Detox diets: Friend or foe?

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Detox diets are the buzz word when it comes to health, but how healthy are they? With their popularity growing, it’s worth it to take a closer look at their potential benefits and risks.

As far as credibility for claims regarding their medical soundness, a “critical review of the evidence” was published December 2015 in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics stating there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of detoxification diets. The few supportive clinical studies were deemed unreliable because of small sample sizes and questionable methodology. The conclusion to the critical review was “no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans.” Translation: when a commercial detox diet claims to be scientifically proven, view that phrase with serious suspicion.

How beneficial are they? Eliminating toxins and losing weight are usually the desired benefits of detox dieting, with increases in focus and energy being added bonuses. On its own, a healthy body is designed to detox itself, neutralizing and excreting toxins around the clock. The liver, kidney, and digestive tract are armed with filters, digestive acids, enzymes, and microbes to do the job. Toxins are eliminated through breath, urine, feces, and sweat. The body’s built in detoxification system is adequate as long as we provide it with some important nutrients from eating a variety of healthy foods and reasonable amounts of physical activity, rest, and water, all of the above typically resulting in natural increases in focus and energy and the ability to manage weight.

As for losing weight from detox dieting, fasting or extremely limiting food intake for several days may result in weight loss, but most of it will be water with some muscle loss, not fat. Short fasts aren’t risky for short-term purposes, but severely limiting calorie intake for long periods can slow a person’s metabolism, just making it harder to manage weight in the long run.

There are other potential risks. Detox programs that include prolonged elimination of whole food groups and add some form of colon cleansing can be dangerous, especially to certain groups of folks. Growing teenagers, for example, would find it difficult to get enough calories and protein to support all the growth going on in a young person’s body. Add a sport or any consistent intense physical activity and the combination is very risky. Dehydration, mineral imbalances, and problems with the digestive system can result. Unfortunately these problems may include disruptions in the normal balance of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine involved in our in house detoxification system. The risk also extends to possible addiction to the behavior, as for some, extreme detox behaviors produce feelings almost like a high produced from drugs. In addition, extreme detox diets are particularly risky for those with chronic medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Using low-risk detox plans in addition to a fairly healthy lifestyle may give us a motivational boost to keep up the good work. However, depending on detox dieting as a quick fix to what chronic unhealthy lifestyle choices have compromised can be at best a time waster and a distraction from real solutions to good health, and at worst, a potential threat.

Debbie Coblentz is a registered dietitian living in Churchill County. Your comments in response to this article are welcome at


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