Do Detox Diets Actually Work?
From juice cleanses to the cabbage diet to everything in between, detox diets have been on everyone's radar for a while. But do these diets even work? And moreover, are they even good for your overall health?
We consulted doctors and nutritionists to weigh in on detox diets and reveal if they're actually as effective as they're promised to be.
Why try a detox diet in the first place?
Because we live in a world where we're surrounded by all sorts of endocrine disruptors and various—even dangerous—chemicals, it's no surprise that people would want to reduce the toxins in their systems. But according to our experts, most detox diets don't actually do what they claim to.
As registered dietitian Hanna Koschak explains, many people are led to believe "there is 'sludge' in their intestines from all the junk food, and they are now trying to remove the toxins to feel better," but this is far from the case.
"Detox diets don't really do a lot to 'detox' the body," says Kian Ameli, CEO of Momentum Fitness. "Your liver and kidneys do the heavy lifting to ensure that your body stays in balance."
According to Ameli, the only time the body really needs to be detoxed is in extreme cases of heavy metal toxicity or poisoning—in which case detoxing should always happen in a hospital under the supervision of a doctor.
Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, a member of the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living, explains that in the case of a healthy person, "your liver, skin, kidneys, and lungs work hard to get rid of harmful toxins in the body (i.e. poison, alcohol, excess carbon dioxide). Even your gut has many ways in which it helps you fight off harmful substances."
"As long as you keep these organs healthy and they work properly, your body can continue detoxing itself for the long haul," she continues.
Some diets take this into account, claiming they are just helping the liver and other organs do their jobs. But even this, explains Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD, a board-certified sports nutritionist, registered dietitian, and the nutrition director at Trifecta, isn't really necessary.
"Your liver is designed to be a multitasker, and stopping one function doesn't necessarily optimize another—just as stopping your heartbeat won't help you breathe more efficiently," she says.
That said, a detox diet can be a healthy step—if you're doing it properly and for the right reasons.
Do detox diets work?
While most people doing a detox diet claim it's taking pressure off of their system, our experts note that in many cases, the exact opposite is true. That is the case of diets requiring people to take tons of added supplements or drink detox teas—or even to severely limit food intake, an unfortunate characteristic of many such eating plans.
Most detox diets call for fasting, consuming only liquids and/or juices, or some combination of the two. In this way, detox diets become more of a crash diet to lose large amounts of weight quickly, and they can actually be harmful.
"Our bodies need each of the three macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein) to thrive," says Schardt. "Cutting one or more out when not appropriate for that person could result in poor health and a poor relationship with food."
This is especially true of one of the most popular types of detox diet: a juice cleanse.
"The act of juicing removes the fiber from the fruit and veggies, leaving you with the liquid-rich extracts that contain mostly water-soluble vitamins," says Satrazemis. "This process also condenses the volume of the produce item, increasing its caloric density," she continues, noting that because it's easier to drink 16 ounces of orange juice than to eat four oranges, juice-based detox diets can even impede weight loss.
If you attempt, however, to ignore both the weight loss component and the idea that you can somehow help your liver filter out toxins, there actually is one healthy way to detox: by simply deciding not to consume any more toxins.
Is there a healthy detox diet?
Much of the food we eat is jam-packed with refined sugars and additives we just don't need. By excluding these elements from your diet, you're quite literally detoxing without putting any added pressure on your digestive system at all.
"One of the reasons why many people report feeling better and more energized after a detox is because they've eliminated foods from their diet that are bad for their body's overall functioning," explains Caleb Backe, Certified Personal Trainer and Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. "A detox is an extreme form of 'healthy' eating that essentially just starts from cutting out unhealthy food options. You don't need to go to those extremes to reap the benefits of a detox, so why would you?"
For Dr. Tarek Hassanein, the founder of the Southern California Liver Center, one useful way of thinking of it is to focus not on the liver, but on the colon.
"The normal detoxification mechanism of the intestine and colon is represented in the daily bowel movements," he says, noting that if you're moving your bowels once or twice a day, there's no need to detox. "Eating enough fiber and drinking enough water is really all you need."
Danielle Schaub, MSPH, RD, who serves as the culinary and nutrition manager for Territory Foods, suggests detoxing processed foods from your life, choosing instead to consume organic produce, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, and drinking plenty of water. Nancy Guberti, Functional Medicine Nutritionist, also suggests abstaining from common allergens and inflammatory foods, including wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, corn, peanuts, sugar, and alcohol, and including intermittent fasting in your routine as well.
"Abstaining from food such as with intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating are healthy and a natural way to powerfully detox the body," agrees Lori Shemek, PhD, CNC, and author of How to Fight FATflammation! "When we do not eat for at least 16 hours, our cells undergo a cellular housekeeping detox, essentially ridding the body of old, dying cells and more—optimizing health."
This far gentler detox is more sustainable and healthier in the long run. In fact, Certified Eating Psychology & Nutrition expert Elise Museles doesn't even call it a detox at all.
"I like to think of it as a reset instead," she says. She suggests taking three to five days and committing to eating normal quantities of healthful, nutrient-rich, easy-to-digest foods. Menus of plant-based options, soups, smoothies, and salads are ideal. Above all though, she recommends eating in a way that feels mindful and not rushed.
"If you want to start tuning into your body and having better habits, it starts with awareness," she says. "Reflect on how much better you feel without some of the less healthy ingredients, and to assess, 'How can I be more intentional about my food choices?'"
Once the "detox" is over, consider how many toxins you want to add back into your daily routine. By eating clean most or all of the time, you may never need to detox again.