By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Touted as a way to remove harmful toxins in the body and promote weight
loss, detox diets are hotter than ever. Hollywood stars do it days before
gracing the red carpet, Dr. Oz has his own formula, spa retreats feature them,
and many diet books are based on detox beliefs.
But despite the popularity of detox diets, nutrition experts say they are not
necessary nor are they scientifically proven to work.
Fasting to detoxify and lose weight is not necessary, says Frank Sacks, MD, a
leading epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "There is no
basis in human biology that indicates we need fasting or any other detox formula
to detoxify the body because we have our own internal organs and immune system
that take care of excreting toxins," Sacks says.
What Is a Detox Diet?
Detox (short for detoxification) diets are extreme,
quick weight loss diet plans that claim to flush toxic chemicals from your body.
Detox regimes promise purification from poisonous toxins. Detoxing is based
on the concept that your body needs help getting rid of unwanted toxins from
contaminants in processed foods and the environment. In theory, once free of
toxins, your body functions better and your metabolism soars so you can shed
those extra pounds.
There are a variety of different detox diets, but most follow a pattern of
very low calorie fasting with the addition of small amounts of fruits and/or
vegetables, water, and assorted supplements. Some diets recommend herbs, pills,
powders, enemas and other forms of intestinal and colon cleanses. Methods vary
and frequently include products that are only available from the author's web
The overall principle of detox diets along with selling questionable products
raises a red flag, says Washington University nutrition director, Connie
Diekman, MEd, RD. "Detox diets prey on the vulnerability of dieters with fear
tactics while gaining financially by selling products that are not necessary and
potentially dangerous," Diekman says.
Do Detox Diets Work?
Yes and no.
Beyonce made the maple syrup, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper Master Cleanse
formula (also known as the Lemonade Diet) famous when she dropped 20 pounds
quickly for her role in Dreamgirls. Knowles regained the weight soon thereafter
and in interviews warned dieters away from the regimen.
Weight loss occurs on most of these plans because they are so low in
calories, says Diekman, past president of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
(formerly American Dietetic Association). "These fad diet detox plans are
nothing more than a quick fix and not recommended for weight loss by registered
dietitians," she says.
When you dramatically reduce your calorie intake, you will lose weight. But
it can also cause all kinds of health problems, including muscle loss. And when
you start fasting, your body goes into conservation mode, burning calories more
Keep in mind that the initial weight lost
on a fast is primarily fluid or "water weight," not fat. And when you go back to
eating, any lost weight usually gets a return ticket back. Not only do most
people regain weight lost on a fast, they tend to add a few extra pounds because
a slower metabolism makes it easier gain weight.
"Dieters end up in a worse place than where they started and the weight that
is regained is likely to be all fat. Lost muscle has to be added back at the
gym," says Sacks, a cardiologist and researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Scientific Evidence Is Lacking
There is little, if any, scientific evidence
that detoxification is necessary and effective for good health or weight loss.
"Your body is designed to remove toxins efficiently with organs such as the
kidneys, liver, and colon. You don't need detox diets, pills, or potions to help
your body do its job," Sacks says.
Experts agree there is no credible science to substantiate claims that detox
diets work or the need for detoxification, lymphatic draining, and frequent
bowel cleansing. There are no studies available to document the benefits;
instead, most claims are based on testimonials.
Some detox plans sound like a very scientific approach to
cleanse your body of harmful substances.
Unfortunately, most detox diets lack the fundamentals that dietitians,
doctors, and health authorities know are essential for weight loss and good
health. The risks outweigh any benefits, and ultimately, traditional detox diets
are not an effective way to lose weight and are potentially dangerous.
There are multiple concerns about detox diets: They are based on unrealistic
fears; dieters' lack of understanding how the body works; and they are
unnecessary, unrealistic, not sustainable and potentially dangerous.
Most people don't feel great on low-calorie, nutrient-poor diets. Potential
side effects include but are not limited to low energy, low blood sugar, muscle
aches, fatigue, feeling
dizzy or lightheaded, and nausea. Prolonged fasting can
lead to more serious health problems. Colon cleanses are not recommended because
they can alter your body's electrolyte and fluid balance.
Are they safe? It depends on the plan and how long you stay on it. Fasts
lasting a day or two are unlikely to be dangerous for most healthy adults. But
high-risk people, the elderly, anyone with a chronic disease,
and children are advised against any type of fasting.
The Best Diet Tips: How to Lose Weight the Healthy Way
You can detox in a healthy way, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD,
RD author of Doctor's Detox Diet. "Extremes like colonics, starvation, and
prolonged juice cleanses are not recommended, but if you view detox diets as a
way of clean eating, then it means eating natural, less-processed foods that are
closer to the earth without artificial ingredients," she says.
Gerbstadt's two-week plan encourages lots of
water, whole fruits, vegetables, fiber, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole
grains. It allows 1,500-1,600 calories per day that to reduce bloat and help
shed up to 3 pounds a week. "The plan is not restrictive, satisfies hunger, can
be followed long-term, and focuses on getting more fluids, fiber, and [limiting]
alcohol," says Gerbstadt, who is also an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Her top 10 list of natural detox foods include: green leafy vegetables,
lemons, watercress, green tea, broccoli sprouts, sesame seeds, cabbage, psyllium
(powdered fiber), and fruits. "Beyond weight loss, minimally processed foods are
healthy, nutrient-rich, contain fewer chemicals, and the fiber and fluids speed
up transit time to relieve gastrointestinal issues like constipation," Gerbstadt
So instead of a detox fast, opt for a healthy diet plan that you can stick
with long-term. Healthy diets provide at least 1,200-1,500 calories per day and
include a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean
protein, beans, healthy fats, and plenty of fluids -- along with regular
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions
and conclusions are her own.
Latest Diet & Weight Management News
Frank Sacks, MD, researcher and epidemiologist, Harvard School of Public Health; professor of cardiovascular disease prevention, Harvard Medical School.
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD,spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; author,
Doctor's Detox Diet.
Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, nutrition director, Washington University, St. Louis; author,
Everything Mediterranean Diet; past president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Edited on March 02, 2012
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