Laxative tea, salt water, and cayenne-spiked lemonade. Vinegar, water, and a proprietary powder. Nothing but gallons of carrot, apple, and cantaloupe juice. Legions of followers, including more than a few celebrities, extol these and other so-called detoxification diets—much to the consternation of many doctors and nutritionists. The theory behind detox diets is that harmful substances from our food and surroundings build up in our body over time and eventually cause a range of chronic illnesses. To prevent and treat sickness, the theory goes, the body must be periodically "flushed out" or "cleansed."
Toxins and carcinogens do indeed lurk within the typical American diet, but health experts remain skeptical if not downright critical of detox diets. They warn of potentially major health consequences and say that, when given the opportunity, the body naturally rids itself of toxins through its own cleansing mechanisms. "Not only are these [diets] useless, but the body is very capable of excreting things itself," says Christine Gerbstadt, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Many detox routines are "basically starvation diets," says Gerbstadt. "Your metabolism slows, the body shuts down [and] conserves, and any functions that are unnecessary, like 'cleansing,' are not going to occur," she says. Prolonged detox diets can be quite dangerous, potentially leading to dehydration, kidney stress, muscle loss, heart arrhythmia, and plummeting levels of essential electrolytes, minerals, and vitamins. Misuse of some enemas and purgatives can perforate or damage the intestinal walls, and in the most severe cases, says Gerbstadt, "an electrolyte imbalance could cause your heart to stop."
Experts also dispute the notion that detox diets "clean out" the digestive system or counteract the harmful effects of prior unhealthful eating habits. "There's no way to undo that damage [other than] eating healthier as soon as possible," Gerbstadt says.
The popularity of detox routines may be due, in part, to people's legitimate concerns over the dangers of the typical western diet, with its abundance of junk food, refined carbohydrates, and red meat. Many detox diets appeal to followers' desire to clean out the colon, which doctors consider a misguided aim. "Things don't stay in the colon for years and years and years," says gastroenterologist John Allen, who chairs the American Gastroenterological Association's clinical practice committee. "The colon is very efficient at ridding our bodies of waste." Unfortunately, the detoxifying work of the colon and other organs may be hindered by bad eating habits, say experts.
A diet rich in leafy, textured greens, brightly colored vegetables and fruits, soluble and insoluble fibers found in whole grains, and healthy fats from nuts and lean fish accelerates the natural mechanisms by which cells fend off disease-causing chemicals. "People who have eaten themselves into unhealthy states can eat themselves back into healthy states," says Gerbstadt. But, she adds, there's "no quick fix."