What is a detox? Just doing a quick internet search, you can see that there are just as many recommendations for detoxing your body as warnings against it, which can be very overwhelming and confusing for your average dieter. Not to mention the pages and pages of products and diet plans meant to detox your body for some “low low price”. This is truly confusing.
Detoxification is a rather nebulous term used to describe a process (usually a diet or supplement routine) that is meant to cleanse your system of unspecified toxins. It is easy to get it wrong and really harm your body, but in this article, we are going to help you get it right.
We’re going to clarify what it really means to “detox” and how you can navigate beyond common misconceptions. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to utilize detoxification as a tool to help yourself and get on the path to better nutrition and wellness.
First, there is very little evidence in favor of using a pill, powder or other supplement to cleanse your body of toxins with no coinciding dietary change. In general, most healthy people that consume a healthy, balanced diet have properly functioning kidneys, liver and GI tract that naturally cleanse and detoxify your body. This automatic and ongoing process does not need to be supplemented by any products.
Many of these products on the market are merely laxatives and will do nothing but seriously dehydrate you and some are worse. Use caution when aiding your detox diet with a tea or pill. They can be useful to shed some water weight and rid you of bloat, leading to a psychologically satisfying feeling of increased leanness, but it is easy to overdo it. Exclusively using a cleanse-type supplement while continuing to eat fried, fatty and processed foods indiscriminately is definitely not recommended. This is the WRONG way to detox.
Dietary interventions must be implemented to promote sustained beneficial effects on disease markers and long-term adherence. (1)
So, what is the right way?
The natural detoxification process going on inside your body is both automatic and continuous, but it can be hindered significantly by a diet that is high in saturated fat and highly processed food.
The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of a “detox style” diet, though we are reluctant to use that terminology because of it’s negative connotation associated with the slew of products being toted as cleanses nowadays.
The ideal detox diet usually involves water fasting for a limited period of time (up to 3 days) followed by a slow re-introduction of a limited number of whole, healthy and unprocessed foods.
These diets work by giving your your system a rest to allow your natural detoxification processes to work. This can be incredibly beneficial for several reasons.
Benefits of a Detox Diet
Detox Diets May Slow the Aging Process on a Cellular Level
Cellular cleanup (also known as autophagy) is increased during a fasted state. Studies are starting to show benefits of fasting with neuron centric diseases such as Huntington’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease due to the clearing of waste products in neurons. This slows down the aging process on a cellular level and mitigates damage. (2)
Detox Diets May Help Regulate Satiety Hormones
Fasting helps increase the levels of human growth hormone, aiding in faster muscle repair and growth. It also normalizes your body’s sensitivity to insulin, ghrelin and leptin- the hormones that regulate fat storage and hunger signals. (3) These all play a part in long-term weight management, and can be a viable option for overweight and obese individuals.
Detox Diets Can Make you Feel More Alert and Focused
Detoxes and cleanses have gotten a bad rap for making users feel sluggish during the detox, but that doesn’t have to be the case. A proper detox shifts your calorie intake to healthier food sources, but it does not necessarily have to be an ultra-low calorie diet.
The fasting phase of the detox diet is temporary and has its merits, especially when it comes to resetting body processes for overall health. Hormonal regulation during fasting also produces a good “focused and energetic” feeling. (4) This is primarily attributed to production of “fight or flight” hormones during fasting that are evolutionarily beneficial for hunting. Release of epinephrine and norepinephrine are primarily responsible for this calm and focused feeling as well as a decrease in appetite with prolonged fasting. (5)
Detox Diets Help Kickstart Your Weight loss
Aside from the obvious lower caloric intake, the hormones secreted while fasting are important for fat burning. Primarily an increase in levels of growth hormone and catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine, as referenced above) improve fat loss while sparing lean mass. Catecholamines are the most potent regulators of fat loss in humans (6), so it pays to manipulate your diet to get the best response.
Reboot your Taste Buds with a Detox Diet
We are living in a world filled with an abundance of hyperpalatable food. The specific combination of salt, sugar and fat in many processed foods contribute to that need to just keep eating. (7,8) The more of this type of food we eat, the more we want, and the more it will take to satisfy us.
Taking a break for a while can refresh your taste buds. You may find that after going on a detox diet, you won’t have a taste for sweets or overly salted foods anymore.
Detox Diets Have Psychological Benefits
Aside from these real, physical benefits, there are mental benefits to fasting and eliminating overprocessed convenience food from your diet, even if it is just temporary. A detox diet helps reset your mental hunger cues, gets rid of that uncomfortable bloated feeling you get after overindulging, and puts you in the right mindset for a proper long term diet overhaul.
For many of us, differentiating actual hunger from mental hunger (boredom) is the most difficult part of dieting. Learning how to differentiate between
a mental craving and physical hunger is essential to long-term management.
In the initial stage of your detox, you may experience “toxic hunger” which is a form of withdrawal from pro-inflammatory foods, but this will subside and eventually lead to improved health and weight loss. A micronutrient dense diet mitigates hunger even if it is slightly lower in calories because the quality of the food matters, not just the caloric content. Controlling hunger is key to successful weight loss in the long term, so making the switch to a high nutrient density diet is one of the best steps forward towards achieving that goal. (9)
Low Carb Diet
The other major popular “detox type” fad diet goes by many names: Atkins, Keto, LCHF. By any name, this is a carbohydrate restriction diet. There are various ways of doing a low carb diet, ranging from a short-term carb depletion to long-term low carb diet lifestyle.
There are also various levels of carbohydrate restriction, from moderate carbohydrate (50-100g carbs per day) to very low carbohydrate (0-50g carbs per day) and each have their reported benefits.
Benefits of a Low Carb Diet
Low Carb Diets Lower Risk of Heart Disease
Several studies have shown that there is a relationship between a lower carbohydrate intake and heart disease. In one study on more than 80,000 women, those who followed a low-carbohydrate diet and plant-based protein and fat sources saw as much as a 30 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. (10)
In another study, researchers replaced an already healthy diet with a higher protein, higher fat, lower carbohydrate macronutrient split, and results showed lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, than with the higher-carbohydrate diet. (11)
Low Carb Diets May Help Those with Epilepsy
Studies show that a diet restricted in carbohydrates can benefit certain medical conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and epilepsy. (12) With very low carbohydrates, the body enters ketosis, which is the switching to ketone bodies for fuel. The ketogenic has been used to treat epilepsy patients since the 1920s.
Results show that epileptic patients who follow a ketogenic diet showed considerable improvements in endurance, activity levels, comprehension, and attention. However, there were also some side effects that are related to nutrient and energy deficiencies, particularly weight loss, calcium deficiency, lack of protein, lack of fiber, and even kidney stones. (13)
Low Carb Diets Help Manage Cravings
Proponents of the low carb lifestyle say that, since dietary fat is satiating, it helps to keep overall calorie consumption low, decreases blood sugar fluctuations throughout the day and helps with fat loss by reducing the amount of glucose available for fuel (14), shifting the body’s fuel source to fat storage. While that last point is debatable, the validity of the first two points are well documented.
Individual response to a low-carb diet may vary, though. Some people are very carbohydrate sensitive and feel an increase in cravings proportionate to their level of restriction. (15) Also, athletes may find it difficult to perform and recover completely when taking in less than 100g of carbohydrates per day.
Something to Consider About Low Carb Diets
The diet is anecdotally difficult to maintain long-term (which is when most see optimal benefit). In a recent study out of Harvard University, less than 80% of the people on a low carb (higher fat) diet were still on their plan after 2 years, while 90% of those on low fat diet (higher carb) were still on their plan after the same 2 years. With a sample size of 322, the significance is questionable, however, and in the end, still comes down to individual response.
When it comes to weight loss, the only thing that matters is caloric intake relative to expenditure (16). Studies have repeatedly shown that macronutrient ratios do not matter when we are talking purely about weight loss. (17)
Keeping that in mind, both styles of dieting have real benefits independent of their relative fad-diet status. Both styles of dieting have been shown to slow aging and optimize hormone responsiveness and muscle preservation.
As always, it will come down to individual preference, as some will find it difficult to fast for days at a time, while others will not struggle at all.
It can be easier mentally when approaching things from a temporary standpoint rather than looking down the barrel of giving up fries forever on a low carb lifestyle. The best method is the one you can stick to for the long-term. Short periods of fasting or “detoxing” seem to work for a wide range of people, so play around with it and see if what works best for you.