Everyone knows Sandra, the pushy mum in the schoolyard who sells detox and cleanse diets.
Sandra says drink this miracle weight loss shake. Because magic.
So you try your best to avoid her every morning, as she stalks the grounds like a lioness looking for weak zebra to prey upon.
And you genuinely feel sorry for the unlucky recipient as she launches into a 15 minute lecture on how she can “enhance their glow” with her detox juice.
But hey, at least it wasn’t you.
Until finally, one day, she gets you.
To make matters worse, it’ll happen on a day you are running late, too.
So as you roll up to school with your five year old tucked under your arm wearing a pair of underpants as a hat and a Nutella smile reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Sandra looks at you in judgement, waiting patiently to give you the speech about why you need to “reset your body”.
Suddenly it ain’t so funny.
So today I’m going to give you the facts on why detoxes are bullshit, and why you should steer well clear of anybody selling juice cleanse diets.
(Please share this with your local Sandra.)
My Issue With Detox Culture
I guess my problem with the whole detox thing stems from the fact that it’s the latest in a long line of fitness marketing buzzwords:
Superfood, cleanse, natural.
It’s all about images of avocados splashing into glasses of water, and models pouting next to bowls of really colourful fruit and vegetables.
“Bursting with natural energy!” the headlines proclaim.
It’s also part of fitness culture that refuses to give any credit to the hard-ass work registered dietitians have to endure in order to be able to call themselves RD’s, instead basing it’s proof around the phrase “Well it worked for me…”
Because nowadays, Jackie from your local chip shop can decide she wants to sell Juice Plus shakes and suddenly cooks up the title of wellness coach or weight loss nutritionist.
NOTE: These are not real job titles. You cannot attend college to become a qualified wellness coach. They are merely fancy names given to build false trust and disguise the real job title, which is sales rep. Because pyramid scheme.
And these people don’t chase academic approval, instead they obtain their degree from the University of Pinterest.
Where anything natural is deemed “good for you” (try eating a tornado) and anything colourful is deemed “full of goodness”.
You’d have thought I’d have been shredded as a teen, given my childhood diet of Refreshers and Wham bars.
The next time one of these folks uses a phrase like “fruit is nature’s candy” I’m going to request they high five an electric fence.
I’ve been a personal trainer for 12 years, and in that time I’ve trained thousands of men and women with goals of building strength, gaining muscle and (more often than not) losing weight.
And the one thing I wish people would stop doing is comparing fruit to fucking chocolate.
I love fruit, it’s packed with vitamins and minerals which will do you good. But there is nothing wrong with having chocolate if you want chocolate. You do not need to replace it with an apple. You just need to stop eating so much of it that your optimal transport choice is rolling.
Clearly, Sandra has never experienced the ecstasy of a late night Galaxy binge.
What Is A Detox?
So before I get into the facts on why detoxes are bullshit, it’s probably a good idea to start by running through what a detox diet actually is.
A detox diet is based around the idea of cleansing the body of certain toxins which, it is said, are accumulated via our everyday life by being exposed to processed food, pesticides, additives, and the evil powers of rock n’ roll.
In order to perform a detox or cleanse, we are told to remove certain foods from the diet (sugar is a favourite) for three-to-four weeks.
While detox diets differ in the specifics (i.e. many are based around colon cleansing, with some aiming at a full body cleanse) the one thing they all share is a strict regimen about which foods you are not allowed to eat, and getting into the habit of your daily calories arriving through special juices, supplements or teas.
Some of these diets go to extremes.
I’ve seen one so-called cleanse require you eat pills which would make your poop turn into something that resembles a black snake, so that you can feel all clean and fresh as you watch it slither down the u-bend.
This is the placebo effect in full swing, of course. Turns out, the pill uses a polymerising agent to essentially give your poop a plastic overcoat.
Another popular detox concept is built around detoxing foot pads, which turn brown during the night.
The marketing claim here is that the brown sludge is toxins which have literally been pulled from your body, allowing you to wake up with a purified aura and start the new day like one of those yoga chicks in memes.
But what is actually happening is a substance within the pad turns brown when it mixes with your sweat.
When it comes to fruit juice cleanses, you are getting little more than sugary water in a bottle at an astronomical price. Take Green Supreme, by Suja Juice, for example.
At a cost of $7.99 for a bottle which contains only 2 servings, and has 25 grams of sugar in each serving, it’s no wonder you feel full of energy after you drink the fucker.
I could go to my local supermarket and spend under $1 on essentially the same product.
Of course, they can negate the lack of science by talking about aligning your chi, or focusing your inner wild spirit and making your skin glow.
Another rule of thumb with detoxes is they come with lots of big promises.
Jillian Michaels claims that her detox product will “support your colon and digestive systems in clearing away harmful toxins.”
Once again, this is marketing BS.
If your colon isn’t working properly, you have bigger issues than needing a supplement.
The Master Cleanse is another popular example, using the incredible (and fucking false) claim of being able to eliminate every single disease (ahem!).
At the root of all detoxes and cleanses is another fitness buzzword; toxin.
In the real world, a toxin is a substance which is deemed dangerous to human life.
Meanwhile, on planet detox, anything from food colourings to additives are labelled as toxins. Basically, if it didn’t come from the ground, it’s called a toxin.
Flawed logic at it’s finest, given that apples and broccoli contain arsenic.
Why Detoxes Are Bullshit
The flawed logic that anything man-made is toxic runs rife in detoxes and cleanses.
And one such flaw, which often goes overlooked, is that anything can be deemed toxic in a certain dosage.
Too much water can kill you. (1)
Should we stop drinking it because it’s now deemed toxic? No – that’ll kill you too!
Queen said Too Much Love Will Kill You.
And considering my experiences with stalker ex-girlfriends, they were probably correct in that assumption.
High fructose corn syrup is one of today’s most blamed sources of weight gain, but given that it’s similar in structure to sugar and evidence suggests that it’s no worse for you, the real issue once again comes down to the dosage, not the ingredient itself.
This black and white mentality which accompanies detoxes is it’s own worst enemy – i.e. why would I eat mercury, if it’s a metal?
But mercury is found in tuna, and removing it from your diet will cause more harm than good, as you’ll remove the multitude of benefits to be had in Omega-3 fatty acids. (2)
And here’s the thing..
If you had consumed a specific ingredient like, say, mercury in dosages enough to cause acute toxicity and therefore be dangerous to your life, your answer would be to go to hospital immediately.
Not to buy some bullshit greens drink from your local sales rep.
If you had consumed any substance in levels which were not high enough to cause acute toxicity, but still high enough to cause chronic toxicity (i.e not life threatening, but not great), the best way to take care of this issue would be to eat a varied, well balanced diet.
Not to remove all your favourite foods from your life and start living on wheat grass!
The very notion that you can “reset your body” with a juice cleanse is nonsense.
Because removing dangerous substances from our body is not the job of expensive pills and powders, it is the job of the liver and kidneys.
It’s what they do.
And they will do this task far, far better than any special juice drink or miracle nut.
Your built-in detox system:
During a 2009 study, researchers questioned 15 leading detox and cleanse companies (including Garnier, Boots, Vitabiotics, Innocent, and more) about their products in order to determine exactly which areas of human health they were attempting to address. (3)
This should shock you
None of them were able to provide any evidence to prove their safety, nor their effectiveness.
Further still, none of them could even provide information on which “toxins” their products were specifically targeting, or even agree on a solid definition for the word “toxin”.
So not only do they not know if their product is effective at reducing the build-up of these so-called toxins it is demonizing, they don’t even know which toxins they are.
This is fitness industry bullshit at it’s finest, folks.
And you don’t need me to tell you that if we can’t even agree on a solid definition for the word toxin, it’s a dangerous tactic to start taking products designed to eliminate said “toxins”.
To top it off, a fantastic review study published in Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics in 2014 concluded that the available body of research surrounding cleanses and detoxes was far too small, and that what data there is is not very convincing, due to “sampling bias, lack of control groups, and a reliance on self-reporting.” (4)
An Unsustainable Diet Is A Pointless Diet
There is another aspect at play here, too.
It’s not surprising that detox diets are usually aimed at people searching for quick weight loss solutions, coming off the back of a period of overeating and indulgence. But this is yet another reason why detoxes don’t work.
Time and time again, research has demonstrated that a flexible, balanced diet will outperform a rigid, strict diet in terms of results. (5)
I covered this in my recent article on clean eating.
That’s because it ticks the only box that matters – it’s sustainable!
Make no mistake about it, the best diet is the one you can stick to.
Going from eating 4000 calories of junk food and/or alcohol to a 700 calorie juice diet is a terrible idea and will lead to fucking up your metabolism, and it’s also a very unsustainable way of life which you can expect to come back to bite you in the behind down the line.
The Popularity Of Detoxes In The Face Of No Evidence
I know what you’re thinking.
- no evidence to support their claims
- no evidence to support their products’ effectiveness or safety
- no evidence to determine which toxins their products are built to eliminate, and
- no universal agreement on a solid definition for the word toxin
… why the fuck are detoxes and cleanse diets so popular?!
Welcome to the world of fitness marketing, where colourful images and quick solutions to complex problems are all the rage.
You want to reduce weight?
Cut out sugar. It’s sugar’s fault. Sugar also ruined your second marriage.
You feel tired?
It’s gluten. Forget that you’ve never been diagnosed with any gluten allergies. It’s gluten.
Whatever the problem, it’s not that you need to eat a balanced diet, exercise and get a good night’s sleep. No, it’s that you need to drink some overpriced mashed up grass in a blender bottle.
That’s detox 101.
Now throw in the endorsement of some ill-informed celebrity users, which you will easily obtain if you a) give them the product for free, and b) give it a trendy name, like “The Body Reboot Diet”, and you’re good to go!
Explaining Quick Weight Loss Results On Detox Diets
Another selling point associated with detox diets and juice cleanses is the quick weight loss results that are claimed by it’s practitioners and creators.
Of course, given the facts you’ve read so far, you’d be correct to assume things are not what they seem here either.
Due to the diets themselves being so restrictive, calories are automatically driven down to a bare minimum, which will inevitably result in weight loss.
Yes, you could achieve the same weight loss by simply reducing your calorie intake and eating foods you enjoy!
Also, as you are required to gain the bulk of your nutrition from lemon water, wheat grass or other non-calorie dense sources, the majority of weight which is lost is just water.
You can read more about why this happens in my recent article on why fad diets don’t work, but the crux of the matter is that when carbohydrates are greatly reduced, water is flushed from our muscle cells.
If we are under-eating carbs, glycogen stores are depleted rather quickly and we can start losing water weight in as little as 48 hours. (6)
This is why most detox diets typically last no longer than 4 weeks, because:
- this is the longest most people can stick to it, and
- this is when water weight loss runs it’s course
This is when they’ll pounce on you for a testimonial about how awesome you feel over all that weight you lost.
Of course, water weight is regained the moment carbohydrates are reintroduced to your diet later on.
And when you regain the aforementioned water weight once you return to eating normal food again, what is the first thing on most people’s lips?
“I’m back at square one. I can’t do this by myself. I need to get back on my detox diet soon.”
Now you see how this whole addictive scene works, and why you should try your best to avoid it.
Anyone who demonizes whole food groups is full of shit.
No food will inherently make you fat, and your body is capable handling just about anything.
In the situations where it isn’t capable (i.e. the rare occasions when people develop actual chronic toxicity) a medical professional is your best bet, not a detox diet.
Further still, these diets often bill themselves as some sort of “fix”.
I dislike this, and I’d like to point out that there is absolutely no point in “being healthy” for one month then returning to an unhealthy lifestyle.
Detox diets are built upon phoney science, and marketed to appeal to that part of us human beings that longs for an instant solution to weight loss.
If you currently eat a lot of junk food and want to sort your diet out because you feel overweight, bloated and tired all the time, I recommend just populating your diet with healthier food choices, keeping a good balance of all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
Lean meats, fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, fish, and water are your best friends.
Combine this with regular exercise and you will easily outperform the results you would achieve on any crazy fad diet.
Yes, you can still eat treat foods and yes, you can still have a day off without making yourself feel like shit.
If your goal is weight loss, simply apply the rules above and also reduce your calorie target by 200-300. Because weight loss is all about calories, not juice.
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— RUSS HOWE PTI (@RussHowePTI) February 14, 2017
- Farrell, D. J., et al. Fatal water intoxication. J Clin Pathol. 2003 Oct; 56(10): 803–804.
- Yaginuma-Sakurai, K., et al. Hair-to-blood ratio and biological half-life of mercury: experimental study of methylmercury exposure through fish consumption in humans. J Toxicol Sci. 2012 Feb;37(1):123-30.
- Blachford, A., et al. The Voice Of Young Science brings you; the detox dossier. 2009
- Klein, A. V., et al. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015 Dec;28(6):675-86. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12286. Epub 2014 Dec 18.
- Stewart T.M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. Feb;38(1):39-44 (2002).
- Kreitzman, S. N., et al. Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Jul;56(1 Suppl):292S-293S.