Starting a new year seems like the right time to hit reset on a lot of things in your life, especially — after all that holiday eating — your diet. And programs that boasts to help you do just that through a “detox” or “cleansing” claims remain popular, despite a known lack of evidence that they actually work.
“The word ‘detox’ is chicer than ‘diet’ right now,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. “It kind of implies a shorter-term solution, and quick results.”
Most plans are grounded in the idea that flushing toxins out of your system, often through a liquid-only diet with plenty of water, and giving your digestive system a break from its regular role, can bring about miraculous results, ranging from weight loss to more energy to glowing skin. The only problem, experts say: There is zero evidence to back any of that.
What Are Detoxes and Cleanses, and How Did They Become So Popular?
The modern detox movement grew out of largely naturopathic origins. After all, until the last decade or so, detoxing was medical jargon for treating serious conditions, such as alcohol poisoning or kidney failure. But in homeopathic circles, the idea of purifying the body and flushing out toxins took root and grew alongside the movement to “eat clean.”
Most of these cleanses claim that unspecified toxins — from nonorganic foods, environmental pollution, and other chemical contaminants — are wreaking havoc on our bodies, taxing our digestive systems, and leading to weight gain and serious ailments. They promise to cure these ills by a designated period of fasting or restricting solid foods or certain kinds of foods (alcohol, sugar, gluten, or dairy), often supplementing juices or other drinks as a source of vitamins and minimal calories. Drinking lots of water is also a key component in many popular cleanses and detoxes.
The terms “detox” and “cleanse” are mostly used interchangeably, and most plans fall into one of three major categories: those that replace solid food with liquid sustenance (juices, smoothies, or soups, sometimes with herbal supplements thrown in); those that claim to support your body’s natural detoxification systems by supplying nutrients that boost liver and kidney function; and those that focus on cleansing your digestive system from the opposite end, the colon.
What Do Scientific Research and Professionals Say About These Diet Programs
Nutrition experts do not believe the idea that we need any additional help eliminating toxic substances. “Our bodies naturally detox themselves every single day,” says Keri Gans, RDN, owner of Keri Gans Nutrition in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet. “That’s why we have a liver and kidneys.” In other words, every time you pee, poop, or sweat your butt off at the gym, you’re getting rid of waste products that could otherwise harm your body. Not to mention, no randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for scientific research — have ever found that giving your gastrointestinal (GI) system a break from digesting food is beneficial in any way.
Gans believes that one of the reasons detoxes and cleanses may have gained so much traction is they do help people feel better initially, particularly if they were eating a diet rich in processed or packaged foods to begin with. “More energy is one of the big claims these diets make,” she says, “and if you’ve been eating a traditional Westernized diet, one with lots of sugar and processed food, then cutting all that out will make you feel less lethargic — at first.” But after two or three days, she says, surviving on so few calories and little to no protein or healthy fat takes a toll, and people complain of fatigue.
Maybe the best thing that can be said about cleanses is they’re a good psychological tool for helping to cut back or eliminate unhealthy components of your diet, like sugar or alcohol. “Don’t think of it as a long-term plan,” says Zeitlin. “If you’re dead bent on doing a cleanse, keep it short, like maybe two to three days before your best friend’s wedding or another big event, and be aware of the risks. Yes, you’re going to lose weight quickly because you’re restricting calories. But as soon as you go back to eating normally, you will gain it all back — and even more.”
You still interested in checking out a cleanse? We’ve broken down the three major categories and had experts weigh in with specific details on each — read on to learn more.
Experts Opinion on Liquid Cleanses for Weight Loss
There was a time when juice used to be considered a kids’ drink — and not a very healthy one, at that. That was before companies like BluePrint and Pressed Juicery made cold-pressed a household term. On a juice cleanse, only the extract squeezed from fruits and vegetables is consumed for anywhere from one day to two weeks. Many come prepackaged and delivered to your doorstep, sold by companies that claim that juice provides all the nutrition you need while keeping your digestive system from being taxed.
While a study published in June 2014 in the journal Preventative Nutrition and Food Science found that fresh juices did contain even higher amounts of the immune-boosting antioxidant vitamin C than blended drinks made with the whole fruits, in most other nutritional categories, juices fall short. (1)
“many times, juices will propose to contain a lot of vitamins or minerals,” says Gans. “But it’s not enough to sustain an individual for a long period. Many of them lack in protein, fiber, fat, and calories.” Those are all nutrients that trigger satiety, and therefore help prevent overeating and weight gain. “It is extremely difficult for the average person to meet his or her nutritional needs in less than 1,200 calories a day,” Gans continues. “Most juice cleanses are 800 calories or fewer.”
In addition, even juices without added sugar tend to be high on the glycemic index, which means your blood glucose levels will spike and then fall dramatically after consuming them, particularly without other food in your stomach to blend this effect. That can lead to hunger and fatigue. Also, says Gans, “If you’re on them too long, you’ll be missing out on important nutrients, which can put you at risk for malnutrition.
Smoothie- or soup-based cleansers, which often contain more protein and fiber from whole blended fruits, nuts or nut butter, or protein powder, are sometimes a far better option than juice only, but again, Gans says, they’re not “a sustainable way to eat for any length of time.”
Other popular liquid cleanses use brewed tea, apple cider vinegar, or lemon water as their main supposed detoxifying ingredient. And while some research, such as one study published in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, has linked those foods to potential health benefits, none is a magic bullet on its own. (2) In fact, pros say, there’s only one liquid you really need to flush toxins out of your system: water.
Liver Cleanses? Is This a Legitimate Way to Lose Weight?
A recent and more promising trend in detoxing is the movement toward foods that support the body’s natural defenses against harmful substances. As previously mentioned, science suggests benefits of things such as apple cider vinegar, green tea, and lemon water. Some detox programs focus on incorporating these ingredients to boost liver and kidney function and improve the removal of toxic substances. While there is no hard scientific information to back up those claims, there’s plenty of research on certain foods that may promote liver health and can be added to a healthy diet without risk.
“A quality, plant-based diet will always help promote your body’s natural detox system,” says Ashley Koff, RD, who is in private practice in Washington, DC. “Some of my detoxifying faves are whole grains (that’s right, you don’t have to be gluten-free to detox!), peanuts, seeds (hemp, sesame, and sunflower), avocado, banana, spinach, and all greens.” Your body also needs certain nutrients from foods to eliminate toxic chemicals, Koff says, including those found in broccoli, sesame seeds, seaweed, shallots, leeks, garlic and radishes.
“There are some foods that are have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties that might help to enhance your body’s detoxification organs” — aka your liver and kidneys — says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It.
Some of these foods include turmeric, parsley, fish, and garlic, Taub-Dix says. But while the jury’s still out on exactly how much of them we need to eat in order to reap those benefits, she stresses that the key is consuming a variety of these foods on a daily basis, not just seeking out detox foods following an indulgent holiday party. “If eating these foods makes you feel ‘cleansed,’ then they may be providing a benefit in helping you to make other good choices, too,” she says.
But one of the thing to keep in mind: These foods don’t have to be eaten traditionally “cleanse” style to have their intended effect. Anyone can add them to their current diet. Again, don’t expect a cure-all.
What Research Suggests About the Benefits and Risks of Colon Cleanses
Many detoxes target the other end of your digestive tract with products and supplements that claim to cleanse the colon by promoting bowel movements. They often identify “waste buildup” as a problem, though there’s no evidence to suggest this is true. In fact, research has suggested the opposite, including one study published in The Journal of Family Practice that found colon cleansing could actually have detrimental health effects. (3)
“These products usually contain laxative ingredients, including senna, which sometimes is habit forming,” says Lisa Jones, RD, practicing in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania. “Overuse can harm the colon and permanently change the digestive tract.” Documented risks can range from nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration to constipation, and even kidney and liver failure.
Perhaps more significant, constantly flushing out the colon can remove the healthy bacteria that thrive there. Recent research has linked the bacteria in your GI tract to a whole host of health benefits. “Our body has an immune system and the majority is in our guts,” says Zeitlin. It’s definitely best to avoid colon cleansing.
End Note: Should You Try a Detox or Cleanse to Lose Weight?
It’s possible to do a cleanse safely if you follow the guidelines recommended by experts — but always know that a few days of bottled beverages isn’t going to magically cure your health issues or make you 10 pounds lighter.
First, choose a reasonable timeframe for your cleanse — no more than three days. Make sure you’re hydrating properly throughout the duration of it, and eat if you feel faint or nauseous. Beware any plan that restricts major food groups or promotes a singular food. It’s a good idea to get your doctor’s approval as well, says Jones.
A healthier way to think about resetting yourself in the New Year is to lose the restrictive mindset and instead focus on foods you can add to your diet for their nutritional benefits, says Zeitlin. Incorporating fresh veggies, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach, into your diet has proven benefits to help your body run properly — including ridding itself of waste products.