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Why Detox Diets & Cleanses Are A Complete Fad (& Actually Harmful)

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There is no doubt you’ve come across at least one advertisement using a fit individual trying to sell you some sort of “miracle” detox or cleanse.

Chances are those advertisements have at least enticed you to continue reading, with interest kindled by promises of removing “toxins” or rapidly shredding fat, to lose 10 pounds or totally transform your physique, as if by magic.

The problem is, do you know what those toxins are and where they came from, or do they actually even cause significant issues?

Unfortunately, companies like this prey on the notion that you’ll believe their fancy advertisements, be scared of the word ‘toxins’ and instantly assume that this is that ONE magic secret that’s been holding you back all these years…

In this article, I’ll touch on many issues behind the rapidly growing detox and cleanse fads, teaching you why it may actually be harmful for you and how to do a real, more sensible detox, which is based on science.

Detox And Cleanses – What You Need To Know

Unfortunately, most companies providing detoxes or cleanse plans don’t actually define what the protocol is or the science behind how the program works (mainly because there isn’t any science).

Of course, that being said, it is true to say that detoxes or cleanses are in fact intended to help rid the body of “toxins”, in essence cleansing the body of potentially harmful substances that may cause negative health effects (we’ll touch on this later).

Nevertheless, most detoxes and cleanses are extremely restrictive, often lasting for many days, allowing only the consumption of “detoxifying” beverages or a few specific foods, while abstaining from whole foods.

By limiting most foods, detoxes provide a strong diuretic effect while providing little to no calories, giving the impression of purging the body of harmful substances or toxins.

So, What Is A Toxin?

Obviously toxins do have a definition, but it can vary, depending on the context; yet despite this fact, many companies / fitness gurus do not disclose what toxins they are referring to nor which ones their product promises to rid you of.

According to the New York Department of Health, a toxin is a substance that is actually poisonous or causes negative health effects. This would include substances such as cleaning products, pesticides, and even strong narcotics used in high doses (1).

While many of these things can certainly be included under the umbrella of the detox/cleanse “toxin,” the general belief is that through various different events in our lives, we consume small amounts of some of these toxins in addition to unnamed others, which accumulate, resulting in “bad health.”

The difference between these two definitions is that one is completely identifiable and apparent as a toxin. For example, it’s safe to say that bleach, for instance, would be considered a toxin, harmful to the human body, which, if consumed, would lead to a very negative result indeed!

On the other hand, the toxins identified by proponents of detoxes and cleanses are much less apparent as they are not clearly defined and have no measurable way to determine if you actually do have a buildup of them, or even, therefore, require a cleanse in the first place.

Research On Detox Diets

Unsurprisingly, research regarding detoxification diets is very scarce.

In fact a recent review in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics indicated that there are zero randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of research) evaluating the effectiveness or use of regularly available detox products (2).

This is largely due to a number of different variables that make studying products quite difficult. For example, it’s difficult to determine which toxins are present in the body in addition to individual variation between subjects.

As a result, finding a specific combination of ingredients that aids in elimination of literally thousands of different potential “toxins” is not only near impossible, it’s also likely unwarranted.

Organs such as the lungs, liver and kidneys work endlessly for the purposes of eliminating waste products and toxins.

Further, if a condition occurs as a result of a toxin and requires immediate medical attention, then using specific agents would likely allow for efficient and effective detoxification, rather than simply ingesting a “detox” product and hoping that it removes any toxins you think you have.

Why Detoxes And Cleanses Are A Scam

First of all, as described earlier, detoxes and cleanses are often extremely restrictive. So much so that they often prescribe consuming low calorie beverages, supplements or diets for days on end as the only source of sustenance (3).

While this would technically be fasting, it’s highly likely that any health benefit you are getting would be due to long-term fasting, rather than the detox product itself.

Additionally, these detox cleanses are often touted to help kick start weight loss.

While using one of these products will likely result in immediate weight loss, it’s due to a complete absence of calories and reduction in water weight due to their diuretic effect.

Unfortunately, many find that after using detox cleanses, despite initially losing weight they often gain the weight back and even gain some extra. This can create wild shifts in hormones and metabolism, which can have negative effects on body composition, mood and even how your body processes food for a long time after ceasing the detox.

This is all without mentioning that detox cleanses also promote a reduction in protein intake. Restricting protein can have a number of different negative effects such as muscle atrophy. Additionally, protein increases metabolism and reduces hunger so abstinence could actually make you much hungrier (4, 5, 6).

Lastly, as mentioned, it’s extremely difficult to not only pinpoint which toxins (if any) have built up in your body, but it is even more difficult to determine if a general detox product will actually remove said toxin. Any way you spin it, purchasing an expensive detox product just simply isn’t worth the money and effort.

What You Should Do Instead Of A Detox/Cleanse

Despite the fact that many commercial detox cleanse programs don’t actually work, there are a number of different things you can do to ensure that your body is running at its optimum.

Exercise 

Exercise is the number one thing that you can begin to do to optimize health. By using any form of resistance training or cardiovascular exercise, you’ll drive adaptations in the body to be resilient to threats and become stronger, both physically and mentally.

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Improve Your Diet

If you are worried about potentially having a build up of “toxins,” you should consider significantly improving your diet.

Increasing your lean protein and vegetable intake will provide your body with metabolism-boosting protein and appetite-suppressing fiber, all while providing it with nutrients that will help improve your body composition (4, 7, 8, 9).

Use Intermittent Fasting

Lastly, consider using intermittent fasting. In addition to potentially improving body composition, you’ll get all of the same benefits of “detoxes” but it’s free and easy to do.

Research has shown that periodic fasting can increase a process in the body called autophagy (10, 11).

This process is responsible for the marking and disposing of unneeded, damaged (or potentially threatening) cellular components in the body, in order to make room for new, healthy ones to be formed. In essence, fasting allows you to “cleanse” your body of things that are actually known to cause harm.

A More Sensible & Scientific Detox

Ultimately, the reason you and thousands of others may love the idea of detoxing is very simple.

In short, you cut out all bad food, you eat lots of vegetables and drastically reduce calories. What does this result in? Well, you feel much better (as you cut out bad food), lose a ton of glycogen and water weight quickly, your stomach shrinks rapidly as you’ve drastically reduced the amount of food sat in the stomach and digestive tract etc.

So, you look and feel great, thinking it’s because you magically eliminated toxins, when really that has nothing to do with it, plus no science to support it either.

Now, logic would suggest that you could do the above in a more sensible manner, getting all the benefits of a detox/cleanse without losing muscle, or paying for expensive plans, juices, supplements or whatever they are selling you nowadays.

So, next time you want to cleanse, try this instead for 7 days. I guarantee the results are similar, plus you’ll actually be healthier, save money and safeguard muscle.

Here’s a checklist:

  • Cut out all starchy or processed carbs for 1 week
  • Lower food intake to mainly proteins and vegetables
  • Focus on sleep
  • Exercise everyday
  • Cut calories by around 30%, work on 10 calories per 1lb bodyweight.

There you have it, a more sensible ‘detox’ that will just help you focus on healthy diet principles but still let you lose weight quickly, flatten your stomach/reduce bloat and feel much better!

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Final Word on Detox & Cleanses

Without a doubt, commercial detox cleanses are not only expensive, but are also a waste of time, energy and, even worse, could actually make you ill.

Unfortunately, even the ‘gurus’, fitness celebs or companies that sell these detox teas, detox programs or products don’t even know which “toxins” they are supposed to be helping you remove from your body – it’s insane!

This is without mentioning that there is almost zero evidence to support the claims of these products.

Rather than spending your time and money investing in a product that likely doesn’t work, aim to improve your health by using exercise and a nutrient dense diet. Even further, consider using an intermittent fasting diet to help rid the body of things that might actually be harmful to you, such as excess body fat!

 References 

  1. Department of Health. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/chemicals/toxic_substances.htm
  2. Klein, A. V., & Kiat, H. (2015). Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28(6), 675-686.
  3. Oz’s 3-Day Detox Cleanse One-Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from http://www.doctoroz.com/article/dr-ozs-3-day-detox-cleanse-one-sheet
  4. Westerterp, K. R. (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 5.
  5. Luscombe, N. D., Clifton, P. M., Noakes, M., Farnsworth, E., & Wittert, G. (2003). Effect of a high-protein, energy-restricted diet on weight loss and energy expenditure after weight stabilization in hyperinsulinemic subjects. International journal of obesity, 27(5), 582-590.
  6. Veldhorst, M., Smeets, A. J. P. G., Soenen, S., Hochstenbach-Waelen, A., Hursel, R., Diepvens, K., … & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008). Protein-induced satiety: effects and mechanisms of different proteins. Physiology & behavior, 94(2), 300-307.
  7. Bolton, R. P., Heaton, K. W., & Burroughs, L. F. (1981). The role of dietary fiber in satiety, glucose, and insulin: studies with fruit and fruit juice. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 34(2), 211-217.
  8. Cho, S. S., Case, I. L., & Nishi, S. (2009). Fiber and Satiety. Weight Control and Slimming Ingredients in Food Technology, 227.
  9. Lefranc-Millot, C., Macioce, V., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Lee, A. W., & Cho, S. S. (2012). Fiber and Satiety. Dietary Fiber and Health, 83.
  10. Cuervo, A. M., Bergamini, E., Brunk, U. T., Dröge, W., Ffrench, M., & Terman, A. (2005). Autophagy and aging: the importance of maintaining” clean” cells. Autophagy, 1(3), 131-140.
  11. Ogata, T., Oishi, Y., Higuchi, M., & Muraoka, I. (2010). Fasting-related autophagic response in slow-and fast-twitch skeletal muscle. Biochemical and biophysical research communications, 394(1), 136-140.

 

About the author

Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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