Detox diets and detoxing

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Tuesday, 09 April 2013.
Tagged: diet, healthy eating, weight loss

Detox diets and detoxing

The theory behind detox diets is that we can 'cleanse' and 'purify' our body by removing 'wastes' and eliminating 'toxins' (which are never defined). This will supposedly get the bowel working efficiently and rejuvenate the liver, based on the underlying naturopathic concept that your health will improve once your digestive tract is working correctly. How true it all this?

What does "detox" actually mean?

Detox generally means flushing you out so there's nothing left inside - many detox diets say they "work like an intestinal broom". By following a strict regime based around water, juices, raw vegetables and teas (and eliminating all caffeine, alcohol, refined carbs, meat and dairy), the toxins will be magically flushed out and glowing health and energy will be your reward.

A detox is touted to improve a whole range of common conditions such as indigestion, heartburn, poor immunity, fatigue, headaches, allergies, muscle aches and even acne, dry skin and puffiness under eyes. What lures most women in is the promise of weight loss, radiant skin and clear eyes.

What's missing from all these claims is proof.  Despite all the hype, there's no proof that a detox diet really does clean out the body nor that the average person needs to detox at all. The nasty 'toxins' are never defined and the improvements you feel can be attributed to other things.

3 detox options

1. You can detox just with juices and minimalist salads for a couple of days or add in a number of herbal extracts and supplements such as:

  • Digestive bitters, goldenseal and elecampane for the stomach
  • Milk thistle and dandelion for the liver
  • Acidophilus for intestines
  • Mild laxatives such as senna, casacara or rhubarb
  • Fibre sources such as psyllium, slippery elm, resistant starch, aniseed, liquorice, uva ursi, Irish moss, agar for the colon.

2. Some detox diets are a healthy but light eating plan which is fine.

3. There are many detox kits sold through pharmacies (at great expense) that you can embark on and put yourself through torture for 14 days e.g. Quick Cleanse, Blackmore's 14 day detox, 4321 Slim and Detox liquid. They are a waste of time and money. See my overview of the kits here.

Detoxing is not a solution to permanent weight loss. It is only a quick fix (often promoted to kickstart your diet) but it doesn't re-educate your eating patterns – once you finishing detoxing, you go back to your former (fattening) way of eating and the weight comes back on.

The 6 compelling calls of a detox

I've found six key reasons that detox diets are so appealing. They:

  1. Are short, only have to be endured for a finite time e.g. often less than 7 days
  2. Are simple – there's no counting, no exchanges
  3. Make other appeals (cleansing, skin, energy) not just weight loss
  4. Eliminate ALL the baddies such as processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, meat
  5. Appear 'natural' and healthy without any additives and 'chemicals' that are regarded as evils in modern-day food.
  6. Make us feel virtuous as we atone for our sins of overindulgence, heavy drinking, junk food, late nights. What attracts us is the quasi-spiritual rituals of fasting, denial and cleansing ('purifying the body'), a theme that runs through all major religions. Detox is the modern day equivalent of penance.

Possible side effects of detoxing

Detoxing can cause a number of unpleasant side effects. Some may pass after the first three days but others persist and are often the reasons why people quit (and quite valid too I believe). It's also another reason to embark on a detox only when you have some quiet 'me-time'. They include:

  • Headache or migraine (commonly due to caffeine withdrawal)
  • flatulence
  • runny or loose bowel motions
  • constant hunger
  • fatigue
  • inability to concentrate
  • skin outbreaks

Who should NOT detox: 

Anyone with:

  • diabetes
  • compromised kidneys
  • IBS
  • Anaemia (low iron levels in blood)

And if you are:

  • Pregnant
  • Breastfeeding

So should you detox at all?

Firstly there's no proof that it does what it claims to – that it cleans out your system. No-one has published any studies testing a detox diet let alone any of the kits. You'd expect to see some weight loss and possibly a feeling of more energy and vitality but there's other reasons why this occurs (see below).

Second, recognise that most detox plans are really a semi-fast and you should plan to feel hungry most of the time. Some are more balanced and resemble a healthy diet plan and you should look for these – you don't need to eliminate all starchy food or all protein to eat for health. Just eat well and eat lightly.

Third, do NOT attempt a detox until you're healthy without any medical problems (see box) and don't do it for more than 7 days even if you are.

Finally, remember that you feel better because you've cut out 'junk' and boosted your antioxidants, fibre and many vitamins from the juices, fruits, vegetables. This is the main reason people feel better and have more energy. 

My re-work of a detox

Here's a simple two-day weekend detox that won't leave you tired and hungry.

General rules:

  • Drink lots of filtered water – at least 2 litres each day.
  • No coffee, energy drinks, tea or cocoa. Herbal teas OK (not green tea as it contains caffeine).
  • No refined or processed foods. Stick to fresh whole foods as natural as possible.
  • Avoid cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Gentle exercise every day such as yoga, tai chi, swimming or walking. Avoid strenuous exercise.

Breakfast

Start with a juice and then a large plate of fresh fruit in season. Any type is fine – select from strawberries, blueberries or other berries, orange, grapefruit or other citrus, apples, pears, kiwi fruit, mango, pineapple, banana, rockmelon, paw-paw. Eat just enough to satisfy your appetite.

Lunch

Make up a tossed leaf salad – layer a base of mixed salad leaves plus some baby spinach leaves or wild rocket. Then add lean protein such as hard-boiled eggs, canned salmon or tuna, cold cooked chicken, diced tofu. Add a small diced avocado or a handful of raw almonds or pine nuts. Toss with a homemade dressing of virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. If desired, serve with a slice of heavy grain or rye bread. No butter or margarine.

Dinner

Start with a clear vegetable soup with lots of chopped fresh herbs on top.

Stir-fry or steam a medley of vegetables (zucchini, green beans, carrot, asparagus and onion is nice) and serve with a light grilled protein such as fish, prawns, chicken breast or lean lamb. Add half a cup of steamed brown rice or chick peas or cannelloni beans. Sit down to eat and eat until just comfortable, not overfull.

Between meals

Drink a freshly-squeezed juice in place of coffee or tea. Include carrot, spinach leaves, parsley, basil leaves, celery or other vegetables – not just fruit.

Munch on a handful of raw unsalted nuts when you get hungry.

Have you bought a detox kit?

Bought a detox kit from the chemist or health food shop?  Read up on whether they're any good or not.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.