Do detoxes and cleanses for weight loss actually work?
Detoxes and cleanses have been very popular for a while now. Their claim to fame is helping you lose the belly and extra weight – FAST. There are so many variations of these cleanses and each one is advertised with many health claims and compelling testimonials. But are they really effective or can they be harmful? Do cleanses for weight loss and other health issues like helping to boost the immune system, increase energy, reduce inflammation work as they claim? Oftentimes–even when they don’t explicitly say so–they’re code words for calorie restricted weight loss diets. They might work for weight loss in the short term, but typically fall flat in the long term.
Another more important question to ask is: what effect can they have on your overall health? How can you use nutrition to support your body’s detoxification while managing your weight without resorting to these cleanses?
What is detoxification?
Detoxification is your body’s own process for breaking down and eliminating toxins. We are all exposed to toxins every day through food, water, and the air we breathe. Toxins include those naturally found in tiny quantities in foods (e.g. methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables–which are very healthy). There are also synthetic toxins found in pesticides and preservatives (e.g. sulfur dioxide is used to preserve some fruits and vegetables).
In fact, the body makes its own toxins through normal everyday processes like digestion, metabolism, and physical activity (e.g. urea which is excreted in the urine).
The good news is that your body does a great job breaking down toxins and eliminating them.
Because the world is full of toxins that can affect us, we’ve evolved some pretty sophisticated detoxification systems. Detoxification systems are mainly in the liver, but are also located in the kidneys, gut, etc. They help to make toxins less dangerous and allow them to be excreted mostly through urine and feces (and also through breathing and sweating).
What does this have to do with nutrition?
These detoxification systems are made from many biochemicals in our bodies, such as enzymes. Part of what makes enzymes work are key essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. So, getting quality nutrition helps your body maintain all aspects of your health–including detoxification.
What are “detox diets” and “cleanses”?
The internet is inundated with thousands of website pages and posts on these topics. There are so many different types of detox diets and cleanses being advertised. Many make bold promises of weight loss and improved health.
Detox diets and cleanses for weight loss often include at least one of the following:
- Eating more nutritious foods
- Reducing processed or “junk” foods
- Avoiding alcohol and/or caffeine
- Eliminating some common allergens (e.g., wheat or dairy)
- Replacing meals with smoothies, juices, teas, or powders
- Short or long-term fasting
- Only eating/drinking a handful of recommended foods/beverages
- Taking several dietary supplements and/or laxatives
- Getting “colon cleanses” (enemas)
Some of these recommendations seem reasonable and healthy. It’s hard to argue that eating more nutritious foods or reducing processed foods isn’t a good step towards better health. However, some of the more extreme recommendations can pose a risk to people including those with underlying health conditions, children, adolescents, athletes, older adults, or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
What are the risks of detox diets and cleanses for weight loss?
Think about it like this: the more foods you eliminate from your diet, the fewer nutrients you will get. So, one of the risks of extreme diets in the long-term are nutrient deficiencies. It doesn’t make sense to cut out too many foods because there are critical nutrients which are proven to be necessary for your body’s natural detoxification enzymes to work efficiently. Remember, nutrition is key.
Possible weight gain
Cutting out foods also leads to cravings for sugar and fat and can have the opposite effect where people end up binging on higher calorie foods after the detox or cleanse is over, leading to possible weight gain.
Unwanted side effects
Another risk with certain detox supplements or teas are serious side effects. You may have heard about cases of unsafe ingredients or contamination that have harmed people. Some detox diets may put you at risk of overdosing on supplements, laxatives, diuretics, and even water.
Overall, there is a lack of good quality research into detox diets and cleanses, as most studies have been conducted on animals, not people. As Dr. Robert H. Schmerling from Harvard Health says, “It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.” A few studies show that they can help with initial weight loss, however experts believe that’s due to a reduction in calorie intake. The weight lost is often water and carbohydrate (not fat), so it’s easily regained as soon as the dieting stops. There are no studies on the long-term effects of detox diets or cleanses.
Some people claim to feel better and more energized when they’re on these diets. This may be because they’re eating more nutritious foods and fewer processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. Changing the composition and foods in your diet may lead you to the same intended results of a cleanse or detox diet while concurrently leading you to better manage your weight. Nutrition plays a vital role in your body’s ability to naturally detoxify and eliminate toxins. (And you don’t need to follow an overly restrictive or extreme detox diet or cleanse to support them.)
How to use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification and manage weight
You probably don’t need to eliminate a long list of foods from your diet. In fact, getting enough of your daily nutrients is what can help ensure your detoxification enzymes have what they need to keep up their ongoing very important work.
Here are a few simple things you can do every day to “detox” yourself while managing your weight:
- Don’t unnecessarily expose yourself to toxins in the first place. Avoid things like tobacco and alcohol.
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough water (this promotes excretion via urine). Proper hydration also helps keep you full and better metabolizes fat.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables. These foods are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber. The fiber will keep you full, satisfied and keep cravings for higher calorie foods at bay.
- Include a cruciferous vegetable in your meals, like broccoli or brussels sprouts. These contain compounds that help support detoxification pathways.
- Get enough dietary fiber by eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By promoting bowel regularity, these help to eliminate toxins from the body via the feces. These whole foods are also associated with better weight management.
- Enjoy some naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These promote digestive health and support your gut microbiome.
- Consume lean protein. Protein is needed for many things including maintaining optimal levels of a “master” detoxification enzyme called glutathione. Protein also takes longer to get through your digestive tract so you feel fuller longer.
- Consult with a Registered Dietitian/Licensed Nutritionist (like me) to see if you may be lacking in any key nutrients. Follow recommendations to eat more or less of a certain food or nutrient or take high-quality supplements.
Here is a Blueberry Detox Smoothie recipe to get you started!
Blueberry Detox Smoothie
- 2 cups Frozen Blueberries
- 2 cups Baby Spinach
- 2 Banana (peeled, chopped and frozen)
- 2 Tbsps Chia Seeds
- 2 cups Unsweetened Almond Milk
- Place all ingredients into a blender. Blend well until smooth. Divide into glasses and enjoy!
Bottom line: Do cleanses actually work for weight loss?
Sound nutrition is a key aspect of detoxification and weight management. Your body’s own natural detoxification pathways in the liver, kidneys, etc. include many enzymes that require vitamins and minerals to function optimally. By getting enough of your essential vitamins and minerals, you’re supplying your detox enzymes what they need to work. By eating a more whole foods based diet which focuses on lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains, you are naturally putting less toxins in your body and better managing your weight.
Detoxification diets or cleanses advertised online typically oversell their abilities to improve health and promote weight loss. There are almost no quality human or long term studies showing benefits. Speak with your healthcare professional before embarking on a detox diet or cleanse. If you are looking to lose weight, consider a nutritious and varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, include mindful eating techniques and try being active every day.
Want to know more about how you can get the nutrition your body’s detox pathways need? Looking to lose weight without trying an overly restrictive detox diet or cleanse? I can help. Reach out by sending me a message on the Contact me page.
British Dietetics Association. (2019, May). Detox Diets: Food Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/detox-diets.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2020, Jan 3). Are You Planning a Cleanse or Detox? Read This First. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-you-planning-a-cleanse-or-detox-read-this-first/
Eat Right. (2019, May). What’s the Deal with Detox Diets? Retrieved from
Harvard Health. (2020, March 25). Harvard Health Ad Watch: What’s being cleansed in a detox cleanse? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/harvard-health-ad-watch-whats-being-cleansed-in-a-detox-cleanse-2020032519294
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/detoxing-your-liver-fact-versus-fiction
Kesavarapu, K., Kang, M., Shin, J. J., & Rothstein, K. (2017). Yogi Detox Tea: A Potential Cause of Acute Liver Failure. Case reports in gastrointestinal medicine, 2017, 3540756. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/3540756
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Medical News Today. (2019, March 11). What to know about the lemon detox diet. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324670
NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019, September). “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/detoxes-and-cleanses-what-you-need-to-know
NIH ToxTown. (n.d.). Methanol. Retrieved from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/methanol
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