Detoxification diets, or detox diets for short, are a group of short-term diets intended to release accumulated toxins and waste products from the body. They are based on a theory of digestion and elimination usually associated with naturopathy, an alternative medical system that emphasizes the role of nutrition in restoring or improving the body’s own self-healing properties. In general, detox diets emphasize the following:
- Minimal intake of chemicals on or in food by choosing organic or non-processed foods
- Increased intake of fruits, vegetables, and other foods thought to aid the process of detoxification
- Increased intake of foods and fluids that speed up the processes of urination and defecation
Detoxification diets can be categorized into several subgroups: raw food diets, which are based on the premise that uncooked foods prevent the accumulation of toxins in the digestive system; mono diets, in which the dieter consumes only one or two foods (sometimes in liquid form only) for a period of 10–14 days; juice fasting, in which the dieter consumes large quantities of fruit and vegetable juices along with water and herbal teas for one to three days; and vegetarian or semi-vegetarian detox diets, which allow the dieter some variety of cooked whole grains, steamed vegetables, fresh fruit, and small amounts of protein foods as well as several glasses of water and herbal teas each day.
Detoxification diets as a general practice can be traced back over 5,500 years to an annual ritual of bodily and spiritual preparation known as pancha karma, which is part of the practice of Ayurvedic medicine in India. Ayurveda is a traditional system of health care that dates back to about 3500 BC; its name is Sanskrit for “science of long life.” Pancha karma is undergone for disease prevention, which in Ayurvedic practice requires spiritual renewal and the breaking of negative emotional patterns as well as physical purification. It has three phases: a preparation phase, in which the person eliminates sweets, caffeinated drinks, and processed foods from the diet, as well as spending more time in meditation and taking walks in natural surroundings; the cleansing phase, which includes bloodletting, emesis (forced vomiting), nasal cleansing, and the use of enemas and laxatives as well as a very restricted diet of grains and vegetables; and a rejuvenation phase, in which solid foods are gradually reintroduced to the diet. Practitioners of Ayurveda in Canada and the United States generally omit vomiting and bloodletting in the second phase of pancha karma.
In Europe and North America the most important factor in the popularity of detoxification diets is naturopathy, an alternative approach to health care developed out of the natural healing movement in Germany and North America in the late nineteenth century. Naturopathy is closely connected with vegetarianism, particularly its raw-food offshoot. Naturopaths of the twenty-first century use a variety of techniques in treating patients, including hydrotherapy, spinal manipulation, and physical therapy as well as nutrition and dietary advice. There has been a revival of interest in naturopathy in the United States since the 1980s.
Naturopaths frequently recommend detoxification diets as a way of ridding the body of various toxins that they identify as coming from several sources:
- Heavy metals. These include such substances as cadmium, arsenic, nickel, aluminum, chromium, mercury, vanadium, strontium, antimony, cobalt, and lead, which are used in various manufacturing processes and some medical procedures as well as being present in batteries, electronic equipment, coins, cookware, food containers, and other common household items.
- Toxic chemicals taken directly into the digestive tract through alcoholic beverages, pesticide residues on supermarket produce, additives in processed foods, or drugs of abuse; or taken into the respiratory tract through breathing household solvents (nail polish remover, spot or stain removers containing benzene, etc.).
- Toxins in the digestive tract produced by yeast and other microorganisms. Ridding the body of this group of toxins is frequently cited as a reason for combining laxatives or enemas with detoxification diets. Mainstream physicians dispute the notion that normal digestion produces toxic substances in the colon that must be removed by a laxative or enema.
- Ammonia, urea, and other breakdown products of protein metabolism. Naturopaths often recommend a vegetarian lifestyle as well as periodic intensive detoxification practices in order to minimize the production of these byproducts of meat and dairy consumption.
A third factor that has contributed to interest in detox diets in the 1990s and early 2000s is the environmental movement. Some people who are concerned about the impact on the environment of raising animals for food use detox diets as a transition into a long-term vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. In addition, growing awareness of the effects of exposure to industrial chemicals, pesticides, secondhand tobacco smoke, and other contaminants in the home environment as well as the workplace has led many people to consider detoxification diets as a preventive health practice to lower their risk of arthritis and other degenerative diseases.
Practitioners of alternative medicine generally recommend the warmer months as the best time of year for a detox diet, although some dieters prefer January in order to counteract the effects of overindulgence in food and drink during the holidays. Many people suggest beginning a detox diet on the weekend or scheduling time off from work in order to allow time for extra rest if needed. Detox diets are usually used only once or twice a year.
Many detoxification diet books include a questionnaire or symptom checklist to help readers evaluate whether they need detoxification. The following list is typical; more than four “yes” answers indicates the individual could benefit from a detox diet:
- Do you have only one bowel movement per day, or only one every other day?
- Do you take prescription, recreational, or over-the-counter drugs?
- Do you eat meat more than twice a week?
- Do you eat fast foods or processed foods?
- Do you smoke, or are you exposed to secondhand smoke?
- Do you have any skin problems or digestive gas and bloating?
- Do you drink alcohol?
- Do you live in a major city?
- Do you drink tap water, coffee, or soda?
- Do you feel tired, sleep poorly, or have low energy?
Individuals considering a detox diet should prepare by cutting down gradually on caffeinated beverages a week to 10 days before the diet, as sudden elimination of these drinks often causes headaches. Dieters should also reduce their intake of sugary foods, chocolate, alcohol, dairy products, foods high in fat, foods containing wheat or yeast, and grains containing gluten (an elastic protein found in barley and rye). Recommended foods for detox diets (except the mono diets) include fresh organic fruits and vegetables; rice (both brown and basmati rice), rice cakes, and rice pasta; other grains such as millet, quinoa, and buckwheat; beans, lentils, and dried green or yellow peas; unsalted nuts; seeds; olive oil; and herbal teas. The dieter should plan to drink at least eight glasses of filtered or other non-tap water per day on a detox diet.
At the end of a detox diet, the dieter should return gradually to a full diet, perhaps vegetable soup or steamed vegetables the first day. They should not add fruits or vegetables until the second or third day.
Raw food detox diets consist of foods that have not been heated above 92° to 118°F (33° to 48°C). These diets are based on the belief that raw foods have higher nutrient value and contain enzymes that assist digestion, allowing the other enzymes in the body to regulate other biological processes. Raw foodists also believe raw foods prevent obesity by lowering excessive food consumption, and their high fiber content helps detoxify the body by speeding up digestion and elimination.
In a juice fast, the dieter is instructed to drink between 32 and 64 oz. of fruit or vegetable juice per day, in addition to six glasses of warm filtered water. Although some modified juice fasts allow a small quantity of steamed vegetables, most are short-term liquid diets. Some therapists recommend one or more cups of herbal tea each day in addition to the juice and water. The juice must be fresh, obtained from organic fruits and vegetables processed through a juicer or juice extractor. Prepackaged juices cannot be used for a juice fast because they have been pasteurized. In addition, fresh juice must be consumed within a half hour of extraction; it cannot be refrigerated.
Mono diets are detox diets in which the dieter consumes only one food, usually apples, grapes, or some other fruit or vegetable, or one liquid, for a period of 10 to 14 days. The oldest mono diet is the so-called Miracle Grape Cure, attributed to Johanna Brandt, a woman from South Africa who claimed that eating grapes cured her of stomach cancer. In a book she published in 1928, Brandt stated that she alternated 12 hours of drinking only natural (unchlorinated) water with 12 hours of eating only purple grapes or drinking grape juice made from purple grapes. Recent modifications of this diet recommend following Brandt’s plan to the letter for five weeks, followed by one week of a raw-food vegetarian diet.
The best-known mono diet is variously known as the Master Cleanser, lemonade diet, or maple syrup diet. Stanley Burroughs is generally credited with inventing this diet in 1941, although he did not publish it in book form until 1976. His book, which is only about fifty pages long, is still in print even though Burroughs died in 1991. The Master Cleanser involves drinking a mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and grade B maple syrup for a period of 10 to 14 days. The lemon/maple syrup drink is then followed by drinking a “saltwater flush,” which is supposed to purge toxins from the stomach and bowels. This diet was popularized in the early 2000s by a book by Peter Glickman titled Lose Weight, Have More Energy and Be Happier in 10 Days, which is a modernization of Burrough’s regimen.
Less stringent detox diets that allow some protein foods have been published; a typical example is the following diet plan for a week-long detox regimen by Elson Haas. Haas begins with general guidelines for the dieter:
- Eat slowly and chew the food well.
- Relax for a few minutes before and after each meal.
- Eat in a comfortable sitting position.
- Drink only herbal teas (peppermint, chamomile, or pau d’arco) after dinner.
The daily diet plan:
Morning: two glasses of filtered or spring water, one glass with half a lemon squeezed into it.
Breakfast: One piece of fresh fruit at room temperature, followed 15 to 30 minutes later by a bowl of cooked whole grains (millet, buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice, or amaranth), flavored with 2 Tbsp. of fruit juice.
Lunch: One or two medium bowls of steamed vegetables, using a variety of root vegetables, leafy vegetables, asparagus, cabbage, kale, or others. A maximum of 3 tsp. daily of a mixture of butter and canola or olive oil can be used for seasoning.
Dinner: Same as lunch.
Mid-morning and midafternoon: One or two cups of vegetable water saved from the steamed vegetables, with a little sea salt or kelp added.
A small portion (3 or 4 oz) of a protein food (fish, organic chicken, lentils, black beans, or garbanzo beans) may be eaten midafternoon if the dieter feels weak or extremely hungry.
An important part of many detoxification diets is the use of laxatives or enemas to cleanse the lower digestive tract. The removal of wastes is considered essential to prevent toxins in the intestines from being reabsorbed into the bloodstream. Some alternative therapists recommend mixtures of slippery elm or other herbs to cleanse the colon; others prefer saltwater laxatives, enemas, or colonics for cleansing the bowel. A colonic is a procedure in which a large amount of water, sometimes as much as 20 gal (76 L), is infused into the colon through the rectum a few pints at a time. It differs from an enema in that much more fluid is used; and a colonic is infused into the colon, whereas an enema infuses water or a cleansing solution into the rectum only. Mainstream physicians do not recommend colonics on the grounds that they are unnecessary, based on a nineteenth-century misunderstanding of the process of digestion, and very often uncomfortable for the patient. In some cases they pose serious risks to health.
Some therapists recommend the use of such dietary supplements as multivitamins, vitamin C, choline and methionine, milk thistle, or a laxative tea known as Smooth Move during a detox diet. These supplements are supposed to aid liver function and decrease such side effects of detox diets as headaches and nausea.
Many advocates of detox diets suggest the use of meditation, affirmations, yoga, and other spiritual practices in order to improve the mental and emotional wellbeing. Others recommend undertaking the detox diet at a health spa, where such services as massage therapy, sauna baths, and whirlpool therapy or other forms of hydrotherapy are available.
The primary function of detoxification diets is physical purification—removal of toxic substances from the body including the skin and respiratory system as well as the digestive tract—in order to raise energy levels; relieve such minor health complaints as poor skin, bad breath, or headaches; and improve the body’s ability to heal from various diseases. These diets are not primarily intended as weight reduction regimens.
Some people undertake detoxification diets as part of a general religious or spiritual retreat. The first stage of Ayurvedic pancha karma includes extra time given to meditation and nature walks as well as gradual exclusion of stimulants and solid foods from the diet. Many people also report relief from insomnia or other symptoms of emotional stress as a side benefit of detoxification diets.
Detoxification diets are sometimes recommended for the treatment of specific diseases and disorders, most commonly arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and depression, but they have also been claimed to be an effective treatment for severe infections (including AIDS) and cancer. However, there is insufficient evidence to support such claims.
Claimed benefits of detox diets include higher energy levels, increased mental clarity and ability to concentrate, clearer skin, improved digestion, and more restful sleep. Many of these improvements may simply be due to better hydration as such diets encourage high fluid intake. Some people also lose weight on detox diets, but emphasize that weight reduction should never be the primary purpose of following one of these regimens.
In general, anyone considering a detoxification diet should consult a health professional beforehand. Some serious diseases, including cancer, may have minor symptoms at onset, including headaches, low back pain, and fatigue. These symptoms can easily be misattributed to stress or poor eating habits. Some therapists recommend requesting blood, urine, stool, and liver function tests from a physician before undergoing a detoxification diet.
Individuals who should not undertake a detoxification diet are:
- Pregnant or lactating women.
- People with diabetes, hypothyroidism, heart disease, anorexia or bulimia nervosa, kidney or liver disease, stomach ulcers, impaired immune function, epilepsy, cancer, terminal illness, active infections, or ulcerative colitis.
- People who are underweight.
- People with alcohol or drug addictions.
- People who have recently undergone surgery or treatment for severe burns.