Detox Diets: More Harm Than Charm

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, or so the saying goes. For most of us, our activities of daily living include the care and maintenance of our material possessions – clothes, cars, homes – as well as general personal hygiene. Of course, there are always going to be those extremists among us who feel compelled to take such concepts to the next level…and this may be where the most insidious danger lies.


The process of detoxification, in its simplest form, refers to the removal of environmental and dietary toxins from our bodies, those harmful substances that we either breathe in or consume through food and beverages. Often touted by Hollywood celebrities, this concept is not new: the ancient Greeks and Egyptians lauded its praises, celebrating its ability to promote mental clarity and physical health. When taken to the extreme, however, such practices can become very dangerous, and in some instances even fatal.

Detoxing is based on the concept that our bodies need help shedding unwanted toxins ingested from contaminants in processed foods and the environment. In theory, once free of toxins, the human body will function more effectively, allowing for an increase in metabolism, which may lead to weight loss. Such diets vary vastly in their approach. Some call for a fast of sorts, consuming only juices for days, if not weeks, whereas others begin with the elimination of certain foods such as sugar, white flour and red meat. Usually, a detox diet last for seven to 10 days, with the first days primarily reserved for the consumption of raw foods and fruit/vegetable juices, while the remaining days require strict adherence to a schedule of nutrient and fiber-rich foods, such as fresh vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Several cultures have celebrated the detox diet over the centuries for the health benefits that emerge from simply reducing or eliminating harmful foods, and introducing a toxin-fighting diet rich in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables. Indeed, this scenario has all the makings of a solid awareness of nutrient density. Anecdotal evidence indicates that consuming a “clean” diet might lead to a reduction in headaches and a lessening of their severity. Reports of enhanced ability to concentrate, enlightened creativity and overall mental clarity might be traced to an improved mind-body connection, explainable by the very notion that one is paying attention to what one is consuming, and making prudent and judicious choices. Since staying well hydrated is a key component of any internal cleansing process, many individuals find that their complexions appear glowing and more luminous after embarking upon a detox journey.

If it were to end there, the health of our nation and its inhabitants would be in a much more positive state. Sadly, detox aficionados take the next step, leaping from health-conscious to life threatening. According to Washington University Department of Nutrition Director, Connie Diekman, RD, “Detox diets prey on the vulnerability of dieters with fear tactics while gaining financially by selling products that are not necessary and potentially dangerous.” These products to which Ms. Diekman refers are often herbal supplements which are not tested by the FDA, and colon-cleansing enemas, the use of which can lead to a severe alteration of the body’s electrolyte and fluid balance.

For many, the appeal of such diets is their ability to facilitate a quick shedding of unwanted pounds, albeit in a most unsafe manner. By their very nature, detoxification diets are extremely low in calories; and while this will temporarily drop the number on one’s scale, remaining in such a “fasting state” causes a body to enter what is referred to as conservation mode, in which calories are ultimately burned more slowly. Furthermore, the weight that is actually lost is usually water weight, and the ensuing muscle wasting will cause the undesirable effect of losing resilient skin tone. Frank Sacks, MD, a leading epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “There is no basis in human biology that indicates we need fasting or any other detox formula to detoxify the body because we have our own internal organs and immune system that take care of excreting toxins. Dieters end up in a worse place than where they started, and the weight that is regained is likely to be all fat. Lost muscle has to be added back at the gym.”

Most detox diets are composed of such low calories that following them can lead to malnutrition, dizziness, fatigue and nausea. In addition, restricting certain types of foods or food groups virtually guarantees that the body is likely to miss out on many of the key nutrients needed for optimum health. The use of laxatives in these diets can quickly lead to dehydration, which may require medical treatment if not addressed promptly. When dehydration becomes severe, it can lead to kidney failure, seizures, swelling of the brain, coma and even death.

Is the weight loss really worth the risk? Is “cleansing” in this fashion truly a necessity for better health? Extensive research has indicated that ‘detox’ has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning. The human liver and kidneys have evolved as superb detoxification systems, and strengthening these two organs probably has a more dramatic and positive effect on overall health than any fad diet. Next to the lymphatic system, the kidneys and liver are two of the most important organs of the body when it comes to removing toxins and waste products that travel through our cells. They are fully capable of filtering out environmental poisons in the bloodstream, allowing the entire body to ultimately become toxin-free.

It would seem as though our greatest defense against harmful toxins that inextricably make their way into our bodies would be to shore up our liver and kidney health. This is fairly easy to accomplish. Experts suggest drinking between 8 and 10 glasses of water a day to facilitate the flushing out of unwanted debris. If water is not high on your list of beverages, organic apple juice also has abundant natural cleansing properties.

In addition to ingesting healthy fluids, nature offers up a variety of foods that are particularly high on the list of detoxifying sources. Foods that contain sulfur, a cleansing component, are readily available all year long. Sulfur-containing amino acid–taurine, methionine, cysteine and homocysteine–are probably among the most important, and are absolutely essential for the detoxification action that takes place in the liver. Some of the foods that rank high in their levels of usable sulfur-containing amino acids are eggs, halibut, orange roughy, tuna, chicken breasts, onions, scallions and garlic.

The human body is one of the most complex machines on earth. Its sustainability throughout the centuries is evidence of its highly evolved perfection. As such, processes such as detoxification seem to be effectively accomplished without the interference of extreme measures, especially when such actions can prove detrimental, doing more harm than good. Hollywood may extol the virtues of a quick-fix detox diet. However, prudent attention to clean nutrition will always trump the fads…and good health is always in fashion!












About the Author

Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on

She welcomes your feedback and your comments!


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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