Even if you had no interest in controlling your weight and couldn’t tell a diet from a black forest gateau you will have likely heard of detox remedies or detox diets.
Sometimes detox diets are put forward as regular requirements to remove harmful chemicals from your body. Other times they are promoted as a kind of recovery or ‘rescue remedy’ following a party, holiday or a seasonal breakout when you are likely to have overdone things a bit.
Many follow them, albeit intermittently. But do detox diets make any sense? And do you need to detox in the first place?
Claimed Benefits of Detox Diets
Detox diets are generally short-term changes to diet that are designed to eliminate toxins from your body. They will usually involve some period of fasting to start that is then followed a diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables accompanied by juices and water. They may also include specified teas, supplements and other activities that might broadly be described as colon cleanses.
It is usually claimed that such a diet will give your digestive organs a rest – that’s the purpose of the fasting – and allow your liver and excretory system to get rid of toxins from your body. It is also commonly claimed that the diet will improve your blood circulation and provide the good nutrients that are needed by your body.
It is also sometimes claimed that detox diets will help tackle obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, bloating, and chronic fatigue.
All this from a short term diet that removes toxins that have built up in your body? Such claims should immediately give rise to a number of questions:
- Why is there an excess of these toxins in your body to start?
- Why has your body not been able to get rid of them naturally? Is there some ailment? Something wrong with your liver or intestine?
- Why do your digestive organs need a rest?
- Is there something wrong with your circulation because of an excess of toxins?
- And why are you not already getting enough nutrients? After all we are the best fed generation in history.
- Perhaps most fundamentally: how does a short term change in diet achieve all this? What is the physiological process?
Let’s look a little closer.
What Can Detox Diets Achieve?
The usual answers to these questions go something along the following lines: modern diets are composed of processed foods that our bodies find hard to handle. There are numerous chemicals in our food and in the surrounding environment that were not there previously. We need to get rid of them from our bodies.
So far all this seems to make a lot of sense. We are the best fed people in history, but we also eat a lot of junk. And there are numerous chemicals in the modern world that just did not exist before. And many of these are harmful to our health. And more fresh vegetables and fruit instead of processed food will be good for you.
But, stop for a moment. Is this not just saying you should eat more healthily? Cut down on the junk and make sure you get the nutrients from fresh produce. This is not a short term recommendation. This is a long term lifestyle change.
And what has this got to do with removing harmful chemicals? Even if there are harmful chemicals in modern diets – our exposure to such chemicals and their potential impact is often exaggerated – how do we know that fasting followed by a period of fruit juices will remove them from our bodies?
The fact is that there is actually not a great deal of credible research into the role of detox diets in health living.
Among the problems are that detox diets don’t usually identify the specific toxins that people who follow them will eliminate from their bodies. Even where they may identify specific targets, they typically fail to show that the reduction in these toxins will be any greater than would be case if you just followed a normal healthy diet.
An important weakness is also that the mechanisms by which detox diets work are seldom, if ever, made clear.
This is not to say that you will not remove toxins from your body while following a detox diet. But your body does this anyway, irrespective of your diet, through the actions of the liver, your digestive system, your excretory system and your sweat glands. With a healthy diet, the levels of toxins in your body will fall when intake is below output, without all the trimmings that accompany detox diets.
There is a further important point. Some chemicals are not easily removed and can persist in the body. For the most part, these tend to arise from environmental sources and modern food regulation means that they are kept within safe levels.
When these accumulate in the body, usually in fat cells and in the blood, they can persist for a long period of time. There is no reason to expect that short term detox diet interventions will have any positive impact in terms of flushing these pollutants from the body.
This lack of scientific support led the British Medical Bulletin to conclude that
The principles of AD [alternative detox] make no sense from a scientific perspective and there is no clinical evidence to support them. … The promotion of AD treatments provides income for some entrepreneurs but has the potential to cause harm to patients and consumers.
A far better strategy is to avoid excess intake of these toxins. And therein lies a danger for anyone who expects that detox diets will work. The danger is that the expectation that you can undergo a quick, if somewhat extreme, recovery from excess in-take can lead you to downplay the need to follow healthy diets in the first place.
Fat Cells and Toxins
There is a further issue to consider also. It is inevitable that you will have some toxins in your body. That is not a function of the modern world but a result of being alive. After all, if it was possible to live without any toxins, it is unlikely our bodies would have evolved such complex systems primarily designed to remove and excrete toxins.
Most are dealt with quickly, provided you are not unwell. But some toxins are stored in the body. These are not randomly distributed throughout your body but are concentrated in cells that are specific designed to store them.
We know these cells as fat cells. Fat cells are the body’s storage units.
And this gives rise to a second element of the correct strategy, along with healthy eating, to minimise toxins: minimise the belly fat cells in your body. In particular, belly fat.
Of course, fat cells don’t just store fat and toxins. They also perform a useful function by storing beneficial chemicals such as vitamins and hormones for the body to access as required.
When you put on weight you create more of these cells. But when you lose weight you squeeze the contents of fat cells and release their various fats into your blood to be broken down and either used by the body or excreted.
In doing so they also release all the other chemicals they have stored including pollutants and other toxins into the bloodstream. The body can then excrete the unwanted items.
Notice that there are two detrimental effects here from adding new fat cells, in other words, putting on weight. First, the body ties up the good chemicals it needs. Reversing the process releases these so that are you lose weight you can have greater access to these energy producing molecules.
Second, the fat cells store toxins so that the more cells you have in your body, the more toxins you have. Furthermore, even though these toxins might exist only in minute ‘safe’ doses in your food and environment, they can become concentrated in the body if there is an excess of storage space in the form of body fat.
As you lose weight your body will excrete these pollutants over time. This is a very different process to what is suggested in the crash diet type detox diets.
Forget Detox – Tackle the Fat
There are harmful toxins in our environment and, in small quantities, in our food. There are more of these today than in the past and our bodies can struggle.
But the key to a healthy approach to managing these toxins is not to follow a lifestyle of successive episodes of excess intake and short term detoxification. There is no reason to expect that detoxing will work and a poor diet that exposes you to excess intake is definitely bad for your health.
It sounds a bit old-fashioned and is certainly not as seductive as a dressed up detox diet. Especially if the detox prescription it further enhanced by recommendations for relaxation treatments.
But the best way to minimise toxins in your body is a healthy diet with adequate fruits and vegetables and keeping an eye on your weight. The first part of this reduces the intake, the second part reduces your body’s ability to store such toxins as you may take in.
After this, trust that your body has evolved the systems that are needed to get rid of the toxins it does not want. If some of these processes are not working, perhaps as a result of a poor diet or excess weight, see a doctor. Do not think that a quick fix detox will solve the problem.