What Is a Detox Diet?

detox diet preparation

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Detox diets are widely promoted online and in magazines. Three-day, seven-day, and longer detoxification plans are promoted for weight loss, improved health, and other benefits. Most plans suggest that you restrict your calorie intake significantly and many propose that you consume only juices or smoothies.

The science behind these programs is lacking. In fact, according to many nutritional experts, some of these programs can even backfire causing weight gain or malnutrition.

For a smarter approach to a detox diet, forget the latest fads that can lead to unhealthy eating patterns and follow a more sensible plan that encourages you to get back to healthy-eating basics and make a long-lasting impact on your wellbeing.

What Experts Say

A detox diet is touted to remove toxins from the body. Experts agree that caring for our bodies with a balanced approach to food, along with adequate sleep and movement, supports our natural detoxification systems. Most often, detox diets are restrictive fad diets that can promote food fear.

Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

Background

The idea of detoxing the body dates back thousands of years. In fact, several sources say that the process of detoxification can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and biblical times. Native Americans used ritual cleansing and purification to remove toxins. And in the early 20th-century, bloodletting, enemas, and fasting were detox methods used by the legitimate medical community.

In short, the idea of getting rid of body toxins to boost health and wellness is a concept that has been—and continues to be—an appealing one. Unfortunately, however, the concept is not backed by strong scientific evidence, at least not as a general health or wellness concept.

In clinical settings, the term “detox” is used to refer to a medical process that rids the body of alcohol, drugs, or poisons. Detox treatments are provided in a hospital or clinic setting under the care of a licensed professional and may involve the use of medications and other therapies.

But detox diets are a different concept. Many of these programs claim to rid the body of toxins that we are exposed to in the process of normal activities. 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.

What Are Toxins?

The word "toxin" is often used to refer to chemical substances or pollutants including:

  • Pesticides
  • Antibiotics or hormones in food
  • Chemicals from food packaging
  • Household cleaners
  • Detergents
  • Food additives
  • Heavy metals
  • Air pollution
  • Drugs
  • Cigarette smoke

Those who promote and sell some detox programs claim that by ridding the body of this waste, you might enjoy health benefits including a boost of energy, clearer skin, weight loss, and other advantages. The problem is that aren't high-quality, independent, clinical studies to support these claims.

Authors of a critical review investigated the body’s response to common toxins called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The authors concluded that there was not enough scientific evidence to support the idea that POPs provide any harm to the body or that there is a need to eliminate them.

In fact, your body already has systems in place to rid itself of harmful toxins. We absorb toxins through our skin, in the air that we breathe, and in the food that we eat. But our body's organs—primarily the liver, kidneys, colon, and lungs have systems in place to flush out these contaminants naturally.

In short, your body is always in a state of detoxification. Each of these organs has a different role.

  • The liver plays a key role by filtering the blood and removing harmful substances that occur as a result of normal body functions (like digestion) or external toxins like drugs, alcohol, or chemicals.
  • The kidneys also help filter the blood and remove toxins in the form of urine.
  • After nutrients are removed from food in the small intestine, the colon (or large intestine) filters the remaining waste, including toxins, to be excreted.
  • Cilia in the lungs trap toxins that enter the body in the air that you breathe. These contaminants are then expelled by coughing or through other natural body processes.

So while it is true that our bodies are exposed to pollutants, there is scant evidence that our body needs help in removing them. In fact, eating a nutritious diet to support healthy cells and organs may be the smartest way to boost detoxification.

But not all detox diets make claims about pollutants. Some detox plans are designed simply to “retrain” your tastebuds so that you crave healthier foods, or reduce your intake of less nutritious foods in an effort to boost wellness. Less restrictive detox diet plans like these may provide benefits if they are used as a springboard to a longer term plan for healthy eating. 

How It Works

There are many different types of detox diets. Some are short-term, lasting just a few days while others last several weeks. The foods or beverages on each detox program can vary substantially as well.

Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus in the health community about which foods are most effective when the goal is to detoxify the body.

Authors of a 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism were able to identify certain foods including garlic, grapefruit, rosemary, and different types of tea that may be more effective for detoxification. But those researchers also suggested consumers should get a meal plan from a trained clinician noting that "there remain many unresolved issues regarding knowing how and what foods modulate detoxification pathways.”

While there are no clear guidelines regarding a specific detox food list, there are a few trends among the most popular programs. Almost all detox diets eliminate processed foods such as lunchmeat, refined bread or pasta, and foods that contain added sugar or excess sodium. Many detox programs limit your food intake to fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. The most restrictive plans include only juice drinks and no solid foods.

The healthiest detox programs will allow you to eat from all of the food groups identified in the nutritional guidelines developed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), including vegetables, fruit, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, protein foods, and healthy oils. Detox programs that include these food groups are not common.

Pros and Cons

Many consumers choose to go on detox diet programs because they provide quick weight loss. While you are not likely to lose fat on a short-term program, you are likely to lose some water weight, especially on a low-carb detox. Your clothes might fit better and you might feel lighter.

Another benefit of these plans is that they are short-lived. A three-day program is much more palatable for some and may provide a stepping stone to healthier habits.

If the thought of a permanent diet overhaul seems overwhelming, a short detox may provide you with an opportunity to improve your nutritional intake to boost wellness. If you like the way it feels, you may feel motivated to make changes that stick.

The problem, however, is that without a plan to transition to a long-term program for healthy eating, any benefits that you gain on a detox diet are likely to disappear when you return to your typical eating pattern.

In fact, authors of one study published in Current Gastroenterology Reports compared different diets, including detox diets. They concluded that "juicing and detoxification diets tend to work because they lead to extremely low caloric intake for short periods of time, however, they tend to lead to weight gain once a normal diet is resumed."

And if the detox diet that you choose is very low in calories, you may even gain weight from unhealthy binging after the detox is complete. Studies have shown that when a diet is very restrictive, you put yourself at higher risk for binge eating and weight gain. 

Common Myths

There is substantial misinformation about detox diets promoted in the media. Get the facts before you consider a plan.

Myth: A Detox Diet Will Help Boost My Energy Levels

Some detox diets decrease your calorie consumption to extremely low levels. Juice detoxes, for example, may only provide 600 calories per day. Without adequate energy intake, you are likely to feel tired, not energized.

However, if your detox diet provides adequate nutrition (enough calories from a range of food groups) but eliminates caffeine, alcohol, and sugary foods, you may feel a boost of energy after a few days.

Myth: I Need to Take Special Supplements During a Detox

There are companies who sell detox plans (sometimes for hundreds of dollars or more) that include a wide range of supplements. These may include fiber supplements, green tea tablets, stimulants, or other pills that are believed to increase energy or boost weight loss.

But you don't need to pay for supplements to gain the nutritional advantage provided (if any) provided by supplements. Whole grains and fruits and vegetables provide fiber. And staying hydrated while consuming the right number of calories with help you to maintain your energy for a healthy metabolism.

Myth: Laxative Teas and Other Colon Cleansing Products Can Increase Detoxification

There is no evidence that consuming a laxative product will detoxify the body. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), detox programs that include laxatives, can cause diarrhea severe enough to lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

How It Compares

As a general rule, detox diets don't stack up well when compared to other diet programs or to nutrition recommendations provided by health experts.

USDA Guidelines

Most detox diets do not allow you to meet the recommended guidelines for macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Even if you meet your caloric needs, many plans restrict carbohydrate intake and may eliminate dairy, most protein, and healthy fats.

Body Reset and Other Commercial Diets

There are some popular diet plans, such as the Body Reset Diet, Atkins, South Beach Diet, and others that begin with a restrictive phase that is similar to a detox diet. For example, on the Body Reset Diet, you only consume smoothies for five days. On the Atkins plan, you start the program in induction which eliminates almost all carbohydrates.

However, on each of these diets, there is a plan in place to gradually transition to a healthier long-term plan that includes foods from all food groups.

Juice Cleanses

A popular type of detox diet is the juice cleanse. Several companies sell juice subscriptions lasting a few days or a few weeks. They claim to help detoxify your body. Some advertise weight loss. There are also popular internet websites devoted to the master cleanse (also called the lemonade diet) which suggests that you drink only a lemonade concoction for several days.

On these programs, you are likely to consume less than 1,000 calories per day and very limited nutrients. As a result, these are the least healthy forms of detoxification.

Healthy Detox Alternative

If your body feels heavy or sluggish, why not try a short-term detox plan to boost wellness? Take seven days to eliminate less healthy foods and instead focus on eating nutrient-rich whole foods that are filling and satifisying. This short break from your normal eating pattern can help you to experiment with new fruits or vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based oils.

Throughout your seven-day detox diet make it your goal to steer clear of processed foods, full-fat dairy, refined grains and any foods with added sugar. Caffeine is also off-limits, as well as some specific foods in the meat and condiments categories.

You'll also want to avoid alcoholic drinks (such as wine, beer, and spirits) during the cleanse. Alcohol is metabolized in the body mainly by the liver. It is broken down briefly to acetaldehyde, a chemical that has the potential to damage liver cells and body tissues before it is further broken down and eliminated from the body. Besides lightening the load on your liver, avoiding alcohol (and caffeine) for the week can help to shift habits you've cultivated.

Healthy Foods

There are no hard and fast rules as to what you should include in your week-long detox diet. However, your goal should be to focus on antioxidant-packed cleansing vegetables and fruits along with high-fiber foods like whole grains, nuts, and seeds. As you build your diet around these foods, make sure to eat in moderation.

Food options for a 7-day detox diet
Verywell / Joshua Seong

In addition, you can round out your detox diet with plant-based protein and probiotic-rich fermented foods such as miso. Here are some additional ideas to help with your meal planning for the week:

Healthy Hydration 

Drinking plenty of water can go a long way in flushing out toxins. While you’re on your detox diet, aim to drink eight glasses of filtered water daily. That includes a glass of water (ideally room-temperature or lukewarm) as soon as you wake up in the morning. Opting for lemon water or a DIY infused water may enhance the detoxing effects of your morning hydration.

Some people may need more fluids, and some people may need less. Although you can use your thirst as a guide, you may want to consult your health professional about the appropriate fluid intake for you.

Healthy Activity

Physical activity boosts circulation and, in turn, helps your body to eliminate toxins. To rev up your circulation during your detox diet, make sure to include light exercise in your daily routine. You might try going for a walk during your lunch break, for instance, or taking part in a restorative yoga class.

Since your energy may lag during the first few days of your detox diet, it might be helpful to break up your exercise sessions into short intervals. If you don’t exercise regularly, talk with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen.

Tips

Your detoxification plan will be more successful if you do some advance planning and connect with healthcare experts.

Plan Ahead

In the preparation stages, you should aim to plan your meals for the week. With your eating plan carefully mapped out, you’ll be less likely to stray from your detox diet. You may also want to take this time to rid your kitchen of any foods or beverages that might tempt you during your cleanse.

If you work during the week, it’s a good idea to begin your detox on a Friday. This approach allows for more downtime during the first few days of your diet, which are usually the most difficult.

Manage Side Effects

To stave off common detox reactions such as headache and nausea, try phasing out caffeine, sugar, processed foods, and artificial sweeteners in the days leading up to your detox diet. If you’re not ready to give up caffeine altogether, switch to lower-caffeine drinks like green tea, white tea, or matcha. Also, if you’re not used to eating a lot of fiber, it may take a few days for your body to adjust to the high-fiber content of a detox diet. To stimulate your digestive system, try sipping herbal tea such as ginger tea, peppermint tea, caraway tea, or cinnamon tea.

If your seven-day detox diet is particularly rich in beans, try adding a piece of kombu seaweed to your soaking water when preparing dried beans.

Keep in mind that by day four or day five of a detox diet, many people begin to feel more energetic and notice that their digestion is improving.

Get Checked

Consider checking with your healthcare provider before going on this or any detox plan. A seven-day detox diet isn’t appropriate for all people. If you have a chronic health condition such as liver disease, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, or an eating disorder, it’s crucial to consult your physician before modifying your diet.

If you have any concerns about making changes to your dietary regimen, talk to your provider to determine whether a seven-day detox diet is right for you. 

Self-Care

A detox diet isn’t about depriving yourself of certain foods or activities—it’s about taking better care of your body and mind so that you can feel great in the everyday. Try using this time to strengthen your self-care, such as by improving your sleep routine and treating yourself to a massage.

Your seven-day detox diet is also a perfect opportunity to try out new stress-management techniques. To alleviate daily stress and find your way to greater calm, try practicing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or yoga. Even simple strategies like listening to music, going for a leisurely walk, soaking in the tub, or curling up with a favorite book can help soothe your mind.

Post-Detox Plan

As you journey through your detox diet, you’ll likely find that simple changes such as drinking more fluids or eating more vegetables can have a profound effect on your daily wellbeing. In fact, it’s thought that the seven-day approach is an ideal way to experiment with a broad variety of new foods, recipes, and lifestyle habits. To build on that momentum, ease back into a less restrictive diet while adopting new behaviors, such as eating three servings of vegetables at lunch and dinner.

Don’t try to make too many changes all at once. Research shows that people form healthy habits more easily when attempting to take on simple actions (such as drinking more water) rather than striving to adopt elaborate routines.

Research indicates that healthy habits can take up to six weeks to become ingrained—and that treating yourself to small rewards can help motivate you to stick with those positive changes.

You can repeat your detox diet at some point, but give yourself some time before you try it again. Proponents of detox diets often recommend cleansing several times a year to improve your health and prevent disease. When repeating your detox, try integrating different eating patterns and actions than you did on your last diet.

A Word From Verywell

Popular online and commercial detox diet programs can seem appealing because they require very little time investment promise substantial results. But many plans leave consumers disappointed. In some cases, these programs can even cause unhealthy food binges, weight gain, and other problems.

If you feel that you need a change in your eating pattern, either consider a healthy detox alternative like the one above or simply target one or two eating habits that you'd like to change. Simply focussing on smart nutrition and healthy habits is free, it carries no risks, and requires far less hardship than a highly restrictive three-day diet. Testing out new wellness strategies can give you powerful clues on how to achieve optimal health all year round.

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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