There’s no quick fix when it comes to well-being. Nurturing your body and mind is a long-term endeavor. But that doesn’t stop fad diets and the marketers promoting them from buttering-up consumers with ads full of empty promises. In recent decades, one such diet, called the “detox” diet has taken the fitness industry by storm…but why?
If you’ve had the chance to pick up most any fitness magazine in the past decade, or simply scroll through your social media feed, odds are you’ve come across an article preaching a “detox” diet (which seems to be used interchangeably with the term “cleanse”). Regardless which label you prefer, you’ll be hard-pressed to associate it with an explicit definition. Moreover, nobody really knows what exactly this type of diet is aimed at doing beyond removing “toxins” from the body.
Unfortunately, there exists large amounts of ambiguity in this niche of the health/fitness world, as many cleanses claim to target specific organs, while others are intended to purify your entire body. It’s no surprise that such diets are inherently very restrictive, with food choices often being limited to vegetable and fruit juices… or better yet, proprietary food products that you must solely subsist on.
One example of a “full body” cleanse is called the Master Cleanse, which prescribes drinking six to twelve glasses of lemonade mixed with maple syrup and cayenne pepper daily. This alchemy-esque concoction is supposed to remove toxins from the body. The creator has gone so far as to say it supports the elimination of every kind of disease.1
Ultimately, detox diets/cleanses may differ in their finer points, but no specific protocol is worth dissecting in detail as sooner or later it will fall out of favor for the next fad in line. The main thing to take home is that detox diets hinge on the premise that the human body accumulates toxins and metabolic waste as a result of being exposed to xenobiotics (such as pesticides) and food additives.
WHAT IS A TOXIN?
Before we set out to see what science there is, if any, to cleansing, we need to have an unequivocal definition of toxins. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, “Toxins are substances created by plants and animals that are poisonous to humans. Toxins also include some medicines that are helpful in small doses, but poisonous in large amounts.”2 Moreover, toxicants is a term used to refer to man-made poisons found in the environment, typically arising from pollution.
In the context of cleanses and detox diet, however, a “toxin” is any substance that is believed to be harmful/noxious, including heavy metals (like mercury), xenobiotics, preservatives, or food additives such as food dyes, aspartame, and other synthetic chemicals. What’s important to note is that toxins and toxicants cover a wide variety of substances, and non-natural substances are not automatically noxious.
THE DOSE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Something that most people don’t realize when it comes to most any chemical/substance, is that the difference between medicine and poison is in the dose. Take for example cyanide, a substance that most people know as being highly lethal an d used in chemical warfare (which is all true); but, cyanide is also an organic substance and is found in the seeds of various fruits.
In fact, the median lethal dose (LD50) of cyanide is 3 -8mg/kg in humans, meaning someone who weighs 220lbs could theoretically ingest upwards of 100 to 200mg and be just fine (aside from possible side effects). Also, note, that even 100mg of cyanide is an extremely high intake and you would have to eat tons of fruit seeds to reach t hat amount.
On the contrary, substances that we just assume are healthful in any quantity, such as water, can be lethal in high enough quantities. Yes, you can literally hydrate yourself to death if you want to; exorbitant water intake can lead to unsafe electrolyte imbalances and cause the brain to lose its normal function. Granted the amount of water you have to drink to reach such a critical level is extremely high.
What these two preceding examples tell us, though, is that a substance in and of itself isn’t always necessarily toxic. It’s simply too vague to just label certain things as toxins without having context to consider.
Inhaling pesticides or ingesting pollutants is undoubtedly harmful to your health, but the same cannot be said of all food additives, whether they’re natural or synthetic. Rather than falling prey to fear-mongering, let’s see what science has to say about cleansing the body (and if it’s even needed to begin with).
DOES THE BODY NEED CLEANSING?
The harsh truth is that even if a substance really is toxic, a short-term cleanse isn’t the remedy. Acute toxicity, such as lead poisoning, would constitute a medical emergency and you would be very ill. Chronic toxicity, on the other hand, is most prudently addressed by a proper diet — not a few days of pepper-infused lemonade concoctions.
What’s more, we have vital organs (e.g. liver, kidneys, lungs, bladder, etc.) that work around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete the waste products of metabolism. If you eat a healthy diet, you can be assured these organs already have the necessary nutrients to keep your body free of harmful substances.
Still not convinced that’s how things work? A 2009 investigation found that no t a single company be hind 15 detox supplements could supply any form of evidence for their efficacy (or safety). 3 Worse yet, those companies couldn’t name one single toxin targeted by their products, no r could they confer on a definition for the word “detox”.
How could a researcher/scientist ever formulate a dietary supplement/product if he/she has no clue what substance they’re targeting? If that right there doesn’t scream that these companies are pushing nothing but conjecture and fads, then frankly I don’t know what will.
WHAT SCIENCE SAYS ABOUT CLEANSES
To date, there is virtually no data even available on “detox” diets and cleanses. The few studies that are available, according to a recent review, are underwhelming (to say the least), as they suffer from “small sample sizes, sampling bias, lack of control groups, reliance on self-report and qualitative rather than quantitative measurements.” 4
Sadly, despite the lack of evidence to back their effects, detox diets and commercial cleanses remain popular, mainly because of big-name celebrities who endorse them and claim that’s how they keep in such great shape. These anecdotal tidbits a re simply masking the truth, which is that a wholesome diet and healthy exercise regimen far outweigh any benefits you will ever see from a cleanse protocol.
While it may seem blunt, the main thing to take home from this article is that you’re better off saving your hard-earned money and spend it on a healthy diet than succumbing to detox diet fads.
The evidence in support of detox diets and associated products is so lackluster that it’s a mystery how they caught on to popular culture to begin with.
1) Burroughs, S. (2014). The Master Cleanser . Lulu Pres, Inc.
3) Sheikh, S., Botindari, L., & White, E. (2013). Embodied m etaphors and emotions in the moralization of restrained eating practices. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , 49 (3), 509- 513.
4) Klein, A. V., & Kiat, H. (2015). Detox diets for toxin el imination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics , 28 (6), 675- 686.