What is a 'detox' and can it really make you healthier? Experts weigh in.

·4 min read

It seems that every year a new star is waxing poetic about the supposed benefits of “cleansing” and “detoxing” one’s body with a special short-term diet. Whether that detox includes green juices and pureed soups — like Bethenny Frankel’s “B-Tox,” which the reality star is currently promoting on social media — or a series of shakes as popularized by the Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Clean program, these programs all suggest that the body functions best after it is put through a dramatic diet overhaul, designed to rid your body of toxins and impurities. The Clean program, according to Paltrow’s testimony, allowed her to lose weight and feel “pure” and “light” thanks to “the incredible health benefits of resting your digestive system.”

But is that true — or just clever marketing? Alissa Rumsey, the owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition & Wellness and the author of Unapologetic Eating, says there is “no proof that ‘detoxing’ will remove toxins or make you healthier.”

Celebrities proclaim that detoxing is healthy for your body, but is that true? A dietitian weighs in. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Celebrities proclaim that detoxing is healthy for your body, but is that true? A dietitian weighs in. (Photo: Getty Creative)

“Most purported benefits have been found to be unsubstantiated and anecdotal,” she explains to Yahoo Life. “Our liver does a great job of cleaning our system on its own. The liver processes toxins and harmful substances that have gone through our digestive system or been absorbed into our body, and helps to neutralize and excrete these substances.”

Rumsey points out that these programs are more than just ineffective. They can also, she says, be “misleading and harmful.” For one thing, most detoxes are much too low in calories, protein, carbs and fiber, which are “essential nutrients” our body needs to properly function. They can also encourage a binge-and-restrict cycle, which doesn’t “teach you how to eat in the long run,” Rumsey says.

“Not only do we not need to ‘detox’ our body, but trying to do so by severely restricting what you eat is really dangerous and can lead to disordered eating and weight cycling,” she explains. “It's also really problematic because most detoxes and cleanses are promoted by people who are thin, already conventionally attractive and very privileged. When they promote the detox, they’re not just selling the detox. What they’re saying is: ‘If you do this detox, you can look like me too.’”

Another dietitian, Erin Palinski-Wade, who is a consultant for MyFitnessPal, adds that detoxes that encourage supplements can be particularly dangerous.

"With supplements which are largely unregulated, you run the risk of potential health consequences and interactions with other supplements and medications," she explains. "I always recommend speaking to your registered dietitian or physician before starting any detox to make sure it is safe, and even necessary, for you and your health goals."

Palinski-Wade says there are certain things you can do to make sure your body is functioning well, that don't involve a strict detox program.

"Making sure a body is well-hydrated can aid the kidneys in waste removal," she says. "Limiting your exposure to actual toxins, such as avoiding excessive alcohol intake, can help aid an organ such as the liver." If you introduce fewer toxins into the body, she notes, you don't have as many to eliminate.

Instead of trying a detox, Palinski-Wade says tracking what one eats, such as with MyFitnessPal, can be helpful.

"We so often grab food on the run and eat with distractions, that we don’t often pay attention to what we eat and how it impacts everything from our mood, to energy, to focus, and even sleep," she says.

Rumsey points out that healthy eating isn’t about a week, or even a month, of extremely disciplined eating.

“Moralizing certain foods or food groups and trying to cut them out of your diet completely never works, and only causes more issues in the long run,” she explains. “Restriction intensifies cravings, which can lead to binging and overeating, plus can harm your overall relationship to food. Eating healthy is not an all-or-nothing thing — all sorts of foods can fit into a healthy diet.”

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