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Why detox diets don’t work and what to do instead

If you’re considering a new year detox diet to ditch the extra 2kg, dial down bloating or fix your skin, bad news. Not only are detox diets ineffective, they may be dangerous and lead to weight gain. Instead, try these science-based alternatives that actually work.

Which detox diet is best for undoing the indulgences of Christmas (and maybe lockdown)? It’s a trick question. However tempting promises of fast weight loss and cleansing may sound, there is no scientific basis for swapping regular food for a liquid diet such as juice and clear soup. 

According to a review of popular detox diets at Macquarie University, there is no plausible argument for using detox diets to manage weight or promote toxin elimination. The human body has evolved highly sophisticated mechanisms for eliminating toxins. When functioning normally, the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin and lungs all play a role in the excretion of unwanted substances. But detox diets are worse than ineffective. They may be dangerous. According to the review, popular detox diet protocols encouraging fasting, supplements, food modification and laxative use posed real health risks to otherwise-healthy consumers. Among the risks were protein and vitamin deficiencies, electrolyte imbalance and lactic acidosis, they warned. 

But what about weight loss?

Anyone who’s gone without food for four days knows that miraculous 2kg drop on the scales, right? Unfortunately, unless you’re running marathons (which is unlikely with the lethargy and fatigue induced by energy shortfalls), it’s almost certainly not body fat. Rather, the apparent reduction in body weight owes to lower water weight, in part due to depletion of glycogen stores from consuming fewer carbohydrate foods. If a detox diet is prolonged, some ‘lost weight’ may be attributed to reduced muscle mass, which occurs when your body runs out of energy sources and breaks down its own lean tissue (yes, it basically feeds on itself). It gets worse. Reduced muscle mass effectively reduces metabolic rate and in turn encourages weight gain while eating previous maintenance amounts. And if you think, ‘I’ll just eat less than I used to’, beware of this double-whammy: prolonged energy restriction may cause long-term changes that promote binge eating. Cue the notorious ‘yo-yo’ dieting cycle. 

Not convinced? Key points: 

  1. The body has its own highly-effective cleansing mechanisms that ‘sort the waste’ and ‘detox’ constantly in the form of urine, faeces, perspiration and breath.
  2. Any short-term ‘weight loss’ is likely to be water (due to depleted glycogen reserves) and, if prolonged, loss of metabolically-active, lean muscle. Translation: a permanently slowed metabolism, predisposing you to weight (fat) GAIN when you resume normal eating. At the same time, it may encourage binge eating, which further predicts weight gain.
  3. Aside from being unpleasant due to hunger, missing food and feeling lethargic and fatigued, subsisting on a liquid diet with minimal or no carbohydrates, fibre or healthy fats may cause side effects such as bad breath and constipation. 

“But I want to feel lighter and lose the bloating!”  We hear you. Here are some steps you can take while maintaining good nutrition and health.

  1. Cut out or minimise toxins (then you won’t need to detox)! This means ‘drugs’ such as alcohol and nicotine, which place extra load on cleansing organs such as the liver and kidneys. Withholding these toxins will give your ‘flushing’ organs a break and allow them to do their best waste-removal work. 
  2.  Eliminate or minimise intake of highly-processed foods. Especially make a point of favouring natural sugars and less processed whole foods (for instance, swap out bought pasta sauces for simple home made sauces without additives or extra sugar or sodium). You don’t need to cut out carbohydrate foods such as pasta, bread or cereal. Just make sure you opt for wholegrain varieties. 
  3. If you are bloated, consider eliminating or minimising caffeine (a diuretic that actually promotes fluid retention) and substituting with water, which aids your body’s cleansing processes. If you find it hard to drink enough water (aim for two litres a day), add slices of lemon, lime or orange to your water bottle or jug. 

If you are considering making dietary changes or wish to tailor your nutrition to specific health goals, consult an accredited practising dietitian (APD), who can create a personalised, flexible, sustainable plan for long-term results, health and vitality.

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