What you should know about detox diets

There is a bewildering variety of “detox diets” out there, promising all kinds of easy benefits and quick fixes. Included among the detox smorgasbord you will find juice detoxing, water fasting, soup diets, metabolic stimulating diets, lemon detox diets, alkalising detox programs, liver cleanses and colon cleanses. Finding your way through the plethora of detox options can be a mind-boggling experience, so here’s a guide to the detox diet landscape.


Juice fasting

A juice fast involves drinking raw, fresh vegetable and fruit juice for a short period of time. A juice fast typically lasts for up to three days. While this diet is a good source of vitamins and antioxidants, it is a more extreme form of detoxification compared with some other detox diets because no solid food is consumed. A gentler form of juice detoxification involves the inclusion of one healthy meal per day in addition to the juice, which ensures you receive adequate calories, protein and fibre. Typical fruits and vegetables include celery, carrot, broccoli, ginger, cabbage, apple, spinach, beetroot and leafy greens. The benefit of drinking freshly pressed vegetable-based juices and water for a day or two is that it enables your digestive system to have a rest from digesting large meals. Juice detoxing may provide you with increased energy, more efficient digestion, better-quality sleep, stabilisation of bowel movements and elimination of stored toxins.

Juice fasting for a period of more than three days is not advisable as it can lead to deficiencies of nutrients such as protein, essential fatty acids and calcium. Other health risks include headaches, fatigue, acne, constipation, hypoglycaemia, fainting, low blood pressure, kidney issues and heart arrhythmia.


Water fasting

Water fasting limits what you ingest to just plain water. This type of fast is probably one of the oldest, with many religions using it as a technique to cleanse both body and soul of impurities. Nowadays, fasting is often used for the purpose of losing weight and detoxing. As with juice fasting, proponents of fasting claim that drinking only water for a prescribed period allows the digestive system time to heal by enabling it to rest completely. There are many risks associated with this form of detoxing and it can be quite dangerous for certain individuals, particularly those with chronic health conditions.

When it’s undertaken for more than a couple of days, nutritional deficiencies can leave you feeling weak, make you prone to muscle cramping, your blood pressure can fall, leaving you prone to fainting spells, and uric acid levels can rise, which can lead to attacks of gout or even kidney stones. You may also experience muscle breakdown, cardiac arrhythmia, blood sugar problems such as hypoglycaemia and hormonal changes.

This form of detoxification can actually stress your body even more as the organs of elimination and detoxification are not being supported by the required nutrients and dietary fibre. See the article on fasting in this publication for information on how to do it the healthy way.


Soup diets

Because of the limited intake of calories, soup diets are often taken up by people wanting to lose weight. Like all detox programs, soup detox diets aim to rid the body of unwanted toxic waste products that have built up in your tissues and organs.

Soup detox diets have become fairly popular recently and usually involve eating various types of vegetable soups for a short period of time, often for up to seven days. Sometimes, other foods are allowed, such as steamed fish and fruit, in addition to the soup, depending on the particular detox plan. This is a healthier option since the body is not deprived of calories.

The Cabbage Soup Diet has become one of the best-known examples of soup detox. There are different versions of the Cabbage Soup Diet: from eating nothing but the cabbage soup for seven days to the inclusion of foods such as fruit, vegetables, skim milk, lean meat and brown rice on specified days of the detox. Bread is not allowed, nor is any type of junk food, carbonated drinks or alcohol. The soup itself is based on a combination of cabbage, onions, tomatoes, green capsicum, celery and carrots.

The most extreme version of the Cabbage Soup Diet, where no other food is consumed, results in rapid weight loss because of the limited calorie intake. Most of the weight that is lost, however, comes from water and muscle mass instead of fat. The low calorie intake forces the body to enter starvation mode and hang on to the existing fat for its survival. This is not a long-term solution to weight loss. Cabbage can also cause a lot of gas, so some people undertaking the diet can feel quite uncomfortable.


The Grapefruit Diet

The Grapefruit Diet, also known as the Hollywood Diet, was first introduced in the 1930s and was designed to jumpstart a weight-loss program so dieters can lose a large amount of weight in a short period of time. Today, there are many versions of the Grapefruit Diet but the common rule is that half a grapefruit is to be consumed before every meal to enhance the action of your fat-burning enzymes.

It has been shown in laboratory studies that a substance found in grapefruit helps with fat loss. In May, 2010, an animal study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that long-term intake of nootkatone, a substance found in grapefruit, is beneficial in preventing obesity and improving physical performance. The study showed that the long-term intake of nootkatone significantly reduced high-fat and high-sucrose diet-induced weight gain and abdominal fat accumulation. These effects were found to be due to the role nootkatone plays in activating an enzyme that is implicated in the control of energy metabolism.

Another animal study published in the October 2009 journal Diabetes found that naringenin, a bioflavonoid found in grapefruit, was able to correct the elevations in triglyceride and cholesterol, prevent the development of insulin resistance and normalising glucose metabolism. The researchers found it worked by reprogramming the liver to burn up excess fat, rather than store it, resulting in the prevention of obesity.

Some grapefruit diet plans emphasise low carbohydrate intake and limit the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat while encouraging meat intake. Calorie intake is often reduced to below 1000 calories per day for 10–12 days to achieve rapid weight loss. As with all restrictive diets, the weight that comes off is due to the loss of fluids rather than fat and the weight loss is not sustainable once old eating habits are resumed.


Lemon detox diets

Lemon detox diets use a drink consisting of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. Lemon and cayenne pepper are the cleansing agents while maple syrup is used for its mineral content and as a sweetener. The only minerals found in maple syrup in substantial amounts, however, are manganese and zinc. The high sugar content of maple syrup is also a major drawback of this detox program.

It’s recommended that 6–12 glasses of the lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper drink should be consumed each day for a minimum of 10 days. No other food or juice is taken during the detox. Eating food while undertaking lemon detox diets is said to hinder the cleansing process and reduce its effectiveness. This is based on the premise that the chemicals, pesticides and additives found in food add more toxins for the body to deal with during the detox and eating food will not allow your body to adequately rest and restore itself.

Sustaining your body for 10 days on just lemon, water, maple syrup and cayenne pepper is not advisable. You will not be able to get the range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients your body needs to detox and flush out the toxins or even just cope with normal bodily processes.

Cayenne pepper promotes an increase in the secretion of hydrochloric acid that is vital in the digestion of protein, which aids in the elimination of waste as it enters the intestines. As a circulatory stimulant, cayenne enhances blood supply to tissues and assists with toxin removal and increases the rate at which carbohydrates and fats are metabolised. An effective detox diet, however, should include the consumption of foods high in fibre to actually flush matter from the intestines. Constipation is likely to occur without these fibre-rich foods.

This detox entails a very low calorie intake, which means, although you will lose weight, it will be water and muscle loss rather than fat loss. Since this diet advocates no food and is based on a high sugar drink it is not recommended and may be dangerous for those with blood sugar problems such as diabetics and hypoglycaemia.


Metabolic stimulating diets

Metabolic stimulating diets are designed to help you lose weight by following a diet plan that helps to speed up your metabolism so you can burn calories faster.

This kind of diet is a better option than some of the other detox diets, which are aimed at weight loss. Rather than being based on a form of starvation and restriction of calories, this diet encourages you to eat regular small meals throughout the day, which actually helps to enhance your metabolism. Eating every two to three hours or having six small, nutritious meals satisfies your hunger as soon as it sets in, helps to maintain stable blood sugar levels, keeps your metabolism high and provides your body with a steady source of energy.

Allowing your body to feel starved or deprived of nutrition actually slows your metabolism. When you restrict calorie intake to below 1000 calories a day, your body thinks you are starving and slows your metabolism to store energy for future use.

Metabolic stimulating diets promote eating a combination of protein and complex carbohydrates. Resting metabolism increases two to three times more after eating a quality lean protein than after consuming simple carbohydrates. Eating complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables also burns more calories than eating foods high in simple carbohydrates such as a piece of cake.

Including spicy foods in the diet is a key feature of metabolic stimulating diets. Spices such as cayenne pepper, chilli and ginger increase metabolism by raising body temperature and thereby help to burn calories. The scientific description for the action of these foods in the body is “thermogenic” (“therm” meaning heat and “-genic” meaning to create). Studies have also shown that cinnamon helps to control insulin levels, which directly affects whether your body stores or burns fat.

Caffeine has thermogenic properties, so metabolic stimulating diets encourage drinking a few cups of green tea daily to help boost metabolism.

Your metabolism is also boosted by regular aerobic exercise, not only while you are doing it but for hours afterward. Furthermore, strength training or resistance exercise helps to build muscle and, since muscle burns more calories than fat, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.

Drinking water is also important as it helps the metabolic process to work more efficiently and flushes toxins from your body.

Note: A low metabolism is indicated by lack of energy and weight gain. If you feel you have a serious problem with low metabolism, it’s always best to see a doctor as this can be a result of a medical condition such as hypothyroidism.


Bowel (or colon) cleansing

Elimination of stools is one of the body’s primary methods of getting rid of toxic substances. This is especially important during a detox diet, since regular bowel movements decrease the likelihood that toxins will be reabsorbed into the body.

Bowel stimulating diets are often referred to as colon or bowel cleansing and involve the inclusion of foods that are high in fibre, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, while avoiding foods that tend to cause constipation or very hard stools, such as meats and dairy products. Plant-based diets containing generous amounts of vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, nuts and whole grains are high in fibre, which is the essential, non-digestible component of food.

A high-fibre diet supports a healthy digestive tract by sweeping debris from the colon, much like a broom. Fibre exercises the intestinal tract by stimulating peristalsis, the wave-like muscular contractions of the bowel that decrease bowel transit time. Fibre also holds moisture in the colon, softening the stool.

Both soluble and insoluble fibre is required for colon cleansing. Insoluble fibre is especially good for improving elimination and preventing constipation. Soluble fibre feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut and is also important for binding cholesterol and aiding its passage through the body. Flaxseed and oats are both high in soluble and insoluble fibre.

This approach to detox enhances the excretion of toxins through the bowels, which is a necessary part of the detoxification process. It involves similar dietary recommendations to those of the liver detox and so enhances the function of both your colon and liver. It is not a calorie-restricted diet, so you will be getting enough nutrients to support your detoxification pathways as well as ensure you don’t enter starvation mode.


Alkalising detox

The typical Western diet is largely based on meat, dairy, sugars, alcohol, saturated fats and caffeine, all of which creates a hostile, acidic environment within the body. The pH level of your internal fluids affects every living cell in your body and a chronically over-acidic pH creates an extremely negative environment, which affects all cellular functions and every area of your body can be negatively affected.

Foods that are naturally green in colour are very alkaline because of their high chlorophyll content. Eating your greens helps to maintain the proper balance of acidity and alkalinity (pH) of your blood and other body fluids. Along with all green vegetables, alfalfa, wheatgrass, barley grass, spirulina and chlorella all contain high levels of chlorophyll. The chlorophyll content in these foods helps to cleanse your body, remove toxins from the digestive tract, enhance your bowel function and promote the health of your circulatory and immune systems. An alkalised body system also helps to prevent minerals such as calcium leaching out of your bones into your bloodstream.

Chlorophyll aids your body in its natural removal of potential toxins from your system yet it does not bind to and remove essential nutrients you need. Chlorophyll’s cleansing action on your bowel and other elimination channels helps promote clean blood and ensures that metabolic waste is efficiently carried away from your tissues. A clean bloodstream with an abundance of red blood cells to carry oxygen is also necessary to support your immune system.

Avoiding foods that are acidifying is a key feature of a greens-based diet. Steering clear of sugar, dairy, meat, caffeine, tobacco, wheat, certain fruits, saturated, hydrogenated and trans fats, processed foods, carbonated drinks, certain nuts and white rice is important in establishing a healthy blood pH.


Liver cleanse

With more than 500 functions, the liver is one of the major organs involved in detoxification, along with the colon, kidneys, skin and lungs. The liver’s role in detoxification is to change or detoxify harmful toxins into substances that can be safely eliminated from the body. Good nutrition is essential to healthy detoxification and the liver needs certain nutrients to function optimally. The typical Western diet is deficient in many nutrients, which can lead to suboptimal liver function.

The liver has two phases of detoxification and both Phase I and Phase II detoxification processes are dependent on availability of specific nutrients. In the absence of any of these nutrients, your liver’s detoxification ability is impaired. Therefore, following a detox regime that does not supply adequate nutrition can be unsatisfactory. A good liver detox diet will include the use of specific foods that help to balance Phase I and Phase II detoxification pathways while reducing the liver’s toxic load by avoiding fatty foods such as dairy products, deep-fried foods, fatty meats, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings and preservatives, pesticides, alcohol and tobacco.

A liver detox is a good way to enhance the function of your liver and reduce your body’s toxic load. It’s not a calorie-controlled diet and so will not leave you feeling hungry. It’s also high in fibre with an emphasis on lots of fresh vegetables, so your bowel function will be enhanced and toxins will be able to be efficiently excreted. (See the article in this publication on Liver Detoxification.)


Restrictive eating plans

If your detox program is extremely restrictive you will lose weight, but the weight loss will consist of water and lean muscle tissue rather than body fat. Since these diets put you into starvation mode, your body hangs on to every calorie to conserve energy. The loss of lean muscle mass will further dampen your calorie-burning ability since your muscle stores work as your body’s own fat-burning machine. Once you revert to your old eating habits, your metabolism will have slowed down, you will have less muscle mass and you will likely regain the weight.

Restrictive detox diets can also be lacking in fibre. A high-fibre diet is essential to successful detoxification as fibre binds to the excreted toxins in the bowel and carries them out of the body. Restrictive detox diets are also deficient in many nutrients that your body needs, not only for proper detoxification but also for maintaining all your bodily functions.

A nutritionally assisted detoxification program is a much better way to rid your body of toxins while conserving essential tissues and promoting a healthy body composition of fat and fluids with muscles and organs. After a balanced detox program is undertaken, your metabolism will become more efficient at generating energy and eliminating wastes. The purpose of a good detoxification program is to support all the organs of elimination in their normal processes, stimulate the eliminatory processes to clear and filter toxins and remove any extra burdens on these organs to allow them to function at an optimum level.


After the detox is over…

After the detox diet is over:

  • Rebuild your body with nutrient-dense wholefoods, continue eating a wide array of vegetables, fruits and wholefoods and pursue healthy lifestyle and exercise habits.
  • Continue to limit the amount of processed foods in your normal diet. Do not end the detox with a binge on high-fat/sugar foods and/or alcohol as this could have unpleasant side effects.
  • Continue to drink plenty of purified or spring water throughout the day as this helps to flush toxins out of your body.
  • Eat smaller meals regularly rather than big meals that leave you full and tired. Eat enough to satisfy your hunger but do not over-indulge.
  • Try not to eat a large meal close to bedtime, as you won’t be able to digest your food completely.
  • Avoid drinking large amounts of liquids at the same time as eating your food.
  • By completing a balanced detox program you will be more aware of the impact diet and lifestyle have on your health.


Detox programs are not recommended in pregnancy and when breastfeeding, when taking certain medications or for those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypoglycaemia, heart disease, anaemia, eating disorders, impaired immunity, cancer, kidney and liver disorders, states of extreme weakness or malnutrition and low or high blood pressure. If a person has a long history of taking extremely toxic drugs such as certain chemotherapeutic agents, an intense period of detoxification such as water fasting can cause damage to the kidneys. Those suffering from alcohol or drug dependency or who are taking prescribed medications should consult their medical professional before undertaking a detox.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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