Does detoxing actually work? Here's the truth about undoing that Thanksgiving food frenzy.

Does detoxing actually work? Here's the truth about undoing that Thanksgiving food frenzy.
Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Like SoulCycle and CrossFit, detoxing has become yet another trendy method claiming to improve your health, although it seems questionable.

Fasting entirely, drinking only juice, soup or tea for a number of days in a row or purifying your insides with black charcoal beverages may not necessarily be the most pleasant experiences, but these detoxes claim to clean out your inner systems and improve your overall health — not a terrible compromise for three days of subsisting on soup. 

But if there were really one single, not-super-challenging way to improve our health, wouldn't we all just be doing it? Especially post-Thanksgiving binge?

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"The body naturally detoxes itself every day, all day long," Anna King, a clinical dietitian at Indiana University Health, said in an email. "The liver and kidneys are major players in detoxing the body naturally through metabolic processes; they process and eliminate toxins through sweat, urine and stool. Our bodies are experts at eliminating the unwanted byproducts of our diet."

Go bodies!

So what's the deal with beverages and diet plans that claim to be legit detoxes? 

"Most detox diets are very calorie-restrictive and eliminate several food groups, which fails to provide the essential protein, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function and metabolize effectively," King said. So no, that fancy juice cleanse Gwyneth Paltrow swears by isn't a silver bullet. "Detox diets are not recommended. Instead, there are several things you can do to support a healthy diet and immune system without severely limiting your intake."

Sorry...
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But... I've heard of people losing weight on juice and soup cleanses!

Weight loss is certainly possible when cutting back on calories and restricting your diet, but if you think three days of consuming only liquids and then returning to your normal eating habits is going to have lasting effects, well ... it's not. 

"Unfortunately, as most people learn the hard way, juice cleansing can be extremely unrealistic, hard to maintain for a long period of time and leave you feeling even hungrier or craving more foods when you're finished," dietician Lisa Moskovitz told Mic in February.

And even if you do drop a few pounds, it's probably not going to stick. "While you might lose a few pounds during the detox, most, if not all, of this is water weight," Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said via email. "When you cut down on carbohydrate and salt intake, you lose water. This weight loss isn't true weight loss, and as soon as you start eating a regular diet, the pounds will go back on." 

Some juicing > other juicing, though.
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But those charcoal cleanses must work, right? 

No, of course not. While activated charcoal is cool for dying ice cream black and all, it's not a great detox ingredient. Activated charcoal — charcoal made for medicinal uses and human consumption rather than for powering an oven — binds to toxins in your stomach, and can be used as a way to treat poisoning or negate the effects of a harmful substance that you consumed. However, there is no evidence that any type of detox, including a detox in which a person drinks activated charcoal beverages, works to lose weight, Livestrong reported.


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Even worse, consuming activated charcoal could deplete the food in your system of its natural nutrients. Since it bonds to vitamins like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), thiamine (vitamin B1) and biotin, activated charcoal can potentially make the healthy dinner you ate even less nutritious than if you just ate a standard healthy meal. 

As nutritional consultant Mike Roussell explained in Shape in 2014, activated charcoal "doesn't discriminate between 'good' and 'bad'" and "may bind nutrients and phytochemicals from fruit and vegetables and prevent their absorption by your body," meaning that the green juice with activated charcoal added into it isn't necessarily such a good addition after all. 

What to do instead of a juice cleanse

Instead of detoxing, King recommends staying hydrated by drinking water (not any expensive "health beverage"), increasing your fruit and vegetable intake — King recommends 5 to 9 servings per day of fruits and vegetables — and ensuring you're getting enough fiber in your diet to maintain a healthy digestive system and to help lower cholesterol. To get your daily recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, try eating whole grains, brown rice and beans. 

Bye, Detox
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Think about whole foods instead of just its juice. "Instead of doing a few day cleanse or juice diet, for lasting health benefits, you should increase your fruit, vegetable, whole grain and water intake on a daily basis," Rumsey said. "By eating more whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods, you will help your body function at an optimum level."

Skip the juice, binge on fruits and veggies and maybe even consider cutting words like diet and cleanse from your vocabulary. 

"Diets don't work because anything you are going on, you will eventually go off," Rumsey said. "By using the word diet, you limit yourself to thinking in black and white: you're on a diet, or you're off of it. But this isn't how it works in real life. It isn't a sustainable way to change your eating habits. Eventually, as it gets to be too hard or too much work to stay on the diet, you'll go back to your prior eating habits, and the weight usually goes right back on."

In place of dieting, Rumsey recommends trying the 80/20 strategy, which involves making smart, nutritious food choices 80% of the time and cutting yourself some slack for the rest. Bring on the post-vegetable feast desserts (but just a little)!