Updated 16 September 2013

Detox diets – healthy or harmful?

Overweight, constipated and generally unhappy with life? DietDoc discusses the wisdom of trying to reverse this state of affairs by means of a detox diet.


Overweight, constipated, lethargic and generally unhappy with life? It's at this point that many people turn to detox diets, and products and treatments such as colonic irrigation to rid themselves of their guilt and accumulated fat. As a result, the detox industry is worth millions throughout the world.

But just how good are detox diets, products and treatments? Could they in fact do more harm than good?

Detox diets

A search on the Internet revealed an article by Alyson Greenhalgh, writing for the BBC. Alyson points out that many of us believe that food and drinks contain toxins that accumulate in the body, which need to be flushed out to restore good health.

Actually, the human body is equipped to deal with toxins on its own, with the liver and kidneys doing a perfectly good job without our interference.

In general, detox diets vary from strict avoidance of all solid foods (you drink liquids such as fruit juice, vegetable juice, black coffee or tea, rooibos tea and water), to diets that concentrate on fresh, raw fruit and vegetables, yoghurt and water. The duration suggested varies from three days to two weeks.

You usually do lose some weight and start feeling better, due to weight loss, but not toxin shedding. Adherents of the liquid-only diets will probably also tend to feel faint because of low blood sugar levels, and may become irritable and develop headaches. The latter symptoms are signs of caffeine withdrawal, not toxin purging.

There is very little scientific evidence to support the use of strict detox diets. In fact, it would be much healthier if we rather avoided excessive intakes of rich, fatty foods and alcoholic drinks all year round instead of indulging and then trying to 'fix it' with a minimalistic diet which can lead to other problems.

According to Greehalgh, the greatest irony is that the human liver, which is primarily responsible for ridding the body of toxic substances derived from alcohol, functions best on a diet rich in proteins such as meat, fish and dairy products. So by starving yourself, you are not actually assisting the liver to get rid of toxins!

We'd go further: detox diets can be actively bad for you.

Never use a liquid detox diet for longer than two to three days, and make sure that you can rest and relax while you are on such a diet to prevent accidents due to low blood sugar levels. Rather change your eating and drinking habits all year round to ensure that you ingest a balanced diet at all times, then you won't feel the need for detoxing.

Detox products

There are literally thousands of herbal and over-the-counter products that promise 'safe, natural detoxification'. Many of these products contain harsh laxatives and/or diuretics, which can cause more harm than good.

Harsh laxatives, including those touted as 'safe and natural' or 'herbal', will interfere with the natural function of the bowels and in extreme cases can lead to loss of peristalsis (the normal muscle contraction of the bowel wall that moves waste products through the digestive tract).

Individuals who overuse harsh laxatives lose their normal bowel function and get hooked on these laxatives for life.

Diuretics used in excess can lead to dehydration, which can be fatal in some cases. If your 'safe, healthy, natural' detox product makes you urinate all day long, then it probably contains a strong diuretic and should be avoided.

The only detox products that will assist you in terms of constipation are probiotics or 'beneficial microorganisms' such as Bifidobacteria and Lactic acid bacteria, which help to restore the natural flora in the digestive system. Use probiotics to get more regular and combine them with a high-fibre diet to prevent constipation.

Detox treatments

In 2007, the BBC uncovered a major detox scam, the so-called 'Aqua Detox'. This entails a foot spa at beauty salons and health resorts where a small electric current and some salt are added to the water. After 30 minutes, the client is supposed to have detoxed, proven by the fact that the water has turned brown.

The BBC Watchdog Team took this to a scientist, Dr Ben Goldacre, who explained that when an electric current is passed through water that contains salts, the so-called electrodes start to rust, which turns the water brown. No detoxification, just a hoax!

I'm sure there are many innocent South Africans falling victim to this kind of advertising hype, thinking that treatment X or machine Y will 'detoxify the body, or stimulate the immune system'. Please don't buy into this type of quackery.

So what should you do?

It's evident that the most sensible approach isn't to overindulge for two months a year over the 'Silly Season', but rather to stick to eating a well-balanced diet that includes all foods in moderation and to do regular exercise all year round.

By all means include probiotics in your diet either as a supplement or in the form of yoghurt with live cultures. Increase your dietary fibre intake to promote good bowel habits and prevent constipation. Simple solutions are still the best and they won't ruin your budget, damage your colon, or dupe you.

(Aqua Detox. BBC Consumer Report, 9 January 2007; A Greenhalgh, 2001. Do detox diets work?

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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