You might be considering a detox — but do they really work and what can you do instead to improve your health for the new year? HFG dietitian Caroline Trickey investigates.
During the first few weeks of the year we’re often bombarded with detox adverts that come with enticing claims: lose weight fast, boost your immune system, flush out nasty toxins, make your skin glow. But what does the science say? Is detoxing even needed?
What is a detox?
The word ‘detox’ was originally used to describe a treatment for drug addictions but is now used to mean ‘cleanse’, and in nutrition to describe one of three typical diet regimes:
- A liquid diet of specified juices, teas, smoothies, or soups, usually with supplements thrown in.
- A restrictive diet that cuts out alcohol, caffeine, sugar, red meat, processed foods, fatty foods, wheat and dairy, and includes only certain types of fruit, veg and water.
- A suite of supplements and products to promote bowel movements that will ‘clear out’ your bowels.
Why do people detox?
The promise of health benefits is certainly alluring. For some, it’s an attempt to kick-start a healthy life or to ‘fix’ unhealthy habits — and some people do feel better initially, particularly if their diet previously was poor. But more likely, the quick results that detox promises can be the main reason we try it: we want results now!
Can detoxing be harmful?
Yes, it can be. Depending on the method, detoxing can initially cause nausea, headaches, fatigue, hunger and dehydration to the point where you may get ‘hangry.’
A detox regime based on extreme calorie restriction can leave your body nutritionally unbalanced and feeling starved. Too long on such a regime and you will miss out on important nutrients, which can put you at risk of extreme fatigue and even malnutrition. Prolonged detoxing can also increase problems such as constipation and interfere with hair growth.
Some popular detoxes may actually suppress natural detoxification pathways in certain people. Colonic ‘cleansing’ has been shown to have several adverse effects. Continually cleaning out the bowel could potentially remove the healthy bacteria that live there — the very bacteria that play a role in immune health, gut health, metabolism and nutrient absorption.
Many detox regimes don’t teach us about how to make positive, sustainable changes to our diet: they may make food the enemy and create unnecessary anxiety about it. They can also set some people up to ‘yo-yo’ diet, and trigger disordered eating in others.
Importantly, while the scales may go down, it’s probably not body fat you’re losing, but fluid, digested food matter, stored carbohydrates and important electrolytes that make your body function optimally. Once you go back to your normal way of eating, you will put this weight back on.
If you’re after long-term lasting benefits, it’s highly unlikely that a detox will provide them for you.
Do we need to detox?
Many detox regimes still remain popular, despite any convincing evidence that a detox will actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health.
The good news is that your body naturally detoxes itself every single day — without you even having to think about it!
Your liver, kidney, your lungs, your gastrointestinal tract and immune system are constantly breaking down and excreting multiple waste products within hours of eating. Through bowel movements, sweating and even breathing, your body is constantly getting rid of waste products. If it didn’t, toxins would be sitting around in your blood for weeks, making you very ill indeed!
What to try instead
You can help your body cleanse itself by reducing the intake of substances that make your liver and kidneys work overtime. These include alcohol, drugs and an excessive protein intake. But avoid a restrictive mindset and focus on foods you can add for their nutritional benefits. These can ‘crowd out’ the less healthy options. If you want to get back on track, here are five strategies — instead of a detox — that will actually contribute to your long-term health:
1 Increase your fibre
Often referred to as ‘the broom that sweeps your digestive tract,’ fibre is the undigested part of food that travels all the way along your gut, taking as it goes any waste products and helping you get rid of them through bowel movements.
To help you reach your recommended daily 30g fibre to support this process, aim to eat 10-plus grams of fibre per meal, and 3g of fibre when snacking. Use this handy guide to help you estimate fibre:
- Chickpeas: 1/2 cup = 6g fibre
- Vegetables: 1 cup = 4g fibre
- Fruit (most): medium piece = 3g fibre
- Raspberries: 1 cup = 6g fibre
- Kiwifruit: 2 = 6g fibre
- Wholegrain bread: 1 slice =2g-4g fibre
- Quinoa, cooked: 1 cup = 5g fibre
- Oates, uncooked: 1/2 cup = 4g fibre
- High-fibre breakfast cereal: 1/2 cup = 6g fibre
- Chia: 1 tablespoon = 5g fibre
2 Stay hydrated
Water is all you really need to help flush toxins out of your body. This includes spring water, mineral water, filtered or distilled water and herbal (caffeine-free) tea.
Most people still don’t drink enough water, which is essential to help your kidneys and bowels function at their best. To boost your fluid intake, have a glass of water when you first wake up, then one before every meal, including snacks.
Many people tend to mistake thirst for hunger, so if you are feeling hungry and it’s not a meal time, try drinking a glass of water, wait 10 minutes, and see if the hunger goes away.
3 Add a serve of veg to your day
As well as being packed with vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytonutrients, veggies support your body’s own natural detox system — especially leeks, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic, onions, artichokes, radishes and spinach. Here’s how to fill up on these and other veg to sideline other less healthy foods.
4 Consider how you eat
While everyone’s focused on what to eat, many don’t give much thought to the actual process of eating. Your digestive system is doing its best to break down food, but can you help it along? Think about how you currently eat. Perhaps you could benefit from slowing down? Or chewing your food more? Maybe you’re always in a hurry when you eat, and could take a break from eating on the run or checking emails.
Your best digestion happens when you’re relaxed. Observe how you eat over the following 12–24 hours and see if there’s one thing you can do to help your digestive system do its job.
5 Detox your environment
If there’s anything in your environment that encourages detoxing and crazy diets (and that can include social media), give it a break!
Create an environment that supports your desire to be healthy and feel good, for good!
The same goes for any less-than-healthy foods in your cupboards or fridge. Put them where you can’t see them. Reduce temptation by losing tempting indulgences and restocking with nutritious, filling and tasty snacks and drinks. Store these healthy foods in easy-to-reach, eye-catching places in the fridge, freezer or pantry. Cut up fruit and vegetables and store them at eye level in the fridge. Maybe write out a weekly meal plan and put it on the front of your fridge. It’s easy to be healthy!
Crowd out less healthy foods
- Add tomato, spinach or mushrooms to your eggs for breakfast.
- Make a big salad or coleslaw (store the salad undressed) to form the base of your lunches for the week ahead, or to eat with your sandwich.
- When it’s cooler, cook up a big pot of veggie soup to freeze and enjoy as a speedy meal or snack.
- Roast a tray of vegetables on the weekend to have ready to add to lunches or dinners — either cold or warmed slightly.
- Cut up veggies to eat for a snack on their own, or scoop into veggie-based dips such as avocado or beetroot.
- Use veggies in baking. Try zucchini/courgette bread, or delicious sweet potato brownies.
Extreme calorie restriction can leave you nutritionally unbalanced and cleaning out your bowel via detoxing can also remove healthy gut bacteria