It’s easy to see the attraction of “detox” diets. Besides helping you to lose weight, most claim to rid your body of harmful chemicals and help you break bad habits around food. Dr. Oz has his own 48-hour weekend version. Oprah likes a 21-day vegan detox diet based on the best-seller, Quantum Wellness, by Kathy Freston. Beyonce uses the Master Cleanse (cayenne-spiked lemonade and Gwyneth Paltrow promotes the Clean Program, a line of detoxifying dietary supplements.
But do detox diets really live up to the hype? Can they make you healthier and trim your waistline safely? Yes—and no. How effective a detox diet is depends on the particular regimen and how you use it, says Dr. Carolyn Ross, an integrative medicine specialist and author of Healing Body, Mind and Spirit. “There is evidence that we are exposed to more toxins than our bodies are capable of handling, so detoxification is useful,” she says.
Most detox programs tend to be fairly short–3 to 21 days—and quite restrictive in calories. They eliminate fast foods, alcohol, caffeine, sugar and sometimes meat, dairy or wheat. Most focus on vegetables and fruits, sometimes raw, sometimes juiced. Some are based on nutritional supplements such as protein powders.
But all contain “cleansing” elements, like fiber and fluid, meant to remove metabolic wastes from your body. Herbs such as milk thistle or nutritional supplements such as l-cysteine may also be used to stimulate liver enzymes that help break down toxins found in our bodies, including obesity-promoting chemicalssuch as tributyltin and bisphenol A.Some have you drink a solution of a purified, powdered clay called bentonite, or activated charcoal; both are super-absorbers. Some detox regimes recommend colon-cleansing enemas; others prescribe saunas to help excrete toxins through your skin.
When it comes down to it, though, a whole foods approach is preferable to juice fasts or supplement-based programs, says Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a registered dietitian author of The Doctor’s Detox Diet: The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription. “I think the best detox is a natural, whole foods diet,” she says. “It supports your liver and colon, improves your metabolism, and helps you lose weight without taking it to extremes that could lead to nutritional deficiencies or fluid imbalances.” Gerbstadt is also concerned that people with eating disorders may use extreme detox diets like juice fasts to rationalize anorexic behavior.
A detox program can be very useful in helping people identify energy-sapping food allergies and reduce cravings for foods that people tend to overeat or binge on, Ross adds.
Most detox diets do help you lose weight quickly, but that initial loss is mostly water. “The fat doesn’t start to seriously come off until you are about three weeks into a diet—about the same time most of these diets end,” Gerbstadt says. Many people are disappointed when the weight comes back just as quickly as it left.
The trick, Ross says, is to use a detox diet as a way to turn over a new leaf. “It’s a way to get into eating organic foods, more vegetables, less meat, more fish, and pursing a healthier way of life,” she says. “This is the way it is supposed to work.”