“Spring Cleansing”: A look at the controversy surrounding detox diets

by Marina Komarovsky

Detox diets have been around since the 1970s and are back in fashion this season, along with plaids and platforms. I must admit that upon hearing about the promised health benefits of these diets, I assumed it all to be true. Nonetheless I excused myself from the bandwagon of adventurous diet experimenters by conceding that I just was not hard-core enough to give it a go. Perhaps you heard about these diets and thought, “What a terrible idea!” and it’s possible you were right. Detox diets are controversial, and as the number of diet books and “detox” products on shelves increases, the critics weigh in.

Why detox?

The purpose of a detox diet is to eliminate dietary and environmental toxins that may accumulate in cells, especially cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is a sort of “spring cleansing,” as Juliann Schaeffer put it in a 2008 article in Today’s Dietitian. Because some of the common diet regimens are based on drastically reducing food intake, the GI tract is temporarily absolved of common digestion and absorption duties. In theory, this allows toxic residue to be eliminated and cells renewed.

Some of the detox diets, therefore, are partial fasts. The “Master Cleanse” is a liquid fast that is a particularly well-known option. It involves  ten days of drinking a blend of lemon juice, water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper instead of food and taking laxatives for a colon cleansing effect. Other examples include a 3-day juice fast as well as less dramatic changes, such as switching to primarily raw foods for a limited time period.

Detox Diets Criticized

Not surprisingly, detox liquid fasts are the subjects of much controversy, mostly because they induce a state of both undernutrition and malnutrition where the body does not obtain sufficient calories or nutrients. Weight loss resulting from such a diet is pronounced but not sustained, and the use of laxatives presents a risk of electrolyte imbalance and dehydration.

During a detox fast, people tend to feel ill at first and euphoric after a point. Some claim that dieters do not feel well because toxins leave cells and enter the blood stream before being eliminated from the body. However scientific evidence is lacking. Meanwhile, the “boost in energy and … sense of euphoria … is actually a reaction to starvation,” explained Dr. Peter Pressman, internal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. in an interview with Richard Sine of WebMD . Further, for some groups – including children, teens, and women who are pregnant – drastic caloric restriction impedes the necessary growth. If a woman is breastfeeding, the infant will not be able to obtain the necessary nourishment from breast milk. In heart disease and diabetes patients, intestinal and cardiac problems can result.

Detox Diets Qualified

But there is another side to the issue. Nutrition blogger Janet Helm, RD, had a post about detox diets on her popular site Nutrition Unplugged last month (www. nutritionunplugged.com). She interviewed several dieticians about the topic for an article in the Chicago Tribune and uncovered a new set of potential benefits. Rather than swear by the cleansing power of lemon water, the dieticians adopted a psychological approach, relating that many people use cleansing diets as motivating milestones to kick-start shifts to healthy eating patterns. By generating a sense of commitment and achievement, in a way, the diets can work.

The Verdict?

We haven’t been able to see the health benefits from a scientific perspective, and without the strict supervision of a doctor, detox
diets can be dangerous.  While psychological effects cannot be excluded, the current understanding is that the detoxification organs – the liver, kidneys, and GI — usually do a fine job without food deprivation, and long-term health reasonably depends on eating a healthy diet over the long term. After all, even on the Master Cleanse website, the last instructional step reads, “After the Master Cleanse – adopt a healthy lifestyle.” So “spring cleansing” really is reminiscent of spring cleaning. You can embark on a cleaning mission, but if you don’t continue to dust and mop regularly, you may as well have not put in the effort. So it is a good idea to eat well and live cleanly every day.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

2 comments on ““Spring Cleansing”: A look at the controversy surrounding detox diets

  1. Pingback: To Juice, to Soup, or to Just Eat – The Friedman Sprout

  2. Pingback: To Juice, to Soup, or to Just Eat – The Science-Based RD

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