We are living through a boom of recommendations for liquid “cleanses” purporting to rid the body of noxious toxic buildup. Green juices. Mixtures containing lemon juice and ginger. Broth.
Otherwise known as detoxification diets, the extremely restrictive temporary regimens, often hawked by nutrition influencers, claim to carry meaningful health benefits: weight loss, clearer skin, mental acuity. A sense of pureness.
The market for this stuff is big, and getting bigger. In 2020, the global market for products to assist in a personal cleanse nearly hit $50 billion, a figure projected to grow at least another $25 billion over the next few years. Evidence for the effectiveness of cleanses is lacking, however. There’s no randomized, controlled trial out there to determine if chugging a blended celery drink really purifies the body. According to a pair of Australian researchers, “[N]o rigorous clinical investigations of detox diets have been conducted.”
Still, there exists an abundance of resources online for those interested in taking up a cleanse. The real question is whether a detox is really needed by anyone—or whether amorphous toxins do need to be tackled with a shot of senna tea.
These diets come in many different forms. Drinking only liquid or specialty mixed smoothies is probably what comes to mind when someone hears the word “cleanse,” but eating certain foods, taking certain herbs, and popping certain supplements all fall under the detoxification rubric.
The thinking behind cleanses, in a nutshell, is that harmful substances build up in the body, and therefore require a special sort of restrictive diet to flush them out. This isn’t entirely wrong. The body produces toxins during the course of our natural metabolic processes. Lactic acid and urea, for instance, are two of them. We’re also exposed to environmental toxins, including lead from car exhaust or plastic phthalates. Yet our bodies are constantly filtering out the crud no matter what you’re eating. The skin, the lungs, and the gastrointestinal system are all already doing the same type of work that the proponents of detox diets claim is done better through a cleanse. Your liver, for instance, chews up substances found in alcohol. Your skin sweats it out. Your kidneys filter it out. And your bladder and your colon—well, I’m sure you can guess.
“There aren’t just toxins floating around in our bodies,” Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at University Hospitals in Cleveland, said on The Science of Health podcast. “And nothing that you buy over the counter is going to help with that.”
It might be the case, too, that a crash diet ends up throwing something else off kilter. Green juices often contain foods like spinach and beets that are high in acidic oxalates, which can sometimes lead to greater inflammation. Sometimes they can even lead to kidney stones.
The fact is that our bodies do the heavy lifting for us. And if that’s the case, why the emphasis on detox diets? “It kind of implies a shorter-term solution, and quick results,” said Brigitte Zeitlin, a registered dietitian.
There is a good reason why detox diets help people lose weight, for example, in the short-term. Consider the fact that on a detox diet you’re eating less sugar, fewer processed foods, and more whole foods (if you’re eating at all). You’re eating fewer calories overall, which is exactly what the limited number of papers on detox diets spells out. For some people, that can be great for a short-term boost; for others, it saps them of energy. In either case, you might be missing out on key nutrients you get from foods on the plate.
Cleansing the body—even though many detox diets fail to specify which “toxins” they’re doing away with—carries with it the allure of a simple solution when a more holistic solution is better.
That’s something we’ve been saying at this column all along, especially when it comes to eating fewer processed foods and more dietary fiber: the best diet is something you can stick with for the long haul.
“The main takeaway is no one needs to detox,” said Dr. Marino on that podcast. “And if you think you do, you should talk to a doctor about it.”
Originally Appeared on GQ
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