Ask LH: Do Detox Diets Actually Do Anything?

Dear Lifehacker, Are detox diets good for you, or just another pseudo-science? Does your body really build up toxins that affect you health and does a detox get rid of them? Thanks, quark35

Dear Quark35,

Long story short, a detox diet isn’t going to do anything for you that your body doesn’t do by itself. In fact a 2009 study that looked for evidence behind the claims of a number of purveyors of so-called detox diets found that no two companies could seem to agree on what ‘detox’ actually meant, and that very few of them could actually name the specific ‘toxins’ their product targeted. The truth of the matter is that your body does a fine job of detoxing on its own — this is what your liver, kidneys and colon do for you automatically, and there is no known food or substance that will increase their function beyond medical intervention.

What’s more, some detox diets — notably programs such as the recent ‘juicing’ fad — can even be harmful to your health if not undertaken responsibly. In 2013, a man on an extended six-week juicing diet suffered acute renal failure thanks to consuming a high amount of oxalates (a naturally occurring substance found in many so-called ‘superfoods’ like spinach, beets and quinoa). The patient was already suffering from chronic kidney disease, but the case does point to the potential dangers of unregulated ‘detox’ dieting and fasting.

In less extreme cases, juicing is just plain uncomfortable. Scott Charles Anderson of Notch by Notch trialled a juice diet and came away less than impressed. He notes that many of the ingredients of most of the juices he consumed were diuretics — meaning you lose both water weight and vital electrolytes.

What’s the worst that can happen? Well, probably nothing if you only juice for a day, but severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to sluggishness, seizures, stomach cramps, nausea, irritability, depression, confusion and heart arrhythmias. Then, of course, you die. Still, you lose weight!

When it comes down to it, much of the pseudo-science bandied around by companies that offer detox diets was actually disproved at the start of the 20th century, as noted by Stephen Barrett, M.D. in his rundown of the most prevalent detoxing ‘schemes and scams‘.

Some detoxification proponents claim that intestinal sluggishness causes intestinal contents to putrefy, toxins are absorbed, and chronic poisoning of the body results. This “autointoxication” theory was popular around the turn of the century but was abandoned by the scientific community during the 1930s. No such “toxins” have ever been found, and careful observations have shown that individuals in good health can vary greatly in bowel habits.

So what can you do instead? While there is no diet that is universally agreed upon by medical and scientific specialists as being the best for your body, the old adage of ‘everything in moderation’ generally holds true. If you’re looking to change up your diet, dietician Andy Bellati told Lifehacker last year that the idea of a “food reset” may be more useful — and less expensive — than a detox diet.

There is something to be said for doing “food resets.” That is, going back to the basic tenets of healthful eating (mainly eating whole, minimally processed, largely plant-based foods) to reaccustom the taste buds to more subtle flavours. That, however, should not be confused with a cleanse.

Indeed with recent studies into the negative health impacts of sugar, this is one substance that has been identified by a number of professionals as a potential toxin. A study released early last week in the journal Obesity suggests that cutting sugar out of your diet could have positive effects on your health even in the short term — no juicing needed.


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our [contact text=”contact form”].

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


4 responses to “Ask LH: Do Detox Diets Actually Do Anything?”

Leave a Reply