This obsession with the ‘detox’ seems to come from a place of wanting to drastically reset our body. Usually following a period of indulgence in high fat and sugary foods, and probably a few too many wines or beers as well. The idea of a detox is plucked up as a saving grace as if days or weeks of denying our bodies whole foods packed with nutrients can be rapidly undone. Unfortunately, to be the bearer of bad news on this one, that’s not quite how our digestive system functions. On the flip side, you can save yourself a whole lot of money, and discomfort, by steering clear of these fads.
Clearing up the science
When it comes to toxins entering our body from food or drink, the systems we have in place to remove them are already quite good at their job without the help of a juice cleanse! Whether it’s alcohol, medication, environmental toxins or bacteria from food, there is a scientific explanation for how these toxins are eliminated. Although I could talk for days on this topic, I’m sure you didn’t come here for a physiology lesson, so I’ll make this quick. Primarily the three organs responsible are the liver, kidneys and stomach. The liver deals with alcohol and drugs; adding these into bile to then be removed from the body1. Alternatively, the kidneys remove items through urine. This is how we deal with waste products of many reactions within the body such as the breaking down of protein. But it can also include drugs and environmental toxins such as pesticides from food that have found their way into our blood stream1. Then there’s the stomach, where acid is produced to break down our food and along with it kill any harmful bacteria. Can you see how these organs are purpose-built for detoxifying? The idea of a ‘detox’ diet overlooks the fact that you already have these methods in place to excrete unwanted toxins.
What is actually involved in a ‘detox’ diet
Although there are many variations of detox diets that come in and out of popularity, one resounding similarity is they are all very low in energy. This sudden deficit in your kilojoule intake is bound to leave you feeling tired, weak, and a bit dizzy. But don’t make the mistake in thinking this is simply the detox working its magic! This is primarily the result of not eating enough carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and your brain. Another result of this carbohydrate restriction will be short term weight loss. Yes, you will most likely see weight loss. But this isn’t a positive! When restricting carbohydrates you lose weight through water. When carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen they also hold water in your muscles, so when this glycogen is depleted you lose this water along with it2. Meaning that when you return to your normal diet you will put this weight straight back on. Here are some other symptoms you might see from these diets:
- Loss of muscle mass
- Stomach upset
- Mood upset
- A decline in physical performance and activity
- Difficulty concentrating
These issues are not symptoms that must be endured to see the results claimed by a detox diet, they’re symptoms that your body is struggling to perform daily tasks on the energy it’s being supplied. Consider this; if you want to give your organs the best chance to properly eliminate toxins as they were designed for, the last thing you should be doing is denying them adequate fuel.
The natural timeline of a ‘detox’ diet
The issue with all drastic eating and lifestyle habits is, and I cannot stress this enough, they cannot be maintained. No doubt you will enter the diet feeling positive and motivated to make a change, yet two days into one of these glorified starvation diets and the positivity will start to waiver. You might begin to forget that you actually do care about your loved ones, especially if they stand between you and your next meal. Then finally when the end is in sight, you’ll start to plan your first proper meal ‘post-detox’. And I’ll bet it won’t be one high in veg, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates that you’re craving. Can you see how this timeline is dangerously similar to that of a restriction/binging cycle? This is a damaging mindset to cement, and definitely not one that should be advocated for as a health kick.
What to do instead
When you consider logically how the body functions, and the fuel source that it requires to function at its highest capacity, there is clearly a more beneficial option that energy restriction and elimination of entire food groups. Here are some ideas to incorporate instead:
Stop adding to the trash
Try to avoid consuming any more toxins so your organs are able to eliminate those already within the body, this means no more alcohol or tobacco.
Eat a balanced diet full of whole foods
This automatically limits your intake of discretionary foods high in fat, salt and sugar. These foods will do little to provide your body with the nutrients it requires, while also working your bodies harder. High sugar foods stress your pancreas as more insulin must be produced to deal with the sudden rise in blood sugar levels1. High-fat foods force your liver to work harder as it is responsible for metabolising fat. And high sodium foods work your kidneys harder as they are responsible for balancing electrolytes, so the more sodium you consume, the harder they have to work to maintain this balance1. This way of eating will also increase your fruit and veg intake to provide necessary vitamins, particularly B vitamins, essential for metabolising energy to be used as a workable fuel2. So not only are you making sure you provide your body with the fuel it needs, but also the means to use it.
Don’t cut out carbohydrates!These are your bodies default fuel source!
Stay hydratedA dehydrated body is a tired one!
Remember that fat is important too.Eliminating this macronutrient can not only leave you feeling hungry, it can also have a negative effect on your hormonal function as fat is required for the production of many hormones2.
- Tortora, G. J., & Derrickson, B. (2014). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (14th ed.). Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Smith, G., Smith, J. L., & Carr, T. P. (2018). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism(7th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.