Detox diets promise to make us feel better by cutting out supposed 'toxins'. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens discusses the pros and cons of drastic diets...
Thanks to celebrity endorsements and promises of a quick fix, detox diets have quite a following. Fans believe we need a break from the overload of toxins that engulf our everyday lives and that includes processed and junk food, alcohol, caffeine, sugar as well as cigarette smoke and pollution. The reason typically given for a detox is to support the body’s perceived inability to manage this overload, which detox supporters suggest might otherwise lead to weight gain, cellulite, bloating, fatigue and ill health.
Ranging from fruit fasts, which cut out whole food groups to restricted short term diet plans that focus on eliminating caffeine, alcohol, salt, sugar and processed foods, you may lose weight on such a diet because of the limited food choices. Most of this weight loss will be water, stored glycogen and waste products and the majority of it will be regained when you return to normal eating patterns. Some detox diets can be extreme and, when followed for a sustained period of time, may lead to dangerous nutritional deficiencies. Others that advocate the use of specific supplements can be expensive. Detox diets may also trigger unhealthy eating patterns and behaviours, especially in teenagers, which can impact long-term health and wellbeing.
While there are very few benefits to 'detox' diets, they may help you to think about what and when you’re eating they can motivate you to eat more fruit and vegetables, drink more water and cut down on processed foods, caffeine and alcohol. Eating only whole, unprocessed foods may help to retrain your palate so you’re less likely to want foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
There is no scientific evidence to support the need or the value of a 'detox'. That’s because our bodies are designed to repair, regenerate and detoxify themselves. We have specific organs like the liver, kidneys, skin, digestive system and lungs as well as enzymes in our cells that work hard to break down and eliminate toxins and internal waste products. In fact, by cutting back on key nutrients like protein you’re far more likely to compromise rather than support your body’s ability to detoxify. Some 'detox' diets claim to help you to break unhelpful habits, but this may be an oversimplification, as habitual, emotional or comfort eating can be complex behaviours which are unlikely to be resolved by a short-term eating plan.
How do detox diets affect gut health?
There is no robust evidence to directly link detox diets and gut health. Our liver, kidneys and immune system already do the job well by breaking down, excreting and filtering out toxins including food, dead cells, chemicals from pollution and bacteria.
As detox diets often promote a high consumption of fruit and vegetables, there is an obvious possibility that this could be beneficial for gut health. We do know that fruit, vegetables and other high-fibre foods including wholegrains, beans and pulses are very beneficial for gut health and other conditions such as cardiovascular disease. However, these should be included as part of a varied diet, so any improvement in gut health can be achieved through a healthy balanced diet.
With no scientific support that a detox is effective or sustainable in the long term and with the prospect of most dieters putting weight back on when they return to normal eating patterns, detox diets are not what they’re often touted to be. Nevertheless, cutting back on processed foods, alcohol and sugar, cooking homemade meals made from fish, lean meats, fruit, veg and wholegrains, reducing your intake of alcohol and caffeine and drinking more water will almost certainly make you feel better.
If you follow a restrictive or prolonged detox you may experience:
- Lack of energy, fatigue and dizziness
- A possible increase in cravings because of food restrictions
- Nutrient deficiencies.
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This article was last reviewed on 30 January 2019 by dietitian Emer Delaney.
Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
A registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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