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By Tamara Rhodes, MS, RD, LDN

In recent years, social media, Netflix documentaries, and magazine articles have kindled public interest in detox diets and cleanses. These diets are promoted as the lden ticket to losing weight, increasing energy, and/or overcoming chronic health concerns.


The premise behind detox diets and cleanses is that we are exposed to toxins throughout the day. Some say that the body is incapable of ridding itself of toxins. This results in a build-up within the body, which is blamed for countless health ailments.

These ailments include obesity, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, allergies, chronic fatigue, blood sugar instability, food sensitivities, hormonal imbalances, high cholesterol levels, excessive belly fat, acne, and profuse sweating.

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Why do people try detox diets?

The term “toxins” includes dietary contaminants, household cleaners, environmental pollutants, food preservatives, pharmaceutical agents, and/or impurities in the air and water supply. The purpose of detox diets is to cleanse the body’s systems of these toxins. This detoxification or cleansing process is supposed to reverse the health issues listed above. It’s also supposed to eliminate sugar cravings, kick start weight loss, boost metabolism, melt fat, improve stamina, create lean muscle, and/or increase brain clarity.

Most, if not all, of these diets involve severely restrict calories and eliminate most major food groups. They often limit you to eating or drinking only certain foods or supplements for a period of time. Some regimens endorse days, weeks, or even months of juicing. Others emphasize the total elimination of sugar, salt, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and/or caffeine. Certain routines mandate fasting or only permit the consumption of liquid. Other detoxes or cleanses allow select foods (predominantly fruits and vegetables) to be eaten. Use of various herbs, pills, powders, enemas, or other colon cleansing agents during the detox or cleanse is common.


Do detox diets work?

Despite their appeal, their advantages are unproven – basically all hype with no health benefits. No reliable scientific evidence supports the ability of any one food, beverage, or food/beverage combination to flush toxins from the body. Research has not even shown that toxins build up in the body at all.

Not only is there little credible information to suggest that detox diets and cleanses remove toxins from the body, there is not a need to do so. The human body is equipped with a built-in detox system that works 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Our bodies are designed to eliminate any toxins that could be harmful. Everything that is necessary to remove everyday ingested toxins is already in place and doing its job. The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs efficiently remove toxins. And wastes are completely eliminated via feces, sweat, and urine.

The liver continuously breaks down non-food substances (medications, food additives, alcohol). It does not need to be cleansed itself. The kidneys filter the blood, and the intestines form a barrier to prevent any bacteria or pesticides found in food from entering the body in the first place. Therefore, any external cleansing aids are repetitive. The body is an expert at purifying itself no matter what is or is not eaten.

In actuality, detox diets and cleanses pose significant health risks, particularly for people with diabetes or kidney disease. The human body requires a variety of foods to function properly. The dietary restrictions linked to detox diets and cleanses cause a major risk of nutrient deficiencies. They are notoriously low in protein and routinely result in deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, and zinc.

Most people feel poorly on low-calorie diets void of nutrients. They may experience unstable blood sugars, fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness, nausea, weakness, and impaired immunity. Weight loss that results from intentional undereating is usually temporary and caused by a change in fluid balance, not a loss of body fat. Drastic calorie restriction can also cause the breakdown of muscle mass. This slows down the metabolism and increases the likelihood of future weight gain.

Colon cleansing, which is often part of a detox plan, may cause abdominal cramping, bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Repeated colon cleansing can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome (the healthy bacteria present in the intestines). This is essential for proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function. Also, colon cleansing procedures can damage, perforate, and/or tear the lining of the gastrointestinal tract.

Any improvement in health and wellness while doing a detox diet or cleanse is likely due to dietary changes, not from toxins leaving the body. In other words, toxins are not the root problem.

A new desire to be healthy is generally what causes someone to eat better and avoid solid fats, highly processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and alcohol. These changes cause them to lose weight rather than to the body’s release of toxins. Likewise, detox diets and cleanses tend to increase water, fruits, and vegetables. These offer an abundance of micronutrients that a person’s typical diet might otherwise be lacking.




  • Often high in antioxidants

  • Promote increased water intake

  • May help to reduce constipation and bloating

  • Focus on fruits and vegetables

  • Reduce intake of inflammatory foods (fried foods, heavily processed foods, bakery products, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, added sugars)

  • Frequently result in fatigue, weakness, excessive hunger, muscle aches, decreased immunity, and dizziness/lightheadedness

  • Colon cleansing effects can induce cramping, bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration

  • Can lead to a poor relationship with food and possible disordered eating

  • Unsupported by scientific research

  • Unsustainable – Very rigid, impossible to follow long-term, involves eating the same things over and over

  • Detox supplements are unregulated and have been found to cause damage to the intestinal tract (small perforations, tears)

  • Disrupt gut flora, which is essential for immunity and healthy digestion

  • Juice diets pose a serious risk to patients with conditions like diabetes and kidney disease

  • Significant likelihood of nutrient deficiencies – notoriously inadequate in protein, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12

  • Often only result in temporary weight loss and loss of lean body mass, which slows down the metabolism

  • Do not improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, or heart health

  • Any diet that severely restricts what is eaten can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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