Detox diets are commonly used for quick weight loss, to de-bloat the body, to remove toxins for better health, and for other advertised benefits. Detox plans may last anywhere from three days to seven days and even up to two weeks. Some include the use of supplements and other packaged products, but many simply include a restrictive list of foods to consume and a long list of foods to avoid.
While there is no shortage of plans to follow, there is a lack of quality scientific evidence to support the use of these programs.1 Consider the pros and cons of going on a detox diet if you are considering using one of these plans.
- Quick weight loss
- Limited-time effort
- Short-term benefits
- May reset habits
- Highly restrictive
- Safety concerns
- Lacking scientific support
- Reduced energy
- Can be expensive
Detox programs are appealing to some consumers because they can provide certain quick benefits. However, many of these benefits have a downside.
Quick Weight Loss
There are several different ways that short-term detox plans can produce quick weight loss. It is important to note, however, that you won’t necessarily lose fat on these plans. But you are likely to see changes on the scale and in the way your clothes fit.
Most detox plans significantly reduce your carbohydrate intake. Foods like baked goods, processed convenience meals, starchy snacks, and even fruits are often restricted. A common side effect of low-carbohydrate diets is water loss.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source. After you consume carbs, they are broken down into a form of sugar called glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the liver and the muscles to be used when needed. Researchers have found that in order to store one gram of glycogen, your body retains three grams of water.2
When you cut the number of carbohydrates that you consume, your body rids itself of the water needed to store it. The result? A lighter, thinner body. In fact, depending on your body size, you might lose five pounds or more of water weight during a seven-day detox.
In addition, many detox plans eliminate foods that are high in sodium. Consuming less salt also helps to reduce water weight.
Lastly, detox plans reduce weight by limiting solid food consumption. The solid food you consume when you’re not on a detox diet adds up to around 2,000 calories per day on average for healthy individuals.
But a detox diet substantially limits your solid food intake. In fact, broth or juice-based detoxes are very common and they allow for no solid food. Broth and juices are typically lower in calories than solid food so you are likely to see a drop in the number on the scale.
Keep in mind, that these weight changes are not sustainable. Once you return to a normal diet—even a healthy diet as recommended by nutrition experts at the USDA—your body will begin to retain water normally again and your weight will increase as a result.
Why Your Weight Changes from Day to Day
Most nutrition experts advise that a slow and steady approach to weight loss and healthy eating is best. In fact, studies have shown that making changes gradually usually works best if your goal is to change your body and improve health.
Authors of a study3 published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that even though rapid weight loss can be effective, slow weight loss is more effective at changing body composition.
But for some people, the idea of taking on a long-term weight loss or healthy eating program seems overwhelming and unrealistic. The idea of a short-term commitment with quick results sounds much more manageable and appealing.
While short term-detox diets may not provide sustainable results, for some people, they may provide a stepping stone to better nutrition. Quick results during a seven-day or three-day detox can provide enough motivation to jumpstart a longer-term plan. In fact, some commercial weight loss programs use this strategy to boost their clients’ self-efficacy, or belief that they have the power to make changes and slim down.
For example, if eliminating processed foods for three days is manageable, a person trying to lose weight or eat better might be motivated to cut back on those foods for another week, and then perhaps another month.
A detox program might also help some consumers try healthy foods (such as fruits and vegetables) that are not typically part of their meal plan.
Why Some Quick Weight Loss Methods Work
A quick detox plan may provide short-term benefits not related to weight loss or changes in body composition. These changes may inspire a longer-term commitment to healthier food and beverage choices.
For example, dietary changes may improve sleep quality, according to research. A study4 published in Advances in Nutrition found that poor-quality diets (diets high in fat) are associated with lower sleep efficiency, reduced REM sleep, and increased arousal during sleep. Researchers note, however, that more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between diet quality and sleep.
But even if your modified food intake doesn’t improve your sleep during a detox diet, your beverage choices may help to make a difference. When you cut out caffeine and alcohol as required by many detox plans, you are likely to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Better sleep has also been associated with healthier food choices during the day.5
Lastly, some people report better-looking skin when they cut out alcohol and foods high in added sugar or excess sodium. However, a short term detox diet is not likely to produce changes that last. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, trendy supplements and quick elimination programs are not likely to be as effective as a nutritious diet full of nutrient-rich whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.
Should I Quit Drinking to Lose Weight?
After you come home from a vacation or even from work travel, you might feel bloated, heavy, and out of sync. It is not uncommon to eat more indulgent meals when you are away from home.
If your vacation meals were high in sodium, sugar, and carbs (which describes many restaurant dishes), it is likely that you gained some water weight while you were away. And what’s worse is that after a week or so of consuming starchy, salty meals or decadent sugary foods, your body might start to crave them.
A short three- to seven-day detox diet can help you to reduce water weight, clean up your eating habits, and reset the way you taste food. For some people, a short cleanse gives them a clean slate to help them to return to their regular (more nutritious) eating plan.
Detox diets are not recommended by many nutrition experts and health organizations. There are many drawbacks to these short-lived and very limited eating plan.
Detox diets are known to be exceptionally restrictive—although the degree to which each program restricts foods and beverages varies. Some programs allow for just a few hundred calories but others allow you to consume enough food to accommodate your total energy needs for the day. The lowest calorie detox diets are those that include only juice or liquid meals.
For example, there are detox diets that restrict your intake to just a lemon or tea drink several times a day6 . Often called the “master cleanse” this detox program suggests that you drink a quart of saltwater in the morning and one cup of herbal laxative tea in the evening before bed. During daytime hours you consume a very low calorie “lemonade” made from lemons, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and a few other ingredients.
If you follow the master cleanse diet, you are only likely to consume 500 to 700 calories per day, far lower than is recommended for most adults. Very low-calorie diets such as these, are generally only recommended under medical supervision because there is a risk of health complications, especially if you are overweight or obese.
Another drawback of going on a highly restrictive diet is the likelihood that it will backfire. In fact, several studies including one published in the Journal of Neuroscience7 point to severe caloric restriction as a dietary pattern that promotes binge eating.
In addition to problems caused by inadequate caloric intake, there are other safety concerns that consumers should be aware of when considering a detox diet. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health8 there are potential health risks.
For example, people with certain medical conditions including diabetes or kidney disease may be harmed if they consume too much juice or don’t get adequate nutrients. In addition, people with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, kidney disease, or heart disease should not go on detox diets that include colon cleansing procedures.
Juice diets that require you to buy special products may not be safe. The NIH warns that juices that haven’t been pasteurized or treated in other ways to kill harmful bacteria can make people sick, especially children, elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems.
Lastly, not all detox programs for sale provide honest information about their products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several companies selling detox/cleansing products because they contained illegal, or potentially harmful ingredients, because they were marketed using false claims, or were marketed for unapproved uses.
Programs Lack Scientific Support
High-quality, independent studies supporting the use of detox diets are lacking. Studies supporting these diets are often funded by a manufacturer that sells a detox program, are limited in scope, or performed on rodents.
There are several studies, however, questioning the need for a detox diet.
For example, in one published report,9 study authors questioned the need for any special diet to eliminate industrial chemicals (called POPs or persistent organic pollutants) that accumulate in human adipose tissue.
“Currently, there is no scientific consensus as to whether current exposure levels to POPs are detrimental to human health, making it unclear whether eliminating them would provide any benefits. The detox industry operates on the principle that any level of a foreign chemical in the body should be a cause for concern, although this notion is unsubstantiated.”
Even if these diets were able to reduce the levels of dangerous toxins in the body, it is unlikely that the results would be measurable.
A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine10 investigated the use of clinical detoxification therapies used by licensed naturopathic doctors (NDs) in the United States. Study authors noted that even though most NDs used some follow-up measurements after detoxification therapy, few provided an objective measurement to determine treatment effectiveness.
And authors of studies that find a limited benefit often note that results are short-lived.
One study published in Current Gastroenterology Reports11 compared different diets, finding that “Juicing or detoxification diets tend to work because they lead to extremely low caloric intake for short periods of time, however, they tend to lead to weight gain once a normal diet is resumed.”
Extreme fatigue is a common complaint voiced by many consumers who go on detox diets. The low-calorie intake is likely to be a primary cause. Those detox diets that limit or completely eliminate carbohydrate intake are also likely to cause fatigue, as carbohydrates provide the body with quick energy.
These very-low-calorie programs can also cause headaches, fainting, weakness, dehydration, and hunger pangs, according to the NIH.8 And detox programs that include laxatives, can cause diarrhea severe enough to lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
Not all detox diets are costly, but many require that you purchase bundles or entire packages including supplements. The total price may be substantial.
One program lasting 10 days, for example, includes three bottles of supplement pills, one bottle of cherry juice, and a shake mix. The cost, without shipping, is $249. A popular three-day raw juice cleanse can set you back $99, and a longer 90-day program that promises cellular detoxification can cost nearly $400.
When you consider the limited benefits that these programs are likely to provide, the cost may not be worth it for many consumers.