Detox diets are widely available online, at vitamin shops, in magazines, and even through some gyms and health clubs. Many commercial detox programs make attractive claims about weight loss, improved energy, and a more attractive appearance. Some even claim to improve certain medical conditions.
But not all detox diets are healthy. Some restrict calories to levels that are not sustainable and others entirely eliminate important food groups. It's important to do some research before considering if you should detox and which program to follow.
What to Eat
There are many different types of detox diets—some lasting three days and some lasting up to two weeks. Each detox has its own list of compliant and non-compliant foods. There is no clear consensus in the health community about which foods are best to "detoxify" the body or even if a detoxification is necessary.
For example, the authors of one study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism advise that consumers exercise caution and critical thinking when choosing a detox. They also suggest getting advice from a training clinician noting that "there remain many unresolved issues regarding knowing how and what foods modulate detoxification pathways.”
A detox diet that you are interested in will most likely provide a list of foods to eat and foods to avoid. Listed below are foods commonly considered compliant and non-compliant on various detox programs.
produce is the cornerstone of almost every detox diet, although some limit or completely exclude fruit. Others suggest juicing or smoothies. Generally, diet guidelines suggest that you buy organic fruits and vegetables to reduce exposure to pesticides.
Not every detox diet allows for the consumption of grains, but those that do generally advise that you consume whole grains. Whole grains provide fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.
Lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, and other legumes provide protein, fiber and other nutrients. They are a part of some, but not all detox diet programs. Canned beans are generally not suggested as they may contain added sodium.
Some detox programs are designed to boost digestive health and may call for the consumption of foods including kefir, miso, or organic yogurt. These foods provide probiotics that provide "good" bacteria to improve gut flora.
On some programs, you'll consume protein sources like chicken, turkey, tofu, seafood, or eggs. It is generally advised that protein is prepared with little to no fat and served without condiments or sauces.
Plant-based oils including olive oil, flaxseed oil, almond oil, or grapeseed oil provide the body with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. Consumption of these healthy fats is associated with a decreased risk for heart disease and other conditions. Nutrition experts advise that we replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats as much as possible.
Nuts and Seeds
These plant-based proteins are a savory and satisfying snack that can be consumed on some detox programs. Nuts and seeds can also be added to salads and other dishes to make them more filling.
Hydration is a key element of most detox programs. On many detox diets, you are encouraged to drink plenty of water, but some also suggest that you consume other beverages such as juice drinks, bone broth, or supplement drinks.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Caloric restriction is common on many detox plans. In fact, some programs call for a complete fast for up to a day or a calorie intake of just a few hundred calories. To ensure that you get certain nutrients, you may be advised to take supplements. If you are interested in one of these detox programs you should speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice regarding the health and safety of the supplement products.
Convenience foods, such as microwavable meals, frozen snack foods, or sugary cereals are usually made with added sugars, excess sodium, refined grains, and other unhealthy ingredients. These are generally avoided on a detox diet in favor of healthier whole foods—such as fruits and vegetables.
Foods including white bread, white pasta, and white rice provide carbohydrates—an important energy source. But unless they are enriched, they are usually not a good source of other nutrients. For this reason, they are usually avoided on a detox diet.
Fatty meats (like certain cuts of beef) are high in saturated fat. Processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, and many types of lunchmeat not only provide saturated fat but they are also often high in sodium and other additives. For that reason, on most detox diets you'll choose lean protein sources (such as chicken, legumes, or seafood) instead.
While seafood like salmon and tuna are often considered a smart source of protein and healthy fat, some types of seafood contain levels of mercury that may be unsafe. Since the purpose of a detox diet is to eliminate unhealthy toxins, large fish like swordfish, shark, and large tuna are sometimes eliminated to reduce exposure to mercury.
Wheat or Gluten Foods
Not every detox program eliminates foods made with wheat or gluten. But some people believe that foods like bread and other baked goods contribute to bloating and other gastrointestinal discomforts. For that reason, these foods are sometimes eliminated during a detox. Some detox programs eliminate all baked goods—even those made with gluten-free grains. This shifts the focus of the food plan to fruits, vegetables, and lean protein.
Dairy is not eliminated on all detox programs, but since full-fat dairy is a source of saturated fat, it is avoided on some programs. Current nutritional guidelines suggest that we consume less than 10% of our total calories from saturated fat. Most health experts also advise that we choose monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats instead. A detox diet is a good opportunity to learn to use healthier plant-based oils or avocado instead of dairy products like butter or cream.
Some people also experience bloating and other stomach problems when they consume dairy. Eliminating dairy for a short period of time can help you to determine if dairy products are a problem for you.
Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and other condiments generally provide very little nutritional value. Condiments can also be a source of added sodium, added sugar, or saturated fat. Eating foods without condiments can help you to enjoy the natural flavor of foods without adding unwanted calories.
Processed foods that contain additives like artificial sweeteners, artificial coloring, added sugar or added salt are usually not advised during a detox. Instead, the focus is generally on foods that are in their whole or natural form. For many people, eating foods without additives helps them to reset their taste buds and learn to enjoy foods in their most nutritious unprocessed state.
Sugary beverages like sodas, juice-flavored drinks, sweetened teas, and high-calorie coffee drinks are a primary source of added sugar. These drinks generally provide very little nutritional value. For that reason, they are almost always eliminated during a detox.
A primary goal of many detox plans is to "reset" the body and to decrease dependence on less healthy foods and habits. The overconsumption of caffeine is one habit that is often targeted. While not every detox plan eliminates caffeinated beverages, many suggest that you cut them out to allow for better sleep and fewer caffeine-related symptoms (such as headaches or jitters).
Evidence regarding the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption has varied, but recent research suggests that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Alcoholic beverages provide no nutritional value and contain seven calories per gram. Almost every detox program eliminates beer, wine, and cocktails.
Some detox programs have specific daily timing protocols in place to regulate how much and when to eat certain foods. For example, there are programs where you drink juice beverages every few hours and consume vitamin supplements in between. But other detox programs allow you to maintain your regular eating schedule as long as you only consume foods that are allowed.
Almost all detox programs are limited in duration. For example, three-day detox programs are widely promoted on celebrity blogs and websites. Because these diets are highly restrictive it generally isn't realistic to sustain them for longer than a week or two at the most. Staying on a highly restrictive detox diet for too long can lead to malnutrition and excessive weight loss.
Resources and Tips
There are a few helpful tips to keep in mind before you consider a detox diet. You'll want to do some research before choosing the right plan for you. It is also smart to take advantage of important health resources before you decide to start a detox plan.
Be Clear About Your Goal
There are a few different reasons that you might consider a detox diet. Various programs promote different benefits. In order to know if your program is successful, you'll need to be clear not only about which benefit you hope to achieve but also about how you will measure your success.
For example, some short programs promise to debloat your body. These programs might eliminate gassy or high sodium foods that cause water weight gain. Success at the end of this program might mean that your clothes fit better.
Other programs advertise that they can help you to jumpstart a longer-term weight loss program. If weight loss is your goal, you'll need a plan to transition from the detox plan to a sustainable program for healthy weight loss.
Lastly, some plans promote the idea of getting rid of dangerous toxins in your body. The success of these plans will be harder to measure. However, you might simply feel better or feel like you look better at the end of these programs.
Keep Expectations in Check
Some consumers assume that a detox diet provides an essential medical benefit. But your body already has systems in place to detox on its own. It's important to understand what detox diets can and cannot do so that you aren't disappointed with your results.
"The term 'detox' has become a buzzword that is often misused by the media and consumers," says Jackie Armstrong, MPH, RDN, EP-C. Jackie is a Performance & Wellness Nutritionist at Stanford University. She says that detox diets are often misunderstood. "Our organs and tissues are constantly in a state of detoxification—getting rid of unwanted substances produced by the body or from our environment." She goes on to explain that research is lacking to support the effectiveness of most detox diets.
And Ian K. Smith, M.D. agrees. Dr. Ian is a Harvard graduate and the author several best-selling diet books. He explains that the liver, kidney, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal system remove toxins that accumulate in the body. But he says that following a detox diet full of natural foods can enhance the body's ability to cleanse. He adds, however, that dieters should make no assumptions about health when choosing a detox diet. "Detoxes have gotten very trendy, and many of them are unhealthy and quite dangerous."
Researchers have also questioned the need for detox programs. In one published report, study authors questioned the need for any special diet to eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the industrial chemicals that accumulate in human adipose tissue.
Seek Professional Advice
There is no shortage of commercial detox programs available for sale. But you are likely to get better personalized advice if you visit a qualified nutrition professional. Your healthcare provider may be able to provide guidelines for you to follow based on your medical history. They may also be able to provide a referral.
When choosing a nutrition professional, ask about credentials and professional, academic, or commercial affiliations. There is a difference, for example, between a registered dietitian (RD) and a nutritionist. In the U.S. and Canada, the word "nutritionist" is not as regulated as the title of RD.
A registered dietitian is required to complete a bachelor's degree, an internship, and pass a national exam. A nutritionist may have similar experience, but in most locations, the experience is not required. While there is no guarantee that an RD will provide better advice than a nutritionist the professional requirements provide a certain level of security.
A study published in the Canadien Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research compared advice provided by RDs to advice provided by nutritionists. The results revealed that Ontario nutritionists were more likely to "promote detox diets and provided unproven, misleading, and potentially harmful information, whereas Ontario RDs did not promote detox diets and provided evidence-based, harm-reducing information."
Choose the Right Program for You
Just because a detox program worked for a friend, a family member, or a celebrity that you admire, doesn't mean that it will work for you—even if you have goals and expectations in check. So, how do you choose the best detox diet that is healthy and not harmful? Smith and Armstrong agree that a healthy program should include whole, unprocessed foods full of fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
There are some things that you should avoid when looking for the best program.
- Detox diets that are very low in calories. "Look for one that will give you enough calories throughout the day, so that you can function normally," says Dr. Ian. Jackie adds that very low-calorie plans should only be followed with medical supervision.
- Detox diets that make big promises. Avoid programs that promise unusually quick weight loss or a cure for a disease. You may also want to be wary of diets that require you to buy expensive pills or products.
- Detox diets that eliminate food groups. Jackie recommends that you look for a detox plan that includes a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods rather than relying on juices and supplements.
Slowly Learn to Boost Nutrition
A detox diet may provide you with an opportunity to experiment with healthy foods that are less familiar to you. For example, if your program eliminates processed foods that you are used to eating, think about trying new fruits and vegetables. Take some time to visit a farmer's market or the produce section of your local grocery store.
And if you're not ready to change what you eat, you might start by changing what you drink. Many experts will tell you that the easiest way to lose weight is to give up alcohol either permanently or for a short time. Booze provides no significant nutritional benefits, it's full of calories and it may cause you to eat more junk food. For many dieters, simply saying no to alcohol is the best way to detox the body, sleep better at night, boost energy levels, and slim down.
You might also simply try to eliminate sugary beverages and drink water or fruit-infused beverage instead.
Try These Recipes
Proper hydration is important whether or not you choose to go on a detox diet. Swap out less healthy sodas and artificially sweetened teas or juices and drink one of these healthy beverages instead.
- Freshly Steeped Mint and Lemon Tea
- Mixed Berry Ice Cubes With Seltzer
- Warming Vata Tea
- Strawberry Green Tea Ice Cubes
In most cases, detox diets don't allow for a great deal of flexibility or modification. If you have food allergies or if you need certain nutrients in your daily diet, be sure that you examine the food list for the program you choose before starting any detox program.
And a detox diet isn’t appropriate for people with certain medical diagnoses. If you have a chronic health condition such as liver disease, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, or an eating disorder, restricting your nutrient intake for even a few days can cause problems. It is crucial to consult your doctor before modifying your diet.