What Happens to Your Body When You Do a Detox Diet

Detox diets are a popular method of "resetting" your body, but is there enough scientific evidence to support their use?

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Detoxing is a trend that has grown in popularity over the past few years. While the concept of removing toxins from the body has been around for ages, popular methods of drinking certain teas, taking herbal supplements or consuming specifically formulated detoxing products have taken the health and wellness space by storm.

However, scientific evidence is lacking regarding what detoxing is and how effective it may be. It's often said to promote gut health and weight loss, boost energy, help mental clarity and increase nutrient absorption.

What Are Detox Diets?

While many methods of detoxing are promoted online and in the media, there is no official definition of a "detox diet"; it is an unregulated term. In fact, this is partly what leads to the confusion and stress surrounding how to "properly" detox. Many people find conflicting information about the best way to detox since there are many different methods people swear by.

Some of the most popular methods include some combination of the following recommendations:

  • Fasting for a few days
  • Juicing
  • Drinking certain herbal teas
  • Enemas
  • Eliminating foods like added sugars, alcohol and processed foods
  • Exercising more
  • Eating only organic foods

While some of these recommendations may have health benefits on their own, detox protocols can often lead people to unnecessarily restrict foods for a period of time, which comes with potential health risks.

What Happens When You Do a Detox Diet

Below are some things that can happen to your body when you go on a detox diet.

You May Have an Increased Risk of Electrolyte Imbalance or Dehydration

Some detox protocols recommend doing things that disrupt your fluid balance, which can be very dangerous, per a 2018 review in Cureus. Things like drinking large amounts of fluids daily or taking over-the-counter medications are definitely not a good idea.

Taking laxatives without medical supervision can be harmful—especially if you're not replenishing fluids adequately. Drinking lots of water in a short time may sound harmless, but it can also be dangerous because it could disturb your electrolyte balance.

Some protocols may intentionally cause you to have many loose stools in an effort to "cleanse" your gut or, specifically, your colon (the latter portion of your digestive tract). While this may technically empty your colon, having a healthy or "clean" colon is not necessary. Actually, eating a healthy, balanced diet, staying hydrated and avoiding excess added sugar and alcohol can all help keep your gut healthy.

Your body naturally gets rid of harmful toxins and has mechanisms in place to facilitate this, including regularly forming and passing stools. You can support this process by living a healthy, active lifestyle and limiting toxins where you can.

You Might Increase Your Vitamin and Mineral Intake

Many cleanses or detox protocols require you to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. This can lead to an increased intake of essential vitamins and minerals that many people's diets do not usually have. While this can be a positive takeaway, these diets are typically short-term—and so are the healthy habits they recommend.

Instead of detoxing or cleansing to increase your fruit and veggie intake, focus on making healthy eating a way of life by implementing small, achievable goals into your day-to-day.

Add spinach or kale to scrambled eggs, fresh berries to salads or make smoothies with fresh fruits and vegetables. These are simple ways to increase your fruit and vegetable intake that can be done safely long-term in a non-restrictive way.

You Might Reduce Your Exposure to Certain Toxins

With growing concern over what's in our food, it's not surprising that the concept of detoxifying the body is growing in popularity. Toxins from industrial processes can end up in the air, water and soil and, therefore, our food. These toxins can include heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), also known as "forever chemicals" because they do not degrade over time.

There is validity to concerns over these compounds entering our bodies—studies have demonstrated the harmful toll these take on our bodies with consistent exposure over a long period of time. According to a 2019 publication in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, long-term exposure to POPs may be linked to an increased risk of stroke, obesity and diabetes.

According to a 2020 study in Nutrition & Metabolism, certain types of detox diets, like the Wellnessup diet, might help reduce your exposure and support your body's natural detoxification processes to increase the elimination of these toxins like heavy metals in the short term—but, overall, more research is needed on the topic to determine if these diets should be recommended to the general population, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

You May Increase Your Risk of Binge Eating

Detox diets are often said to help you lose weight, too. However, this is likely because they tend to be restrictive. If you are advised to avoid multiple food groups, you'll likely cut out many calories. Energy deficit through calorie restriction can promote weight loss, especially when combined with regular exercise, per a 2021 article in the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome.

Additionally, many detox protocols advise avoiding alcohol and processed or fast foods, which tend to be sources of excess calories in the American diet. It's important to note, though, that while you may lose weight during a detox diet, most of it is probably water weight or even muscle, especially if you're restricting calories too much or overexercising.

Furthermore, a 2022 review, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, shows that detox diets can generate stress, raise your cortisol levels and increase your appetite. The combination of these factors can make losing weight more difficult and can increase your risk of binge eating and weight gain.

The Bottom Line

Detoxing might seem like an attractive idea in a health-conscious world. But, there is good cause for the controversy surrounding it and understandable debate among health professionals about its validity.

Detox diets claim to help you lose weight, clear out toxins and boost your energy. However, there is not enough scientific evidence to prove these claims. In fact, there are significant risks associated with detoxing, and it's important to look out for fad diets that promise dramatic results and are overly restrictive.

The best thing to do if you are concerned about your toxin load is to eat a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly and stay hydrated. This will support your body's natural detoxification processes carried out by your kidneys, liver and digestive system.

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