What does it really mean to eat clean? And is a detox diet an effective way to cleanse your body and kick start weight loss?
The word toxin gets thrown around a lot more than it should these days, to the point that we no longer really understand what is truly toxic to us and what isn’t. Yes, bad dietary choices can make you feel bloated, constipated, tired and like you need to flush some things out. But this doesn’t always require drastic measures like a full detox diet. Even small changes in your eating habits can do wonders for your health, how you feel, and might also help you lose more weight in the process.
So instead of spending your money on expensive supplements and relying on quick-fix solutions, here is some evidenced backed advice on how to clean up your diet and detox your body naturally to improve your health and support your fat loss efforts.
What is a Detox?
Detoxification (detox) is essentially the process of ridding your body of toxins.
Originating from treatment used in drug and alcohol recovery, the concept of detoxification has crept into the diet world, applying a similar approach to potential toxins in food and the environment. A detox diet typically involves fasting, various herbal supplements, laxatives and other methods used to flush your system.
What are Toxins?
The word toxin is often used to describe anything that might negatively impact your health. This could include added sugar, artificial ingredients, pesticides, and chemicals from household cleaners. But not all toxins are created equal, or even well defined for that matter. Too much of anything can be toxic – even essential vitamins and minerals, which is why we have upper limits for these nutrients.
True toxins are dangerous and can cause disease or harm at low concentrations – like food borne pathogens, environmental pollutants, and poison.
Are There Toxins in Your Food?
Generally speaking, food in the U.S. is considered perfectly safe, and toxins are not something you should be highly concerned about. But, this also depends on who you ask.
Our food supply is tightly regulated by the FDA and USDA, governing food safety standards through ingredients, processing, and supply chain. These government organizations are responsible for monitoring and acting in our defense to reduce potential harm. But this process is not perfect or seamless since it is nearly impossible to control all environmental factors and scenarios – hence the food recalls we see.
But there is a lot of hot debate around many practices used in our food production, with some studies suggesting certain processing techniques or added ingredients could be harmful in high amounts or within certain populations (1,2). In addition, some artificial ingredients and processing techniques, like the use of GMOs, are banned in other countries. This has led some people to believe that our food contains artificial ingredients, preservatives, and chemicals that can harm our health. But the research just isn’t that clear cut, and most of these claims have never been proven (3,4).
Also, the FDA and USDA don’t regulate the overall nutrition of your diet – and research does suggest that the quality of your food choices long term can have a significant impact on your health, weight and overall well-being.
Bottom line, it is impossible to avoid all “toxins” from food, water, and the environment, but your risk of harm is likely pretty low to begin with. If you are concerned, you can limit your exposure to questionable ingredients and chemicals by eating more organic food, decreasing your intake of heavily processed foods, and living a healthy lifestyle. Plus, your body has an efficient way of detoxing your system naturally, reducing your risk even further.
How to Detox Your Body
Your body is actually very good at eliminating harmful substances on its own. And the liver is particularly good at filtering out toxins. Your liver works 24-hours a day and has three main roles: storing nutrients, producing enzymes, and hormones, and processing various bodily elements. This processing function involves filtering out toxins and byproducts from your blood, by turning these toxins into less harmful substances, like bile, or filtering them out of your system.
In a healthy liver, daily detoxification occurs naturally. Overloading your liver with toxins can impair its function, but only in the case of exposure to dangerous toxins or continued drug and alcohol use. In addition, poor dietary choices long-term can lead to poor liver health (fatty liver), increased inflammation and increased risk of chronic disease (5). However, this is typically the result of a poor diet and not liver function.
While a healthy diet is important for long term liver health, a special diet isn’t always necessary. Moreover, there isn’t any research showing that these types of diets are effective in detoxifying your body (6). In fact, some detox diets can can be dangerous.
Detox Diets for Weight Loss
A detox diet is not necessarily designed for weight loss, although many claim detoxifying your body can support weight loss in a few different ways. However, there isn’t any scientific backing to these theories.
As far as we know, calorie control still remains the most effective approach to weight management. Fasting and cleanses can help you cut a significant amount of calories, which often results in weight loss, but there is no research suggesting that the actual act of “detoxifying” produces better results (6). In addition, most detox diets are short-lived, less than two weeks, and result in mainly water weight losses. Fat loss requires much more time than that.
Drastic diets also do not do a great job at instilling the behaviors and knowledge needed to continue to lose weight, which is why so many will regain any weight loss as soon as they resume their normal diet.
Detox Diet vs. Cleanse
There are a number of popular detox diets on the market ranging from cleanses supported with supplements to eating clean. However, not all diets are created equal. A detox diet is specifically designed to remove toxins, whereas a dietary cleanse could be as simple as just cleaning up your diet. Thus, certain dietary cleanses may have more merit when it comes to improving your health and helping you lose weight.
But again, there isn’t any research indicating that a dietary cleanse offers a unique benefit to detoxing or fat loss outside of calorie control and improved nutrition. So the best cleanse diets are those that opt for a well-rounded approach to healthy eating – focused mainly on cutting out empty calories and heavily processed foods and increasing your intake of nutrient-dense foods, all while maintaining the right amount of calories for you to lose weight effectively.
We’ve established that detox diets are not necessary to cleanse your system and likely have little to no additional advantages for weight loss. So why are so many “experts” still shouting about their benefits? Here are some of the most common claims surrounding these diets that are driving the confusion, as well as a closer look at what the science actually says:
Claim #1 – Detox diets and cleanses reduce the amount of work your liver has to do, by decreasing the amount of total food or additional dietary toxins you ingest and need to process, thus optimizing its ability to detox your body fully.
The Facts: There is no research to support this in healthy individuals. You cannot hack your bodily processes in this way. Your liver is designed to be a multitask-er and stopping one function doesn’t necessarily optimize another – just as stopping your heartbeat won’t help you breathe more efficiently. Processing food, removing toxins and producing important bodily compounds simultaneously are all well within the normal range of function for a healthy liver. And likewise, you cannot speed up this process either.
That being said, improving your nutrition is beneficial to your long-term liver health and managing disease (7). But this requires a lifestyle shift in your eating and a generally healthy diet for the long haul, not a cleanse.
Claim #2 – You store toxins in your fat cells, and losing weight allows toxins to leak out into your blood which can negatively affect your metabolism, health, and ability to keep losing weight – doing a detox diet can help remove these toxins and speed up weight loss.
The Facts: While there is some truth to the potential of toxins accumulating in fat cells, there isn’t any good science to show detox diets are the way to get rid of them. In fact they probably don’t have anything to do with food at all.
You can store certain toxins in your fat cells, which are then slowly released and processed for removal over time (8). However, these toxins are typically from dangerous environmental pollutants (POPs), not food. And this is not something a majority of us need to be concerned with.
If you’ve been exposed to these pollutants, weight loss may cause a short-term increase in blood levels of the toxins. But research does not suggest that this increase in blood levels is harmful to health, metabolism or weight loss efforts (9). And in one study levels normalized overtime without any need for intervention (10).
You cannot do a fast/cleanse to remove the toxins first. And since fat loss takes quite a bit of time – more than 2 weeks, removing fat cell toxins would require a much more long term approach. Also, since these toxins are environmental, your diet has little impact on exposure and detoxification.
Claim #3 – Eating a diet high in preservatives and artificial ingredients can increase toxins in your body and make it harder to lose weight.
The Facts: There is no research to suggest that food based toxins can negatively effect metabolism or your ability to lose weight. However, emerging research implies that the quality of your diet (aka how much nutritious food you eat) may play some role in supporting weight loss through thermogenesis, appetite control, and nutrition intake – all of which can be achieved with a balanced, healthy diet (11,12).
How to Cleanse Your Body Naturally
Outside of allowing your liver to do it’s job, there are a few things you can do to continually improve your health and ability to lose weight.
- Eat a calorie controlled diet. Cutting calories is still your best approach to losing weight.
- Choose the best quality foods for weight loss. Lean proteins, fiber rich grains and nutrient dense veggies, can all support fat loss.
- Get plenty of exercise to increase your calorie burn, maintain lean mass, and promote better health.
- Control stress and get plenty of sleep.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Decrease your consumption of alcohol.
- Stop smoking.
- Decrease your intake of added sugars, trans fats, and empty calories.