Do Weight Loss Cleanses Work?

Weight loss cleanses have become one of the hottest and most popular methods for dropping weight rapidly in recent years.

But, are they truly a safe and effective way to take off those unsightly pounds?

In this article I will outline what weight loss cleanses are, their true effectiveness and their associated risks.

What Is a Weight Loss Cleanse?

There is no standard definition of what a weight loss cleanse is or what it should include. However, what the word “cleanse” implies in this instance is ridding the body of impurities in order to facilitate weight loss.

These cleanses are typically brief and involve a specific set of instructions for diet modification to achieve a certain goal. Some simply aim to reduce weight, while others may promise fat loss in a specific area of the body.

And, although the methods can vary, the majority usually include calories restriction, fasting or consuming certain foods and herbs, or avoiding specific foods altogether.

What’s the Difference Between Cleanse and Detox Diets?

It’s difficult to differentiate between a cleanse diet and a detox diet because neither method has any true scientific definition. Plus, there’s significant overlap, meaning, they’re quite similar in their approach.

In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably when referring to this style of dieting, although some people claim that distinct differences exist.

Both diets are intended for short-term use, usually lasting anywhere from one to 30 days.

However, by some standards, the main differences seem to lie within the overall intent behind the respective outcome.

Detox Diets Focus on Eliminating Toxins

Detox diets usually operate under the notion that your body needs assistance to eliminate harmful substances, or toxins, from your system that may be impairing optimal health.

These toxins may refer to any dietary or environmental substance with the potential to cause harm, including but not limited to:

  • Pollutants
  • Heavy metals
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Pesticides
  • Allergens

Detox diets usually involve very strict dietary regimens that may include fasting, herbal supplements, cleansing formulas, laxatives and eliminating many foods.

Some of them also claim to detoxify specific organs, such as your liver, kidneys or colon.

While weight loss may be one goal for some detox diets, they more frequently target a wide array of physical ailments, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • Acne and skin rashes
  • Hormone imbalances

Though detoxes remain very popular, there is no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of this kind of diet regimen (1).

Cleanses Usually Emphasize Healthy Foods

Some cleanse diets operate very similarly to detox diets and involve strict dietary modifications and supplements, while others may be less rigid.

However, generally, cleanses focus on eliminating unhealthy processed foods or highly allergenic foods while replacing them with whole, nutrient dense foods to support overall health.

And, while weight loss is a common goal, cleanses may also be used to treat various digestive issues or food cravings.

Foods frequently eliminated as part of a cleanse diet are:

  • Sugar
  • Processed food
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Gluten

Not All Weight Loss Cleanses Are the Same

If you google the subject “weight loss cleanses” you’ll find an abundance of names and their associated products.

This overwhelming number is likely due to the lack of a standardized definition.

Here are some examples of popular weight loss cleanses:

Whole30: A 30-day diet cleanse that eliminates multiple groups of foods, including sugar, dairy, legumes, grains and alcohol. During this time, you’re encouraged to consume plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.

Beachbody Ultimate Reset: This is a 21-day diet focusing on eliminating dairy, meat, eggs, sugar and processed foods. Nutritional supplements, probiotics and herbal laxatives are included throughout the process.

10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse: This cleanse replaces all meals with specific green smoothies that are made from various fruits and vegetables. You’re also allowed to eat unlimited amounts of non-starchy vegetables.

Juice Cleanses: Typically lasting 3–7 days, these cleanses eliminate all foods other than juice and water. There’s often a specific series of fruit and vegetable juices to be consumed in a particular order.

The Master Cleanse: Also called the Lemonade Diet, this cleanse consists of eating only a mixture of lemon juice, water, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for 10 days.

As you can see from these few examples, weight loss cleanses can vary greatly in terms of restrictions, length and necessary ingredients.

Are They Effective?

To date, there are no scientific studies conducted on any weight loss cleanses. Therefore, their effectiveness has yet to be established.

Despite limited research on cleanses, they’re most comparable to short-term, calorie restriction or a very-low-calorie diet (VLCD).

Most research defines a VLCD as consisting of between 500 to 800 calories per day. And this caloric intake is similar to many of the popular weight loss cleanses.

Several studies on VLCDs in obese people revealed significant reductions in weight. (2, 3, 4)

Interestingly, one 15-week study showed that short-term, rapid weight loss by way of a VLCD was more effective at lowering cholesterol and blood sugar than slower, sustained methods for weight loss.

However, although both slow and rapid weight loss strategies led to a reduction in weight and body size, the group that used the slower weight loss strategy preserved more metabolically active muscle tissue, thus protecting their metabolism. (5)

It should also be noted that most of the VLCDs in these studies had incorporated total nutrition needs as part of the dietary strategy. These methods were closely monitored, well planned and nutritionally balanced.

Weight loss cleanses differ due to the fact that they often eliminate vital nutritional components, such as protein, without providing any guidance for replacing them during the cleanse.

These restrictions could ultimately lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, making such cleanses unbalanced and metabolically unsafe.

Additionally, though appropriately planned VLCDs may be effective for weight loss in the short term, maintaining weight loss over a longer period is only possible through balanced, healthy eating behaviors after the VLCD period is complete.

Do They Offer Any Health Benefits?

No reliable scientific research exists on weight loss cleanses despite the wide array of health claims that typically accompany them. Most of these statements are marketing taglines that are at best based on subjective evidence.

Most weight loss cleanses are low-calorie and brief, and some research supports the notion that short-term, very-low-calorie diets (VLCDs) have a more positive outcome with less complications.

Several studies in people with type 2 diabetes noticed that a VLCD regimen significantly reduced fasting blood sugar levels. (6, 7).

Some of the same studies also revealed a significant reduction in markers of heart disease risk for those who lost weight using a VLCD. (8, 9)

Keep in mind that many of these health effects are likely to be seen with weight loss in general and not necessarily unique to the VLCD method.

It’s well established that achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can help prevent and reverse a variety of chronic diseases. VLCD methods are just one of many ways to lose weight and may not be ideal for most people.

A VLCD in the form of a weight loss cleanse can be socially isolating and extremely difficult to adhere to, as it’s far from a long-term, healthy eating pattern.

Furthermore, VLCDs in the earlier outlined studies were carried out under strict medical supervision, whereas a weight loss cleanse sold on the internet won’t have that advantage.

Also, many of the popular cleanses also replace a supportive and balanced approach to healthy living with costly investments in juices, supplements and instruction manuals with little to no evidence backing their effectiveness.

Additionally, these extreme styles of eating don’t outline or teach healthy behaviors for maintaining weight loss after the cleanse is complete.

Are There Any Inherent Risks or Safety Concerns?

Weight loss cleanses are an extreme approach and come with potentially detrimental health effects.

Rapid weight loss, such as that promoted by most weight loss cleanses, is associated with adverse health reactions, including dehydration and the development of gallstones. (8, 9)

Due to the restrictive nature of many weight loss cleanses, they may have a negative biological impact on metabolism and a psychological influence on people prone to eating disorders. (10)

Furthermore, VLCDs accompanying many cleanse protocols could significantly increase your risk of major nutritional deficiencies. Of course, this risk may vary depending on the duration and degree of restriction of a particular cleanse. (11)

For most people, focusing solely on weight loss at the expense of other health issues not only jeopardizes their physical and mental wellbeing but also hinders the development of skills to implement long-term healthy behaviors post-cleanse.

The Bottom Line:

Weight loss cleanses are extreme dietary approaches that promise rapid weight loss through very restrictive eating patterns.

There is no real scientific research to support their use.

In addition, they’re often nutritionally incomplete and may be dangerous for certain people, especially without appropriate planning or medical supervision.

Implementing balanced, healthy eating behaviors that can be utilized long term are a much safer, more effective weight loss solution, especially long term.