Jane Says: Detox Diets Are Bogus

These regimens might make you (temporarily) lose weight, but they won't rid your body of excess toxins.

juice cleanses

(Photo: Iain Bagwell/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I’m thinking of jump-starting the New Year with a detox diet or cleanse, but do they really work?”

—Denise Finneman

In the medical world, “detox”—short for the word detoxification—is a standard treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. In the form of chelation therapy, it can also be used to reduce a buildup of a heavy metal such as lead. In each medical instance, a specific toxin, or poison, is pinpointed. It’s also important to understand that toxicity—the degree at which something is harmful—is based on dose. Almost everything, even water, is toxic—even fatal—if consumed in large enough quantities.

The idea behind detox diets and cleanses, however, is much broader and more far-reaching. Proponents believe that the regimens rid the body (primarily the liver and the colon) of a harmful buildup of toxins from food, drink, and the environment that may cause everything from bloating and dull skin to cancer and other chronic illnesses. Thousands of Americans “detox” on a regular basis to “reset the body,” as Dr. Oz and other proponents like to say. This results in weight loss (sometimes a dramatic one, since the diets are extremely low in calories), a boost in energy and mental clarity, an improvement in overall health, and a feeling of rejuvenation.

The regimens differ in their details but may include a juice fast, “detoxifying” supplements or herbal laxatives, and the gradual introduction of limited foods. More extreme methods include enemas and colonic irrigation.

No one could fail to be impressed by the vast array of cleansing juices and other detox products sold online and at spas, health food stores, upscale supermarkets, drugstores, and even big-box stores. Driven in large part by Hollywood stars (can you really blame them? God forbid they gain an ounce) and soccer moms (ditto), they’re a rapidly expanding—and very lucrative—segment of the multibillion-dollar diet industry.

So, do detox diets and cleanses work?

Well, yes and no. If your goal is simply to lose weight for your high school reunion or wedding and you possess the willpower of, say, Beyoncé—who claimed she dropped 20 pounds in two weeks on the Master Cleanse for her role in Dreamgirls—then promise me you’ll get the OK from your doctor before proceeding. He or she will tell you, however, that the pounds lost are mostly fluid, or “water weight,” and you’ll gain them back (and then some) once you go back to eating real food.

He or she will also tell you that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the theory that detox diets or cleanses flush out toxins. On PubMed and other online sources, I failed to find a single peer-reviewed study as to their efficacy. Such studies would be pretty straightforward to conduct, wouldn’t you think? First, name your poison: bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, mercury, radon, artificial sweeteners, sugar, food additives, synthetics in personal-care products, fine-particulate matter in the air—whatever. (You can find a sobering list of the environmental chemicals we’re exposed to in the updated tables of the CDC’s National Biomonitoring Program.) Then measure the level in people’s bodies before and after the detoxing treatment, and compare the results.

My point here is that if I were going to drop, say, $425 on the Clean Program’s 21-day “protocol,” then, Gwyneth Paltrow’s testimonial that it worked wonders for her—she looks so radiant!—notwithstanding, I’d like to see published peer-reviewed research, complete with methodology and results.

I did find, however, a slew of articles from authoritative sources that debunk alternative detoxing regimens, including a 1997 piece in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology titled “Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science,” and a 2005 Food Technology Journal piece called “Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises.” In the latter, Roger Clemons, adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California, and his colleague Dr. Peter Pressman explained why people feel better after detoxing. The benefits aren’t the result of getting rid of excessive toxins but are more likely due to an improved diet. Less bloating is probably the result of eating less food; clearer skin, the result of drinking more water; and decreased headaches, reduced alcohol and caffeine consumption. They also pointed out that detox theory runs counter to human physiology and biochemistry.

The body is designed to “detox” itself, they added: “Healthy adults, even overweight adults, have been endowed with extraordinary systems for the elimination of waste and regulation of body chemistry. Our lungs, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract and immune system are effective in removing or neutralising toxic substances within hours of consumption.” They also noted that detoxing can be harmful for teenagers or pregnant women, who should not deprive themselves of food groups.

I reached out to Clemons for an update, and he responded with alacrity. “Bottom line…there is not any clinical evidence that such claims have any medical or scientific merit. The body is wonderfully made…. The gut, liver, and kidneys (even the skin) are exceptionally functional organs that continually ‘cleanse’ the blood and eliminate toxins, even those which the body makes every moment of every day.”

The liver alone is amazing in its efficiency and complexity, and a look at this PubMed article should help convince you that it doesn’t need an assist from the Fat Flush Plan product line. See where it says that the liver converts toxic substances into harmless substances or makes sure they’re released from the body? You’ll find a more technical discussion of the elegant enzymatic systems that perform liver detoxification here. The important takeaway is that the liver doesn’t function like a lint screen—which is the premise on which most detox cleanses are based. I do wish I could take credit for that metaphor, but it’s from science writer Christopher Wanjek, in his LiveScience.com story “Detox Diets & Cleansing: Facts & Fallacies.”

Even some alternative-medicine practitioners view detoxing with a skeptical eye. “Evidence based detoxicology still seems quite far off,” writes Marc Cohen, professor of complementary and alternative medicine and president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, in the journal Australian Family Physician, “and at present ‘detox’ is certainly more of a sales pitch than a science.”

Now, about colon cleansing and the foot detox

If you’ve spent any time reading about detoxes on the Internet, you’ve probably come across photos of the long, ropey, gelatinous substance from bowel movements called mucoid plaque, a term coined (ka-ching, ka-ching) by naturopath Richard Anderson of the Arise & Shine Transformational Cleanse Program. Despite Anderson’s claims, it’s not an unhealthy accumulation of abnormal mucous matter on the walls of the intestines but stool containing ingredients common to colon cleansers: psyllium husks (used as a source of dietary fiber) and bentonite (which expands when mixed with water). More important, though, states the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, “the rationale for intestinal cleansing—to dislodge material adhering to the colon walls—is fundamentally mistaken. When fecal matter accumulates, it compacts into firm masses in the open interior of the colon; it does not adhere to the intestinal walls as the ‘sludge’ depicted in the advertisements.”

More sludge can allegedly be eliminated through detoxifying foot treatments, which involve soaking your feet in a saltwater bath that contains electrodes supplying a low-voltage electric charge, or adhesive pads worn on the bottoms of your feet while you sleep. Advocates maintain that the success of the treatment can be shown by a color change as the toxins are drawn out of the body.

But scientists view the treatments as nothing more than nonsense at best and fraudulent at worst. As far as the footbaths go, you can find an objective assessment on PubMed, which concluded after testing the water as well as the hair and urine of the participants that no toxic elements were released. The color of the footbath changes because the metal electrodes corrode, and the pads—which are impregnated with pyroligneous acid (aka wood vinegar), which attracts and absorbs moisture, forming a brown mush—turn the same color whether they absorb foot perspiration or are sprayed with tap water.

The takeaway?

The short-term weight loss and other benefits you may experience from a detox diet or cleanse have nothing to do with the elimination of toxins. A detox diet or cleanse cannot remove toxins from your body, as proponents claim.

But if you’re interested in cleaning up your act—that is, learning how to eat more healthfully and making more informed choices in the year ahead—then check back with me next week. The only thing I’ll be selling is common sense.

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