For many, January is a prime opportunity to kickstart a better, healthier lifestyle. Reinvigorated exercise routines and new diets are often integral features in this.

We’ve written before that the diet industry can be a confusing one; that it can be difficult to sift through all the information available; and tough to decipher which advice is the most reliable.

One diet concept that tends to pick up new followers around this time of year is the detox. (In the UK the term ‘detox’ reached peak Google searches during the week commencing the 31st December 2017.)

It is possible to purchase various detox juices, teas and shakes from various online and high street outlets. These products profess to cleanse the system of unwanted toxins whilst also aiding weight loss.

However, the idea that a tea, shake or juice is able to provide a shortcut to a healthier you is a cleverly marketed myth. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to wave in order to achieve a healthy lifestyle.

What is meant by detox?

Medical detoxification refers to the process used to clear dangerous toxins from the body, usually in a clinical setting. Some of the practices used at a drug rehabilitation centre would be a prime example.

However, the word has since been adopted by sections of the diet industry to describe (fad) regimes, often with a focus on weight loss.

Detox diets claim to rid the body of toxins that have accumulated due to the food we consume, the beverages we drink, the air we breathe and the products that we use.

There are many different types of detox diet. Some provide a detailed guideline on what food items you should eat and drink and those to avoid; whereas others might encourage you to purchase a particular product (or set of products) to eat or drink on a regular basis, for a set period of time.

People who develop or promote detox diets do not need to be practising or trained dietitians.

How does our body detox?

Toxins are substances which can be poisonous to the body. Our bodies have several functions to help make sure that they do not get absorbed by the body and instead are excreted in feces, urine and sweat.

If toxins were to build up in the system, as many of the fad detox diets seem to suggest, then we would become seriously unwell.

Parts of the body which filter out toxins include:

  • the liver. The liver is a vital organ that acts as a filter to keep toxins out of our bloodstream. It is the largest organ in the body, through which an estimated 1,450 milliliters of blood flows each minute. The liver has to work harder to maintain a balance when we drink alcohol. An enzyme in the liver converts alcohol to acetaldehyde and then rapidly breaks this substance down into acetate. Alcohol then leaves the body as carbon dioxide and water.
  • the airways. The body needs oxygen to function and it receives this through breathing in air. The air we breathe does not just contain oxygen; it can also contain germs and pollutants. The bronchi found in the lungs are lined with minute hairs called cilia, which help to rid the airways of unwanted particles, thus ‘detoxifying’ the air that we breathe.
  • the digestive system. The digestive system works to extract essential nutrients from the food that we consume. It also works to remove waste products which are then excreted by the body in feces. The walls of the small intestine absorb water and digested nutrients, which are then passed into the bloodstream to be used around the body. Rejected components are passed through the large intestine for further digestion before being passed out of the rectum.  
  • the skin. The skin prevents bacteria, viruses and toxins from penetrating the body. Stratum corneum and Langerhans cells, both found in the skin’s epidermis, stop harmful substances from being absorbed and aid white blood cells with neutralisation.

Why are detox diets so popular?

Detox diets may appeal to a wide audience for a combination of reasons. Effective marketing campaigns, sometimes utilising celebrities and influencers, pitch detox diets to those perhaps feeling guilty due to a period of overindulgence over the festive season.

This type of diet is often thought of as a quick-fix solution to combat a period of poor food and drink choices. Taking action to purge the body of ‘unhealthy’ food may help some people to feel less guilty about recent eating habits.

Opting for an expensive diet of teas, juices or shakes can take the responsibility out of the consumer’s hands. Instead, consumers of detox diets choose to rely on the ‘expertise’ of the company from which they purchase their products.

Can a detox help me to lose weight?

Detox diets are sometimes marketed as weight loss methods, and it is likely you will lose some weight by following one. However, the extreme methods utilised by detox programmes tend to mean that the weight loss is not sustainable.

For instance, calorie restrictive diets can lead to a reduction in water retention as the body burns stores of glycogen for energy. Therefore any weight loss during this time is likely to be put back on once the detox diet is stopped.

It’s also likely that if you drastically reduce your calorie intake, you’ll be more prone to relapsing, or overeating to compensate when the detox period is over.

If you are serious about losing weight and want to make improvements to your diet or the amount of physical activity you take part in, you should speak to your doctor. They will be able to make practical suggestions or put you in touch with a professional service to guide you.

Why might a detox diet be a bad idea?

Choosing to follow a detox diet might highlight poor eating habits by getting you to think more about what you put into your body. It might also help you to move away from highly processed foods laden with fat, sugar and salt. However, if you speak to a trained dietitian, it is unlikely that they would recommend a diet which restricts food groups in such a way.

Avoiding high intakes of sugar, saturated fat, salt, caffeine and alcohol is a sensible approach to eating and drinking throughout the year. However, completely removing certain food groups from your diet can leave your body lacking in essential nutrients; especially if this approach is adopted without expert help from a qualified practitioner.

Detox diet products may include herbal ingredients which could interact with medication and cause problems for some users. For example, it has been suggested that the recent trend of detox teas and activated charcoal detox drinks could render some medication, such as as the contraceptive pill, ineffective.  

Detox diets are not backed by clinical evidence and, as we have already mentioned, our bodies are generally able to eliminate toxins without the need of special dietary products. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) has branded the detox trend as ‘nonsense’ and instead promotes a varied yet balanced diet combined with an active lifestyle.

What should I do instead of a detox?

If you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle or lose weight, then there are cheaper and easier to maintain ways of doing so.

  1. Hydrate. Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water on a daily basis. Abstain from alcohol for a period of time if it makes you feel better, or if not, make sure that you have at least two alcohol-free days each week.
  2. Sleep. Achieving a good amount of sleep each night is important to maintain a healthy immune system and can even aid weight loss. Most people should be aiming for 7-9 hours sleep each night.
  3. Eat well. Try and eat a varied diet including a range of different foods, being sure to include vegetables, quality lean protein and wholegrains. If you have concerns about the chemicals being used in food, perhaps take some time to look into the source of your food, and select organic produce where possible..
  4. Exercise. Adults should aim to do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity along with at least two days of strength training each week.
  5. Stop smoking. Most people know that smoking is bad for their health. If you are a smoker, you should quit. Your doctor will be able to offer practical advice and support to help you achieve a smoke-free life.

Some people might be encouraged to consider a detox diet if they’re experiencing fatigue or bowel problems. However in such cases, it’s better to discuss these issues with a doctor, so they can identify the cause of the problem, and assist you in getting the right help or treatment.