Detox Diets: Safe or Shaky?

Have you been burning the candle at both ends?  Eating junk food…drinking too much, not exercising?  I just typed “detox diets” into my web browser, and was surprised to see over 2 million ‘hits’ for all types of programs and products, to lose weight, get more energy, grow younger—just by “de-toxing.  If you are feeling sluggish and bloated, is a detox diet the answer? 

Save your money…and your health.  The human body is a “detoxifier”…naturally.  Your liver, kidneys, respiratory and gastrointestinal system all work together to detoxify your body daily.  The average person does not need a “neutralizing” diet and it’s certainly not available in an elixir, a pill, a powder or a potion—using an unregulated and unproven product to detoxify your body may have unintended consequences, and is not reliable for permanent weight control.

The word “detox” has morphed from the original meaning “to treat (an individual) for alcohol or drug dependence, usually under a medically supervised program designed to rid the body of intoxicating or addictive substances”, to today’s “miracle cure”, usually connected to a weight loss diet.  An alcoholic may undertake a “detoxifying” regimen to wean their dependency from a highly toxic and debilitating drug.  But, most detox diets are nutritionally shaky, not providing even the minimal daily needs for calories, protein, fat and carbohydrate.  By definition, then, a detox diet is not to be followed for any length of time.

Toxins are byproducts of food, air and water.  Every day our bodies process toxins and eliminate them through sweat, urine and feces.  We go merrily along, eating, drinking and functioning without paying attention to the day-to-day processes.  However, when we overload…eat too much “stuff”, drink too much alcohol or otherwise abuse our body, we gain weight, feel tired…and look worse. 

We don’t have to take a special pill or follow a draconian diet to enhance the body’s natural processes.  Stay clear of programs that require “cleansing” substances to “purify”, “cleanse” or “detoxify”…these are buzzwords for laxative and diuretic substances.  Programs that claim to cure diseases or medical conditions should be given wide berth. 

Undertake your own “detox” with good food, in the right portions for your unique lifestyle requirements.  Drink water for hydration, absorption and elimination…and get enough sleep.  I guarantee you’ll feel like a new person!

  • Fasting:  Absolutely not recommended for people with diabetes, pregnant women or for children or elderly.  Some proponents of fasting state that it “rejuvenates” the body, and rests the digestive track.  Fasting is another term for “starving” and most health experts would not recommend it.   Most everyone has experience with fasting, perhaps before a blood test or surgery…and have experienced the headaches, fatigue and “fruity breath” from ketosis.  It’s not pleasant, and not healthful.   
  • Juice fasts:  Your body can function on just juice and water for a period of time, but not optimally.  Juice contains some fructose (fruit sugar) and some vitamins and minerals, but not in amounts necessary for good nutrition.  People with diabetes on medication should never juice fast…ever.
  • Cleansing products and supplements.  Many “detox” regimens involve “cleansing the colon” with herbal supplements that encourage bowel movements.  Citing “waste buildup”, manufacturers describe products as what’s needed to free the body of built-up toxins and wastes, accumulated in the colon.  Many contain laxative ingredients, including senna, which is habit-forming, and overuse may harm the colon and permanently change the digestive track. 
  • Colonics:  Some detox plans advise “high colonics”; more than an enema, colonics involve inserting a rubber tube into the colon.  This procedure runs the risk of damage from perforation.  “Regular” isn’t necessarily “daily”, and artificially inducing them is not advised.
  • Raw foods:  Very popular in some circles, but some foods have less nutritional value when raw, and cooking actually increases the availability of some nutrients—a good example is tomatoes—their lycopene, the antioxidant that helps immunity, is enhanced by cooking, especially with a little fat (think olive oil—and don’t forget the basil—a good source of more antioxidant vitamins).  Raw is boring, and ignores the variety in tastes and textures that cooking brings to foods. 
  • Delaying medical advice:  Are you “de-toxing” because you feel sick?  Because you have pain or cramps?  If you need to seek medical advice, do so.  Improve your diet, yes.  Ignore important symptoms…no!
  • Medications: If you’re taking medications prescribed by your physician, don’t stop if you decide to use a detox program!  Some medications including insulin, heart regulation and blood clotting medications are essential to daily health, and must be regulated closely by your physician. 
  • Water: the most effective substance to include in your “purifying’ diet is water.  Most people drink less than the recommended eight 8-ounce glasses, and may suffer the effects of dehydration, including poor elimination and unhealthy looking skin.

Take to heart the cliché, “You are what you eat”.  If you drink soda and alcohol to excess, and eat a diet high in sugar and fat, you’ll certainly feel like you need a detoxifying diet, so stay healthy, naturally.  Live within the boundaries for general good health by keeping treats and sweets to an occasional indulgence, and avoid radical diets.

Registered and licensed dietitian Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, is the author ofMaking Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally– a book intended to liberate serial “dieters” and make living healthfully and weight-wise intuitive and instinctual over the long term. She may be reached online at

Also, check out HealthyWage, the website that pays you to be healthy!

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