The Truth About Detox Diets

Last Editorial Review: 3/2/2012

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Expert Column

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 site.

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 slowly.

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.

Detox Dangers

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, pregnant women, and children are advised against any type of fasting.


Weight loss occurs in the belly before anywhere else. See Answer

Healthier 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 spokeswoman.

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 says.

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 physical activity.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

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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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