What is ‘detox dieting’ all about?

The word detox is near impossible to avoid after typical times of overindulgence (which most of us are guilty of come Christmastime, let’s be honest…) If you read newspapers or magazines, use the internet, or just converse with people, I would bet detox (or a similar term) comes up at least once a day through the month of January. What exactly is a detox? And why is everyone so drawn in by it?

Detox diets are based on the idea that toxins accumulate in our body, so we therefore must help the body cleanse itself of these toxins. These toxins enter the body via a wide range of sources, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. It is then suggested that elimination of these toxins and side effects of diet itself can lead to weight loss; improved digestion; improved immunity; healthier hair, skin, and nails; increased energy levels; and many more. Thus, detox diets encourage followers to partake in a wide range of practices that aim to rid the body of these toxins. These practices can last from as little as one day to an entire month and can include one or more of the following: fasting; cutting out certain food groups such as wheat and dairy; increasing fruit and vegetable consumption; cutting down on smoking, caffeine, and/or alcohol; and/or using supplements.

So, do these detoxes work? Unfortunately, detox diets are largely a marketing ploy. The diet industry, and particularly the detox industry, is highly profitable- at the expense of unaware customers looking for a quick fix. Usually, detoxes do little harm but also give no benefit, although some detox practices can prove damaging (nutrient deficiencies can occur by cutting out certain groups, supplements often contain laxatives or diuretics to encourage quick weight loss but with long-term health risks, and fasting can encourage unhealthy eating habits and headaches, irritability, and dizziness). Scientists and health professionals tend to discourage the use of detox diets due to the wobbly scientific basis (there is no evidence that suggests toxins actually accumulate in the body) and the potential harm that can be done to physical and mental wellbeing. 

Let us return to the backbone of the theory behind detoxes: eliminating toxins from the body. This is a good thing. In fact, it is essential for our survival and wellbeing. Fortunately, we have highly specialised detoxification systems already! The liver, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and skin are all highly efficient at removing toxins from our body. Some of the more extreme detox practices can impair the detoxification function of these organs, however the practice of eating more fruit and veg can help maintain the health of these organs and keep their functions running smoothly. Thus, we cannot say that all detox practices are bad. In fact, a few other of the ‘rules’ detox diets set out are good for us: limiting caffeine and alcohol gives our livers a rest, helps us get a good night’s rest, keeps our minds working well; caloric restriction (to an extent) aids in weight loss and prevents obesity; avoidance of high-fat, high-sugar foods protects our cardiovascular system via improving cholesterol levels and insulin responses. 

When we look at the ‘healthy’ elements of detox diets, it is not hard to notice that they resemble the non-controversial advice given to us by doctors and nutritionists for decades: eat a balanced diet as well as partake in regular physical activity for good health.

All in all, the word detox sparks interest as it promotes a quick solution to undo our overindulgences. In reality, we don’t actually need to try to detox. Our bodies do it for us. But by making sensible lifestyle choices and eating a balanced diet, we support and maintain our internal detoxification systems, as well as all other bodily functions.

So instead of embarking on a drastic detox diet, why not just make a conscious effort to eat better and exercise, encouraging our bodies to do what they’re evolved to do!