Detox diets and juice cleanses are popular, but do they really work?
Last Friday morning I was driving back from giving a corporate wellness presentation about long-term healthy habits when I heard an advertisement on the radio about a juice cleanse. Two radio show hosts gabbed how they had done a four day juice cleanse which removed “all the toxins” in their bodies, they lost weight and feel great. It ended with an affiliate code for a juice cleanse discount from a local shop.
Admittedly, I love asking people when they’re considering a cleanse to get all the toxins out of their bodies which toxins they’re trying to get rid of, since most people don’t know and most cleanses are non-specific in their targets. The marketing plays to the fear that there are unwanted substances in your body that are harmful.
The truth is this: if we all had a excessive levels of toxins running around in our systems we would be very ill, not casually sipping on a $7 juice on the way to yoga.
Do Detox Diets and Juice Cleanses Really Work?
The term toxin is poorly defined. In clinical practice, toxins are usually referred to as drugs or alcohol and the term detox is reserved for coming off of these addictive substances (1).
But aren’t there harmful substances to avoid?
Yes, sure. Chemicals like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) have come under scrutiny and become restricted or removed from use in Europe, the US and Australia. Though notably the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization have stated, “Although it is clear that certain environmental chemicals can interfere with normal hormonal processes, there is weak evidence that human health has been adversely affected by exposure to endocrine-active chemicals.” Experts suggest that current exposure levels are not considered to pose significant human health risks (1).
Naturally-occurring substances can also be toxic like molds or excessive intake of iodine. Metal exposure may also be toxic although current exposure levels in developed countries are less than is expected to cause negative health consequences. Even water in excess can result in death. It’s important to remember that for many substances, it’s the dose that makes the poison.
Your Body’s Natural Detox System
Detoxes and cleanses are unnecessary because your liver (produces bile which carries away waste, metabolizes drugs and alcohol, produces urea from ammonia), kidneys (blood filtration), gastrointestinal system (removal through urine and waste), skin (sweat) and lungs (respiration) do all the heavy lifting of helping your body excrete waste, and because it’s unlikely that any commercially available “detox” is effective at expediting or enhancing your body’s abilities to do so (1,2). Little clinical research has evaluated the safety or efficacy of detox diets or cleanses. The research that has been done is scant, with limited subjects and methodological flaws. Beyond likely not being necessary, doing a detox diet or cleanse could be harmful.
Risks of Detox Diets and Juice Cleanses
There’s no one detox diet, but generally detox diets and juice cleanses are low in calories and protein and may include periods of fasting, use of diuretics and laxatives. This results in inadequate energy intake (not enough calories), inadequate protein and potentially inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals. Weight loss from calorically restricted detoxes may redistribute POPs from fat stores into circulation (1). Extreme or chronic use of detox diets and juice cleanses could result in protein and vitamin/mineral deficiencies, electrolyte imbalance, lactic acidosis or even death (1).
So, why do “healthy” people do detoxes then?
Whether it’s someone who touts her “fitspo,” eat-like-me-look-like-me or someone who is just generally interested in health and wellness, “healthy” people might promote detoxes for a few reasons:
1. It’s Sexy. People love sexy, sensational claims. “Eat this and lose 10 lbs in 2 weeks with no diet or exercise!” Or “Never eat these 8 foods”. The absolute, all or nothing, black and white statements are inherently attractive.
2. They’re Mis- or Uninformed. If marketing hype everywhere suggests that this is what you should do to be healthy, and you aren’t a sciency person, it’s extremely likely you’ll be misled despite wanting to make the right choices for your body. Inaccurate information (and info that extrapolates data from very small studies) is also widespread on the internet.
3. They’re Selling Something. Unfortunately, people like Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop and Dr. Axe (a chiropractor) aren’t helping the matter. These people have one goal, and that’s to make money off your sales. So of course they’ll get you juiced about their product… pun definitely intended.
So do detox diets and juice cleanses work?
Probably not. Few have been clinically evaluated and those that have been have had major methodological flaws. You might find yourself running to the bathroom more, and you could have a placebo effect, and sure you could have some weight loss (from limited caloric intake and loss of fluids or waste) but don’t mistake that for “being healthier” now. Most cleanses do not target specific toxins. Further research should be conducted on the safety and efficacy of detoxes and cleanses.