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The dangers of detox diets

by Georgina 8 minutes read

Last updated: 05 Oct, 2023

Detox diets have become all the rage in recent years, fueled by promises of rapid weight loss, quick fixes for health problems, and improved well-being. Its supporters often claim that these diets cleanse the body of harmful substances, leading to a whole host of health benefits. But is this true? And even if it is, are the side effects worth it? Only you can decide that, but we’re here to provide you with as much information as possible on the dangers associated with detox diets, so that, as always, we can help you make an informed decision for yourself.

What is detoxing?

Detoxing, short for detoxification, refers to the process of eliminating toxins or harmful substances from the body. While the human body has its own natural systems for this, some believe that certain diets or interventions can enhance this process.

According to detox theorists:

  • Difficulty losing weight may be linked to toxins causing glucose uptake from fat cells.
  • Feeling tired could be a result of toxins building up, stressing the liver and detox organs.
  • Skin discolouration can be caused by the presence of toxins.
  • Inflammation and allergies may arise as the body's defences react to toxins, particularly metals.

Detox diets typically involve strict dietary regimens, fasting, or the consumption of specific foods and drinks believed to have detoxifying properties. Some do it to lose weight, some to clear bad skin, and some to try and boost their immune system. People try detox diets for a whole host of reasons but are often unaware of the potential side effects.

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Detox trends: How people do it

Over the years detox trends have come in all sorts of different forms, ranging from juice cleanses to fasting and extreme calorie restriction. Juice cleanses, for example, involve consuming only fruit and vegetable juices for a designated period, while fasting may include refraining from food altogether for a set amount of time. In particular, the popularity of Intermittent fasting, restricting food intake to only certain hours of the day, has skyrocketed recently. Some detox diets focus on eating habits, eliminating specific food groups, such as processed foods or carbohydrates, or overconsuming other foods like lean proteins or certain fruits or vegetables, in an attempt to purify the body.

Types of detoxes:

  • Restricting calories
  • Using herbs and spices
  • Drinking lots of water or other liquids
  • Using a sauna
  • Using dietary supplements
  • Consuming only certain foods or food groups
  • Limiting exposure to certain things in the environment

Now there are definitely drawbacks to a lot of these natural ‘cleanses’, but it is the detox products packaged up prettily under the label of ‘health’ that are usually the most concerning. As with all things popular, it didn’t take long for companies to jump aboard the hype train of detox diets, wanting to cash in on the trend.

Now our Instagram feeds and YouTube videos are littered with sponsored placements for detox teas and meal supplements, by the likes of the Kardashians, Iggy Azalea, and Cardi B. Laxatives dressed up as wellness products are pushed forward as quick fixes to each and every one of your body, skin or health concerns to millions of young, impressionable girls every day. But as Dr Erin Stair, health consultant and author of ‘Food and Mood’ says “detoxing” sounds “sexier than ‘taking a dump’”.

The health impacts of detox diets

Now to counteract this trend, experts and other celebrities like Jameela Jamil have been loudly raising awareness of the dangers of artificial detox products in recent years, so we won’t dwell too heavily on a topic that’s already been widely covered, and for which there already exists a huge amount of information about. Instead let's look more at the health impacts of detox diets generally. Unfortunately, not everything natural is good for you either, and too much or too little of anything can ultimately be harmful for you. So, what are the potential side effects of detoxing and how can it affect your body?

Nutrient deficiency:

Detox diets often lack essential nutrients your body needs. A balanced diet with a variety of foods ensures you get enough vitamins, minerals, and vital nutrients. Detox diets that cut out certain food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies, affecting your overall health.

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Potential hyponatremia:

Tory Tedrow, an in-house nutritionist at the SugarChecked healthy eating app, warns that excessive water consumption can result in hyponatremia. Hyponatremia occurs when there is too little sodium in your blood, leading to swelling of your cells.

Symptoms of hyponatremia include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Seizures
  • Coma

The severity of these symptoms and likelihood of these symptoms varies based on the individual's body and the extent of their water consumption, but they can rapidly escalate to life-threatening conditions and require medical intervention.

Electrolyte imbalance:

Fasting or extreme calorie restriction and drinking excessive amounts of water can also mess with the balance of electrolytes in your body. Electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, play a crucial role in balance, nerve function, and muscle contractions. An imbalance can cause dizziness, weakness, and, in severe cases, life-threatening complications.

Impact on liver and kidneys:

Detox diets can often put excessive stress and strain on the liver and kidneys, the body's natural detox organs, by forcing them to work overtime above their natural capacity. The liver breaks down and removes toxins, and the kidneys filter waste products from the blood. Extreme detox measures may harm these organs, causing long-term damage and preventing them from functioning properly, particularly after regular or long periods of detoxing.

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Effect on bowel movements:

Some detox diets use laxatives or enemas to induce bowel movements. While regular movements are essential for your digestive health, relying on artificial methods can harm your digestive system by disrupting its natural rhythm and lead to dependence on artificial measures to process your bowel movements. Plenty of natural detox measures can have this effect, for example take the Papaya Seed craze that circulated recently, trying to utilize this natural laxative to purge ‘parasites’. But in general, it is artificial detox products promoted primarily for ‘weight loss’ that can really mess up your bowels, causing short-term diarrhoea and long-term constipation.

The mental health impacts:

Detoxing can affect your mind too. Anything restrictive can lead to feelings of deprivation, guilt, and anxiety about food. Worst case scenario, focusing on a certain body image through detoxing can contribute to unhealthy relationships with food and body image, possibly leading to eating disorders.

Detox diets are promoted for rapid weight loss, but it's often water weight and muscle, not fat. Plus, they're not sustainable, and it is highly likely you will gain the weight back. This fluctuation can be more harmful to our psyche than if we had never lost the weight in the first place and cause feelings of shame, disappointment, and embarrassment within us.

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Should you be detoxing?

As James Brown, senior lecturer of biosciences at Aston University, says “As a rule of thumb anything labelled as a ‘detox’ should set your bullshit detector off”. Approach detox diets with caution. Of course, you know your body best, and some detox methods used sparingly come without the negative effects and can actually be helpful. Enjoying a sauna session regularly can improve your blood circulation and immune function. Some evidence suggests that intermittent fasting can produce health benefits like lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes and induce cellular repair processes. But we should always be careful not to push our bodies beyond their limits and disrupt their natural state. Our body naturally detoxes, and extreme measures can do more harm than good.

Focus on a balanced diet with whole foods, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and cut out known toxins like alcohol or tobacco. Rather than forcing your body, support your organs that naturally detoxify by exercising regularly, staying hydrated, resting enough, and consuming a comprehensive nutrient-dense diet. If you're worried about your health, talk to a pro for personalized advice.

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