Do Detox Diets Work? Are They Safe?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Spring is right around the corner, and as I glance around my home, I see that a thorough cleaning is in order.  Dust bunnies are multiplying under my bed, spider webs are glistening on my chandelier, and a layer of dust has settled on all places too difficult to comfortably reach. 

As I strategically plan my upcoming cleaning project, I start to wonder if my body is also in need of a cleaning, so to speak. 

Like many of you, I tend to go into hibernation mode during the winter months.  With less daylight hours and physical work to do outside, along with an influx of sugary treats and comfort foods, my body has been insulated by an added layer of fat. I'm surely not alone in feeling this way, judging from the number of questions we field on the site about detox diets this time of year.

While the idea of cleaning out harmful toxins in your body or removing body fat quickly may sound tempting and even beneficial, is a detox the answer?

What is a detox? 
Around since the 1970s, the Master Cleanse, also known as the Lemonade Diet, is probably the most popular detox diet.  Followers of this detox spend 10 days drinking a concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper.  Side effects include tiredness, irritability, hot bowel movements, and headaches, but those are touted as signs of the beneficial detoxification process. Other detox programs can last for several days to weeks and involve drinking little more than fruit and vegetable juices. Still other programs involve drinking water and consuming no food for several days at a time.

But does the body need detoxification? 
If you've been exposed to high amounts of heavy metals, poisons, or radiation, you might require an actual medical detoxification.  However, typical day-to-day living does not bring about a need to detox with concoctions and laxatives.  The body is perfectly capable of cleaning itself.  Think about all your wonderfully complex body systems involved in the removal of toxins: your circulatory (blood) system, respiratory (lungs) system, urinary (kidneys) system, and digestive (liver and intestines) system. It makes no sense that a little lemon juice, vegetable juice, or gut rest is actually going to make a difference in your health.  There are no published, peer-reviewed, or well-designed research studies on detoxing that indicate any health benefit or weight loss.  

Detoxing and weight loss
Of course you will usually lose weight when following a detox program.  The diet is very restrictive, and the daily calorie intake is much less than what you would typically consume.  A person could lose several pounds weekly while detoxing.  Some of the weight will be body fat, but most will be water loss and some muscle tissue loss.  Since the detoxer has not learned to change his or her eating habits and food environment, the weight will quickly be regained.  Overall, there is no sustainable benefit—and the loss of muscle mass due to fast weight loss is harmful.

Detoxing and increased energy
Many people who "detox" report a decrease in food cravings, increased energy, and a feeling of overall well-being.  "What’s up with that?" you might be asking.
  • Realize that high-sugar, high-fat foods do increase food cravings--think cookies, pastries, and doughnuts.  These foods lead to surges and rapid drops in blood sugar. Eliminating these foods alone can bring about a decrease in food cravings and improve energy levels.
  • Next, factor in the psychological impact of a detox plan.  If someone has been struggling with food control issues and the food has been winning, sticking to a very restrictive detox plan can give that person the feeling that he or she is once again in control.  Jumping on the scale after a few days and seeing a five-pound weight loss adds to the mental boost.  The mind is very powerful: If you think the treatment will work, it sometimes does. Believing that lemon juice and cayenne pepper are the magic potion for weight loss, energy, and vitality can sometimes make a person feel better.  This is called the placebo effect, and it is why good scientific studies use a double blind control method—neither the subject nor the researcher knows who is receiving the placebo or the actual treatment.
Detoxing dangers
If you're a healthy adult, following a detox program for a few days is probably not going to put you in danger.  However, if you have a medical condition or take certain medications, a detox program could be dangerous or even deadly. If you are determined to give detox a try, talk to your doctor first.

How do I plan to spring clean my body--and how can you do the same?

Think about how you spring clean your house: Do you shove everything under the bed and in closets until winter or pitch it all in the garbage? No way. You roll up your sleeves and put in the work to declutter, clean, and organize. I'm applying the same techniques to my spring cleaning for my body--and so should you. (Not to mention, spring cleaning can also help you burn some additional calories!)

I definitely do not spring clean with a detox!  Instead, I have a simple, 2-step plan that will work for anyone:
  • Step One:  Pitch and purge all those sugar-laden foods that have crept back into your life by using the SparkPeople’s Breaking Your Sugar Addiction Plan:  This 4-week challenge helps stop sugar cravings. 
  • Step Two:  Make over my meals and snacks by giving your body what it really needs each and every day with Super Foods.
So what do you say? Are you ready to spring clean your body the healthy way?

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I agree with this article. I am now looking to clean out the SUGAR!!! It always nice to be reminded and encouraged. Thanks!! Report
I agree with the author totally. I equate the master cleanse with throwing out all the furniture, rugs, curtains, etc when spring cleaning, rather than just cleaning them. I agree that a better idea is just taking a look at the bad foods we have let slip back into our diet and cleaning them out. Report
I still drink warm water with fesh lemon , a touch of cayenne pepper and honey , when I awake and before I go to sleep everyday . I do eat healthy during the day , while I do this cleanse with plenty of clean water. The point to this cleanse is to remove the bile from your liver and kidneys not to be used as a sole tool for weight loss. This is where many people become confused . The point of the cleanse is to rid the body of bad elements so the enzymes can process food correctly . Report
On the efficiency of a detox... the answer is revealed in min. 6 of this part, but the whole experiment is described in the previous parts.

Watch before you undergo any unnecessary discomfort :P Report
Thanks for the great article. I have been adding the benefits of juicing to my everyday routine lately and I feel much healthier. During the first three days of juicing I did it twice daily followed by a healthy salad with chicken or salmon for dinner and had an apple or celery sticks with Nutzo Omega-3 Butter for my snacks. I now juice once per day with kale, spinach, apples, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli and other healthy fruits & veggies so that I get a juice with no added sugar or salt that's packed with nutrition. It also helps my tummy because I have a hard time digesting broccoli. I think if you 'juice' in moderation instead of 'detoxing' with lemon juice and cayenne it's going to be much more beneficial and my calorie count was still about 1200 the 1st 3 days and now I am back to 1400-1500 and still losing weight with two healthy meals per day along with my one freshly made juice, water and exercise. :-) Report
Thank you for such a smartly written blog.

I find it so frustrating when people I know are constantly pushing others into detoxing when in reality it seems to not be a very healthy thing to do. I received the same advice on detoxing from my doctor (whom I believe to be brilliant and genuinely compassionate) as I received from my Naturalist... The only detox your body wants and needs is water! If you want to detox, drinking plenty of clean water will actually clean you out better than any wives tale remedy. I am so happy to read this article because so many things we see online tell us to do the opposite. Great job! Report
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