That is the question.
You may have heard about detoxes and cleanses a lot here lately. There are so many varieties of them and each one is advertised with various health claims and compelling testimonials. The question is: Do they really improve skin and digestion, “boost” the immune system, increase energy, reduce inflammation, or cure diseases?
A lot of the time—even when they don’t explicitly say so—they’re code words for a calorie-restricted weight loss diet.
But, what effect can they really have on your health? How can you use nutrition to support your body’s detoxification (and overall health)?
What is detox?
Detoxification is your body’s own process for breaking down and eliminating toxins. Yes, you heard me. It’s your body’s process. You have a naturally built-in detoxification system right in your body.
We are all exposed to toxins every day through food, water, and the air we breathe. Toxins include those naturally found in tiny quantities in foods (e.g., methanol naturally occurs in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables—which are very healthy). There are also synthetic toxins found in medicines, pesticides, and preservatives (e.g., sulfur dioxide is used to preserve some fruits and vegetables).
In fact, the body makes its own toxins through normal everyday processes like digestion, metabolism, and physical activity (e.g., urea which is excreted in the urine).
So it’s great news that your body naturally detoxifies itself!
Fun Fact: A toxicant is either a natural toxin or a human-made substance that produces negative effects. A toxin is a natural toxicant produced by living organisms like plants and animals. I will just use the common word toxin, but I am in fact referring to toxicants (which are natural or manufactured).
Because the world is full of toxins that can affect us, we’ve evolved some pretty sophisticated detoxification systems. Detoxification systems are mainly in the liver but are also located in the kidneys, gut, etc. They help to make toxins less dangerous and allow them to be excreted mostly through urine and feces. They are also secreted through breathing and sweating.
What does this have to do with nutrition?
The detoxification systems are made from many biochemicals in our bodies, such as enzymes. Part of what makes enzymes do their job are key essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. So, making sure you get quality nutrition helps your body maintain all aspects of your health—including detoxification.
What are “detox diets” and “cleanses”?
There are tons about these topics on website pages and posts on the internet. There are so many different types of detox diets and cleanses being advertised. Many make bold promises of weight loss and improved health.
Detox diets and cleanses often include at least one of the following:
- Eating more nutritious foods
- Reducing junk foods
- Avoiding alcohol and/or caffeine
- Eliminating some common allergens like wheat or dairy
- Replacing meals with smoothies, juices, teas, or powders
- Short or long-term fasting
- Only eating or drinking a handful of recommended foods and beverages
- Taking several dietary supplements and/or laxatives
- Getting “colon cleanses” (enemas)
Some of these recommendations seem reasonable and healthy. It’s hard to argue that eating more nutritious foods or reducing junk foods isn’t a good step towards better health. However, some of the more extreme recommendations can pose a risk to people including those with underlying health conditions, children, adolescents, athletes, older adults, or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. As you can imagine, the more foods you eliminate from your diet, the fewer nutrients you will get. So, one of the risks of extreme diets in the long-term is nutrient deficiencies. As we discussed, it’s counterintuitive to cut out too many foods because there are critical nutrients scientifically proven to be necessary for your body’s natural detoxification enzymes to work efficiently. NUTRITION is KEY!
There are serious side effects with certain detox supplements or teas. You may have heard about cases of unsafe ingredients or contamination that have harmed people.
Overall, there is a lack of good quality research into detox diets and cleanses, as most studies have been conducted on animals, not people. As Dr. Robert H. Schmerling from Harvard Health says, “It’s not even clear what toxin or toxins a cleanse is supposed to remove, or whether this actually happens.”
There’s not any evidence that detoxes or cleanses actually help your body eliminate more toxins than it normally does. A few studies show that they can help with initial weight loss, however, experts believe that’s due to a reduction in calorie intake. The weight loss is often water and carbohydrate (not fat), so it’s easily regained as soon as the dieting stops. There are no studies on the long-term effects of detox diets or cleanses.
Some people profess to feel better and more energized when they are on these diets. This may be because they’re eating more nutritious foods and fewer junk foods that are high in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
There are only certain medical conditions for which eliminating certain foods is recommended. For example, if you have a food allergy or intolerance or if you need to be on a low-fiber diet due to digestive issues you have a legitimate reason for eliminating certain foods. Before starting any detox diet or cleanse, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider first.
Nutrition plays an essential role in your body’s ability to naturally detoxify and eliminate toxins. You don’t need to follow a highly restrictive or extreme detox diet or cleanse to support them.
Use nutrition to support your body’s natural detoxification
You probably don’t need to eliminate a long list of foods from your diet. In reality, getting enough of your daily nutrients is what can help ensure your detoxification enzymes have what they need to keep up their ongoing very significant work.
Here are a few simple things you can do every day to “detox”:
- Don’t carelessly expose yourself to toxins in the first place. Avoid things like tobacco and alcohol.
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough water. This increases excretion via urine. For more information about hydration, check out this post.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables. These are great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber. The more veggies, the better! For more ways to get veggies, check this out!
- Try and eat a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. These contain compounds that help support detoxification pathways.
- Get enough dietary fiber by eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By promoting bowel regularity, these help to eliminate toxins from the body via the feces.
- Enjoy some naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These promote digestive health and support your gut microbiome. Read more here.
- Consume lean protein. Protein is needed for many things including maintaining optimal levels of a “master” detoxification enzyme called glutathione.
- Consult with a registered dietitian, like me, to see if you may be lacking in any key nutrients. Follow recommendations to eat more or less of a certain food or nutrient or take high-quality supplements.
For a simple way to drink your fruits and veggies, try this smoothie!
Proper nutrition is a key component of detoxification. Your body’s own natural detoxification pathways in the liver, kidneys, etc. include many enzymes that require vitamins and minerals to function optimally. By getting enough of your essential vitamins and minerals, you’re supplying your detox enzymes with what they need to work properly.
Detox diets or cleanses that you see advertised online are usually different. They often oversell their abilities to improve health. There are almost no quality human studies showing benefits and there are no long-term studies. Please speak with your healthcare professional before starting a detox diet or cleanse. If you are looking to lose weight, consider a nutritious and varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, reduced portion sizes, and be active every day.
If you have questions about diets, nutrition, detoxing, or weight loss consult a registered dietitian, like myself who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals. I can help. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your dietary needs.
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