Detoxes: an undefined scam

Why you feel good during a detox

Any diet promising a quick fix is always too good to be true. Good health takes time and dedication. Still, that doesn’t stop fad diets and their marketers from gumming up the airways with advertisements. One kind of fad diet always makes the rounds this time of year: the cleanse, or “detox” diet.


What exactly is a cleanse?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a specific definition for either of these interchangeable terms. Presumably, the goal of a cleanse is to eliminate harmful substances from the body by “flushing” them out through a combination of caloric restriction and a liquid-only diet. Many cleanses are supposedly aimed at specific body parts, whether it’s a liver cleanse, a colon cleanse, or the almighty Master Cleanse.

Cleanses and detox diets often involve strict food limitations, usually allowing only fruit and vegetable juice, or other drinks. The master cleanse, for example, prescribes a daily six to twelve glasses of lemonade containing maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Supposedly, this concoction will remove toxins from the body, and according to its creator, support the “elimination of every kind of disease.”

While minor differences might differentiate one fad cleanse or detox diet from another, no specific one is worth dissecting in detail, since a new one will be around the corner, claiming to be more effective than the others. In simple terms, detox and cleanses hinge on the premise that the human body accumulates “toxins” as a result of exposure to pesticides, pollutants, food additives, or simply from inadequate flushing of metabolic waste.


Does the body need cleansing?

It is important to understand, however, that the human body is remarkably resilient. The liver, kidneys, lungs, and several other organs work around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete waste products of metabolism. They don’t need any help from pepper-infused lemonade. Moreover, there is evidence that commercial detox supplements are not based on facts. A 2009 investigation found that not a single company behind 15 commercial cleanses could name the toxins targeted by their treatment, agree on the definition of the word ‘detox’, or even supply evidence that their products work.

The fact that no company can name the toxin their product targets reveals just how little of an effect cleanses have. To scientifically determine the effectiveness of a treatment, the toxin being investigated first needs to be identified in order to accurately measure its accumulation in the body. Then, researchers would investigate the effects of pharmaceuticals or supplements on the toxin. Finally, scientists would begin to explore a hypothesis for why the toxin is affected by a particular drug or supplement. For example, scientists researching the effects of organochlorine pesticides, which are known to accumulate in mammals, not only know the name of the toxin they are researching, but they have also determined that accumulation can be limited by the pharmaceutical Orlistat. In fact, the mechanism behind Orlistat’s effect on organochlorine is largely understood: normally, organochlorine pesticides can move between the liver and intestines. Orlistat confines the toxins to the intestines, where they are removed as waste.

This is not to say that the human body does not accumulate low levels of toxicants, such as heavy metals or certain fat soluble substances. Rather, the takeaway is that detox diets or cleanses have no demonstrable effect on the removal or excretion of these toxicants.


How can you explain apparent cleanse benefits?

Fad cleanses often spread through word-of-mouth despite their apparent lack of beneficial health effects. Since a cleanse involves caloric restriction, temporary weight loss often results. This is a result of glycogen loss from the liver and muscles, not fat loss. Under caloric restriction, the body’s glycogen stores can easily be depleted in 24-48 hours, resulting in a weight loss of several pounds (both from the glycogen burnt, and the water weight associated with glycogen storage). Once a regular eating schedule is resumed, however, the glycogen and water come rushing back. Nevertheless, this temporary weight loss leads a lot of people to believe the cleanse they just completed had some beneficial health effects.

Not to mention - most people eat poorly. A cleanse usually brings with it vegetable and fruit consumption, which brings a host of nutrients their regular diet is likely severely lacking in.

Instead of doing a cleanse for a New Year’s resolution, focus on long-term sustainable health habits, like eating nutritious food on a daily basis. Leafy greens, ample protein, and food chock-full of vitamins is not just tastier than a cleanse, but will actually benefit your body too.


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