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New Year, New You: The Facts about Detox Diets

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Detox diets vary a huge amount in the different plans they ask you to follow, what to eat, what not to eat and in some cases telling you to take various detox-ing agents. Detox diets usually encourage cutting back or avoiding some main foods or food groups including wheat, dairy and alcohol as well as all processed foods.

Pictured above ; Louise Reynolds, INDI chatting about the New Year Detox craze on Ireland AM TV3 on Jan 12th 2017

They usually have one thing in common; they are restrictive and difficult to stick to for any length of time. They can be endurance tests of will power and self-denial!

What are detox diets for?

Creators of detox diets base their ideas on an incorrect theory that our bodies are being constantly bombarded by toxins such as cigarette smoke, pollution and pesticides, which it cannot handle. They say that these toxins “build up over time” and because of this cause weight gain, headaches, dull skin and bloating. However, everybody has a liver and kidneys, these organs work by filtering the blood and removing bad toxins from our body naturally - therefore these detoxing ideas are not true. 

Detox diets recommend the use of detox-ing aids or methods. These can be herbal supplements such as milk thistle, pre- and probiotics or even juicing.

  • Milk thistle is thought to improve the workings of the liver and increase its detox-ing function. The jury is still out as to whether this is the case; there is simply not enough evidence at this point. 

  • Pro- and or prebiotics are usually aimed at improving gut and immune health. They also help to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by protecting from damage by various toxins.  

  • Juicing is also a popular detox-ing aid. Some juicing diets focus on having only fruit and/or vegetable juices in your diet for a number of days or weeks. While it is good to increase your fruit and vegetable intake, only including juice in your diet means you are missing other important nutrients such as protein, fats and carbohydrates, which our bodies need every day.

The truth is the body has many organs such as skin, gut, liver and kidney that continually ‘detoxify’ and naturally remove waste products from the body.

Do you need to follow a Detox Diet?

If you have a well balanced diet and include all food groups as recommended in the food pyramid there is no need for detox diets.In reality, people often use them as a kick-start to a new healthy lifestyle, maybe as a new year's resolution. If you want to use a detox diet as a means to healthier you, then short-term use is fine, anything longer may lead to low levels of important nutrients in your body. Check out our food pyramid information sheet as well as the numerous fact sheets on improving the overall quality and balance of your diet in the factsheet section on our website.

I often hear people saying they feel “great” or “healthy” after a detox diet, why is this? The benefits seen can be easily explained; 

  • Fewer headaches? This is likely because you are fully hydrated and have cut back on if not removed completely, you alcohol and/or caffeine intake. 
  • Does your skin look better? Well of course, with all that water you are drinking! It is likely that eating more fruit and vegetables, which are full of healthy vitamins and antioxidants, is giving your skin a healthier glow. 
  • Feeling less bloated? This is often because you have eaten far more fibre. Fibre is found in fruit, vegetables, and wholegrain foods like brown rice, brown pasta or brown bread. Fibre is needed to keep our bowels working regularly and therefore can reduce bloating because our bowels are working much better than before.
  • But I’m losing weight? You are likely to lose weight if you have cut back on calories, high fat, and high-refined sugar foods. You might also have increased your activity level. The weight loss that you experience can often be very rapid, but when you go back to a regular balanced diet you often gain back the weight you lost.

A weight loss of 1 – 2lbs (0.5 – 1kg) per week is a safe and realistic target and studies show you are more likely to keep the weight off over the long term by losing weight at this pace. This cannot be achieved by a detox diet; it can instead be achieved by making small changes to your lifestyle and by following the food pyramid guidelines.  

Are there any advantages?

  • Detox diets encourage you to eat more fruit and vegetables, drink more water as well as cutting back on processed foods. 
  • It is also very motivating to feel like you are taking control of your diet, which can boost your mood and help you to continue with positive changes

Are there disadvantages?

  • Detox diets can have some nasty side effects. Following a strict detox diet for more than a few days may lead to dangerously low levels of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats or carbohydrates in your body. This can affect the workings of your body. 
  • Side effects often experienced while on a detox diet include feeling tired, headaches, light-headedness and nausea. These symptoms are often usually caused by a lack of food as detox diets are often low in calories. This lack of food can lead to cravings for high sugar and high fat foods, which can knock you off your diet and do a lot of damage in a short space of time
  • Many detox diets recommend cutting out dairy foods, which means you are missing calcium containing foods. It is recommended that we eat three portions of dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt, milk puddings) every day to maintain healthy bones and teeth. Cutting out these foods puts you at risk for osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease.

What is the verdict?

  • If you really want to try a detox diet, look for one that includes all the food groups. 
  • Don't follow a detox diet for more than a week. Use it as a kick start or stepping stone to making more long term lifestyle changes - that way you can feel great and have fabulous skin all year round. 
  • Check out our fact sheet section for more practical information on how to improve your diet in a healthy way.

If you exercise regularly and follow a healthy balanced diet most of the time, there in no need to get bitten by the detox bug.

If you would like further advice, or to make an appointment with a dietitian in your area, click here 

Updated by members of the weight management interest group July 2016.Review date: July 2019.

© 2016 Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, INDI. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in its entirety provided the source is acknowledged. This information is not meant to replace advice from your medical doctor or individual counselling with a dietitian.  It is intended for educational and informational purposes only.

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