient-dense foods, staying hydrated, and engaging in regular physical activity to support the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms.  

While detox diets and may promise quick and transformative results, the dangers they pose to health cannot be ignored. From nutrient deficiencies and metabolic disruption to mental health issues and eating disorders, these diets come with significant risks. If you're considering embarking on a detox or cleansing regimen, it's crucial to consult with a healthcare professional first. They can provide personalised guidance based on your individual health needs and help you make informed decisions about your wellness journey. 

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Sources :
The Evidence on Detox Diets. Evidence-based living – Cornell University

“Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. NCCIH Clearinghouse

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Obert J, Pearlman M, Obert L, Chapin S. Popular Weight Loss Strategies: a Review of Four Weight Loss Techniques. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2017 Nov 9;19(12):61. doi: 10.1007/s11894-017-0603-8. PMID: 29124370. 

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Baker LB. Physiology of sweat gland function: The roles of sweating and sweat composition in human health. Temperature (Austin). 2019 Jul 17;6(3):211-259. doi: 10.1080/23328940.2019.1632145. PMID: 31608304; PMCID: PMC6773238. 

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avatar Laury Sellem

Author: Laury Sellem, Doctor of Nutrition

Laury holds a PhD in Nutrition Sciences (University of Reading, UK) and a master's in Nutrition and Human Health (AgroParisTech, France). She has conducted clinical and epidemiological research projects in Nutrition... >> Learn more


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