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Are Detox Diets Safe?

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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What Is a Detox Diet?

The name sounds reassuring — everyone knows that anything toxic is bad for you. Plus, detox diets encourage you to eat natural foods and involve lots of water and veggies, all stuff you know is good for you. You hear about celebrities going on detox diets, so shouldn't a detox diet be a good bet?

Not really. Like many other fad diets, detox diets can cause problems, especially for young people.

A toxin is a chemical or poison that has harmful effects on the body. Toxins can come from food or water, from chemicals used to grow or prepare food, and even from the air we breathe. Our bodies process those toxins through organs like the liver and kidneys and get rid of them in urine (pee), feces (poop), and sweat.

The basic idea behind detox and cleanse diets is to purify and purge the body the "bad" stuff that can cause problems like tiredness, headaches, and nausea. But the human body is designed to purify itself and there is no evidence that detox diets work.

Detox diets vary. Most recommend removing processed foods and other foods, like caffeine, dairy, gluten, and red meat. Some involve fasting, which means you don’t eat anything for a day or longer. Some allow juices, clear broths, or other drinks to help flush out the toxins. Some detox diets also encourage people to have colonic irrigation or enemas to "clean out" the colon. Others recommend special teas or supplements to help the "purification" process.

What Should You Watch Out For?

Detox diets are meant to help "clean out the system." But many people think they will lose weight if they try these diets. Here's the truth:

  • Detox diets are not recommended for teens. You need lots of nutritional goodies — like enough calories and protein to support normal growth and energy levels. So diets that involve fasting and severe restriction of food are not a good idea.
  • Detox diets don't help people lose fat. People who fast for several days may drop pounds, but most of it will be water and some of it may be muscle. Most people regain the weight they lost soon after completing the diet.
  • Detox diets aren't for people with health problems. They're not recommended for people with diabetes, heart disease, or other medical problems. People taking medicines also should be careful about detox diets. Do not try a detox diet if you are pregnant or have an eating disorder.
  • Detox supplements can have side effects. The herbs and supplements used in detox diets may have harmful ingredients. Some contain laxatives. Laxatives make people go to the bathroom more often, and that can get messy. Laxatives and enemas can cause problems like dehydration and electrolyte and water imbalances. 
  • Detox diets are for short-term use only. The longer you are on a detox or cleanse, the greater the chances of problems. Also, fasting for long periods can slow down a person's metabolism, making it harder to lose weight.

Eat Right and Your Body Does the Rest

The human body is designed to purify itself. You can help by drinking plenty of water; exercising; and limiting highly processed, fatty, and sugary foods. Eat a variety of healthy foods, including:

  • fruits and veggies
  • lots of fiber from whole grains, nuts, and seeds
  • lean meat, fish, tofu, and beans
  • low-fat dairy, including yogurt, kefir, and milk

If you have questions about detox diets or are concerned about your weight, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021