Detox diets are more popular than ever. These diets claim to clean your blood and eliminate harmful toxins from your body.
However, it is not entirely clear how they do this, what specific compounds they’re supposed to eliminate, and if they even work.
This is an evidence-based 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 your 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.
Their claims are that this helps to:
- Rest your organs by fasting
- Improve circulation
- Stimulate your liver to get rid of toxins
- Promote toxin elimination through feces, urine, and sweat
- Provide your body with healthy nutrients
Detox therapies are most commonly recommended because of potential exposure to toxic chemicals through our diet or our environment. These include pollutants, synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, and other harmful compounds.
These diets also claim to help with various health problems, including: (1)
- digestive issues
- autoimmune diseases
- chronic fatigue
Common Detox Methods
There are many ways to do a detox diet, ranging from total starvation fasts to explicit food modifications.
Most detox diets involve at least one of the following and can vary in intensity and duration: (4)
- 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, then slowly reintroducing them.
- Using laxatives, colon cleanses, or enemas.
- Completely eliminating alcohol, coffee and sugar.
Detox Diets and Targeted Toxin Elimination
Detox diets rarely identify the specific toxins they claim they’re supposed to remove. Additionally, the mechanisms by which they work are also unclear. In fact, there is little to no evidence that detox diets remove any toxins from your body.
What’s more, your body is completely capable of detoxifying itself through the liver, feces, urine, and sweat. Your liver makes toxic substances harmless, then ensures that they’re excreted from your body. (5, 6, 7)
Despite this, there are a few chemicals that may not be as easily removed by these processes, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs), phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and heavy metals. (8, 9, 10, 11)
These chemicals tend to accumulate in fat tissue or blood and can take a very long time — even years — for your body to flush out. However, these compounds generally are removed from or limited in commercial products today. (12, 13, 14, 15)
Nonetheless, overall, there is little evidence that detox diets help eliminate any of these compounds.
Detox Diets and Weight Loss
Very few scientific studies have investigated how detox diets impact weight loss. And while some people may lose weight quickly while on a detox diet, this effect seems to be due to a loss of fluid and carb stores rather than fat.
Additionally, the weight is usually regained very quickly once the diet is stopped. (16)
If a detox diet involves severe calorie restriction, it is likely to cause weight loss and may even improve metabolic biomarkers. However, it’s unlikely to help you keep weight off long term.
Detox Diets and Stress
Several varieties of detox diets may have similar effects to those of intermittent fasting. In fact, 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 show that both a 48-hour fast and a 3-week period of reduced calorie intake may chronically increase cortisol, your stress hormone. (19, 20)
Additionally, crash or calorie restrictive diets can be a major stressful experience, as they involve resisting temptations or relying on willpower to carry you through bouts of extreme hunger. (21, 22)
Detox Diets and Potential Benefits
A few aspects of detox diets may have health benefits, such as: (23)
- Avoiding dietary sources of heavy metals and POPs
- Eating whole, nutritious, healthy foods
- Avoiding processed foods
- Drinking more water and green tea
- Limiting stress and getting better sleep
Detox Diets and Side Effects
Before doing any sort of detox, it is important to consider possible side effects.
Detox Diets and 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. (24)
Furthermore, colon cleansing methods, which are sometimes recommended during detoxes, can cause dehydration, cramping, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. (25)
Detox Diets and 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 ingredient labels of detox products may be inaccurate. This can increase your risk of overdosing, potentially resulting in serious — and even fatal — effects. (26)
Detox Diets and At-Risk Populations
Certain people should not start any detox or calorie-restricting regimens without consulting a doctor first.
At-risk populations include children, adolescents, older adults, those who are malnourished, pregnant or lactating women, and people who have blood sugar issues, such as diabetes or an eating disorder.
The Bottom Line
Your body is frequently exposed to toxic substances. However, most of the time, it can remove them without any additional help.
While detox diets may seem tempting, their benefits likely have nothing to do with vanquishing toxins, but rather with eliminating various unhealthy food choices.
A much smarter approach is to eat healthier and improve your lifestyle rather than going on a potentially dangerous diet modification.