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Lifestyle And Health - Diet and Exercise | September 27, 2022, 6:00 CDT

The Ins and Outs of Dietary Detoxing

Healthy living is a priority for many people, but not all diet trends are helpful.
Holly Ellis

Written by

Holly Ellis
A smiling woman in a kitchen stands next to a cutting board with parsley on it and places her hands on a blender.

Like many people, I've attempted a number of fad diets. I've completed juice cleanses, and eaten mono-meals, paleo, keto, raw diets, FODMAP and everything in between. While many of these diets can prove beneficial, others were more stressful for my body.

It can be hard to sift through all the marketing-speak and gimmicks to find healthy choices that help us build a lifestyle that supports healthy organ function. When you take the time to dig into research, though, you soon realize that most basic solutions to our dietary concerns are often the right choices for our bodies.

What is detoxing?

A dietary detox involves consuming an herb or a substance to remove a specific element from your body with the aim of improving the function of a specific organ or organ system. For example, when I was trying to treat my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I happened upon many "miracle cures" that claimed if I were to consume large quantities of charcoal, I would somehow remove toxins responsible for slowing my bowel functions. No science supported the claim.

Dietary detoxes are often nothing more than a way to introduce you to another line of expensive products. Of immediate concern is that these products don't work as promised. While some claims—such as eliminating water retention or bloating—may be true, many consumers are upset when they realize these are temporary solutions and often the result of a laxative effect caused by consuming only one item for multiple days.

In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there is little research to support detoxes and cleanses, and what does exist is based on poor science. The only clear evidence for detox and cleanse diets involves juice cleanses, but the research indicates that while a person might see benefits, the weight is often gained back once they return to their regular diet.

What is a cleanse diet?

A cleanse involves avoiding certain foods and/or consuming huge quantities of one food type for a specified length of time to achieve the desired effect. The intended goal of a dietary cleanse is the supposed reset of a specific organ (typically, the liver) or an organ system (typically, the digestive system) in order to help you lose weight.

Often, the food group eliminated is solid food. Messaging from cleanse programs purports that this action helps your body shed "toxins" that sit in your bowels from unprocessed food and uneliminated fecal matter.

Dietary cleanses are part of Ayurvedic practices, which are believed to help people reach heightened levels of meditation and help bodies function more efficiently, and are recognized as one of the national standards of medicine in India. However, the key difference between an Ayurvedic cleanse and ones marketed by influencers and infomercials is the former is monitored by licensed practitioners.

Extreme changes to your diet should only be made when they're recommended and monitored by licensed dietary professionals.

The truth about cleanses and detoxes

"I've heard about all kinds of dietary shortcuts and cleanses. Anything that promotes putting an extreme quantity of anything in your body will put stress on your organ systems because it impacts how your organs function," said Mark Schutta, an endocrinologist in the division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.

He explained that there are no shortcuts for patients who want to improve their health. Rather than spending money on the latest dietary trend, spend your time consulting a nutritionist or hiring a personal trainer who can help you build a program to safely manage your weight.

"As a doctor, I cannot advise patients to perform any cleanse or detox without medical evidence that supports its usage, and unfortunately, many of these supposed cures lack any evidence to support that they work," said Monika Bettney, a specialist in gastroenterology and women's health dietitian with the IBS Network in Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

"Furthermore, if you're a patient who is looking to improve your health, [you're] putting unnecessary stress on a body that is already not functioning at optimum levels," she said, adding that some diets, such as FODMAP, encourage patients to eliminate certain foods to help the body's immune system "reset."

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine absorbs poorly, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Bettney stressed that diets like FODMAP are based on the temporary elimination of foods and their eventual reintroduction in an attempt to identify what foods your body cannot properly process. This method has been proven by nutritionists, gastroenterologists and multiple studies to help patients identify food sensitivities.

However, there are no claims that an elimination diet can "cure" a patient of illness or help the patient lose weight. Instead, it acts as a tool in the proverbial dietary toolbox to help patients better understand their digestive system's unique needs.

It took me many years of fad diets to realize a balanced diet and exercise were the only solutions that could actually help bring my body to optimum health. After the realization, it took another three years to work off my excess body fat. It wasn't until I built a lifestyle of healthy eating, activities and habits that I was gradually able to change my body mass index from borderline obese to within a healthy range.

It's all possible, but it's work. Lots of hard work.

Holly Ellis

Written by

Holly Ellis