Detox Diets: Fact or Fiction?

Detox Diets: Fact or Fiction?

Health advocacy of "detox" diets is based on fasting as a spiritual practice. Celebrities have undertaken detox diets to prepare for film roles. Fasting is not only important in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but for observant Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Eliminating toxins from the body is a major purpose for alternative and complementary medicine devotees—and colon cleansing is a twin aspect.

Do Detox Diets Work for Weight Loss?

The health risks of "detox" and "crash" diets actually outweigh the benefits.  People who severely limit calorie intake to lose weight generally experience a high level of hunger—which promotes binge eating episodes. According to the Mayo Clinic, detox diets usually involve consuming only raw vegetables, fruit juices, and water (and there is little evidence to support that detox diets are successful over the long-term). 

Losing weight too rapidly can cause cardiac stress and arrhythmias, as well as nutritional deficiencies (such as low potassium and iron levels).  Likewise, colon cleansing (with an enema) will not result in weight loss, and is an unhealthy practice in most instances. 

Do Detox Diets Remove Toxins?

In the 1970s, Stanley Burroughs (a naturopath) developed a detox plan called "The Master Cleanse"—which exploded in popularity following a Hollywood celebrity adherence to it (per an article in Today’s Dietician). Since then, popular magazines and online media have widely marketed the concept of detox diets for removing toxins from the body. However, the New York University Langone Medical Center reports no scientific evidence to support claims that detox diets actually remove any toxic substances. 

Diet Programs as Big Business 

Fad diets, including detox programs profit enormously from consumers of their products. 

According to an article on the BBC News website, estimated annual spending on diet products in the U.S. is $40-100 billion. Women are the primary targets (and consumers) of these products. Commercial weight loss centers make approximately two billion dollars each year (per Bennett and DiLorenzo's 2001 book Public Health Profiteering).

While carbonated beverages and breakfast cereals with a high sugar content are extensively marketed to children, there has been a growing problem of youth obesity over the past 20 years—resulting in an explosion of fad weight loss programs aimed at those between the ages of 14-18 years old.

Weight Loss Diet Promotion and Anorexia

The eating disorder termed anorexia nervosa primarily affects adolescent girls and women, and is characterized by intentional weight loss to an abnormally low BMI. In addition, fear of gaining weight in afflicted persons contributes to a related mental health disorder called bulimia—in which vomiting is used for weight control and loss. Fifty percent of individuals with eating disorders meet the diagnostic criteria for depression (according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders). Likewise, the suicide rate due to anorexia is one of the highest of any mental health disorders, per an article in Social Work Today.

Psychological Benefits of Occasional Fasting

Fasting is associated with self-discipline in many spiritual practices. As such, it can foster a sense of achievement in people who fast on an occasional basis. A feeling of well-being and inner peace is also experienced by individuals who fast as part of a spiritual practice.  Since mental health and physical health are intertwined, fasting may actually be a healthful choice for some people under specific circumstances.