What is a Detox Diet?

Young woman drinking green juice
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Detox, short for detoxification, is the body's natural, ongoing process of neutralizing and eliminating toxins. Toxins are substances that can potentially harm body tissue, such as waste products that result from normal cell activity (like ammonia, lactic acid, and homocysteine) and chemicals that we are exposed to in our environment, food, and water. The liver, intestines, kidneys, lungs, skin, blood, and lymphatic systems work together to transform toxins to less harmful compounds and excrete them from the body.

What is a Detox Diet?

Although detox is primarily thought of as a treatment for alcohol or drug dependence, the term is also used to refer to a short-term diet that proponents claim can facilitate toxin removal and promote weight loss.

Although there are many different types of detox diets, they generally follow the same principles: 

  • Minimize the amount of chemicals ingested (for example, by eating organic food).
  • Emphasize foods that provide the vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants that the body needs for detoxification.
  • Emphasize foods, such as fiber-rich foods and water, that increase the frequency of bowel movements and urination.

What you can eat and can't depends on the particular detox diet. Some involve juicing or drinking liquids. Others allow some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, or include a broader range of foods. 

Why Do People Go on a Detox Diet?

Some research suggests that many of the chemicals we ingest daily through food, water, and air can become deposited in fat cells in our bodies.

Toxins include pesticides, antibiotics and hormones in food, chemicals from food packaging, household cleaners, detergents, food additives, heavy metals, pollution, drugs, and cigarette smoke.

Proponents claim that the cumulative load, called the "body burden", may lead to illness and has been linked to hormonal imbalance, impaired immune function, and nutritional deficiencies.

 Signs are said to include indigestion, poor concentration, tiredness, headaches, bad breath, poor skin, and muscle pain.

The Benefits: Can It Really Help?

Although detox diets are popular diet plans, there have been very few clinical trials to support the use of these diets. Preliminary research suggests that certain foods and substances may have properties that aid detoxification, but most of the research is animal- or laboratory-based.

Some people find that focusing on new vegetable-based recipes, drinking water, exercising, and reducing their stress levels during the diet helps them to make positive, sustainable diet and lifestyle changes.

Who Shouldn't Try a Detox Diet?

If you're considering a detox diet, speak to your healthcare provider to weigh the pros and cons and discuss whether it's appropriate for you (it may be harmful for people with certain conditions, such as diabetes). Pregnant or nursing women or children shouldn't go on a detox diet. The diet is not intended for alcohol or drug detoxification.

Fatigue, indigestion, cough, muscle pain, and poor sleep can be signs of an underlying medical condition. If you have persistent symptoms, it's important to see your primary care provider to ensure that the symptoms are not due to a condition that requires medical treatment. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Possible Side Effects

The side effects depend on the plan and how long you are on it. You may feel hungry and weak, or have low energy, low blood sugar, dizziness, or lightheadedness. One of the most common side effects is a headache within the first few days of starting the detox diet, which is often due to caffeine withdrawal. Proponents often suggest gradually decreasing the amount of caffeine prior to starting a detox diet to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms. In addition, some people opt to start the diet on the weekend.

Other side effects include excessive diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss. Constipation may occur if people consume excess fiber without increasing their fluid intake. Any worsening of symptoms or new symptoms that occur during a detox diet should prompt a visit to a qualified health professional.

If a detox diet is continued for a longer time, it may result in low body weight and nutrient deficiencies, particularly protein (some diets omit animal products) and calcium. 

The Bottom Line

While there isn't enough research to say that detox diets can eliminate toxins from your body, a balanced plan that focuses on eating fruits and vegetables, drinking enough water, and eating foods that are rich in dietary fiber may help to cleanse your digestive tract safely and promote health and well-being. 

If you want to skip the detox diet, but are interested in incorporating some specific "cleansing" foods in your diet, consider lemon water, psyllium, and these foods. Also consider trying these five simple ways to detox your body every day.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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