Debunking the Detox Diet

Coming down from the Christmas and NYE high, we’re all feeling a little worse for wear, but Sarah Carman insists our urge to “detox diet” our way out of this state will not be fruitful.


It’s 2015, and post-Christmas and New Years Eve we’re all possibly carrying some new kilos too, so plenty of people fall victim to a nagging inner voice that says, “John, it’s time to detox.”

Admittedly, it’s a convenient routine: eat too much at Christmas, then exercise, abstain and detoxify it all away in the new year. No harm done.

But do detox diets actually work?

I’ve always been sceptical.

Products that attempt to compensate for their lack of scientific backing with attractive enticements, false claims, extensive fine print and a large price tag are guaranteed to raise at least one of my eyebrows.

Given that there are lots of people who are easily swayed by the “scientific” health benefits associated with “detoxifying,” something needs to be done to debunk the detox diet.

It is worth noting that detox diets are not scientifically proven. In fact, nothing is scientifically proven. Whilst it is possible (and highly advisable!) to use double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trials to ascertain whether or not a particular medication, lifestyle change or treatment method is likely to benefit overall health, we can never prove it will always work for all people.

The “science” behind detox diets doesn’t check out.

Consider the more well known of the fad diets, the Lemon Detox Diet. Since it was first developed in 1941, it has claimed to “work with the body’s own natural cleansing process to help flush out toxins and burn fat naturally.”

Let’s be clear, lemons cannot break down fat. Citric acid is the component of lemon juice hailed by some as an excellent aid for the breakdown of chemicals in the food that we eat. However, it is worth comparing the strengths of citric acid (considered a weak acid) and hydrochloric acid (considered a very strong acid), which is present in the stomach. Citric acid is incapable of breaking relevant chemical bonds to process food but even if it could, your stomach is full of hydrochloric acid irrespective of the amount of lemons you eat.

Another issue of science concerning detox diets is the definition of “toxins.” The scientific “toxin” is a poisonous substance produced by a living cell whereas the alternative medicine “toxin” includes everything from fats and proteins to certain metals, though, perhaps more worryingly, often the nature of the toxins is not disclosed.

Scientists are able to determine whether or not a chemical is toxic by administering quantities of a suspect molecule to model organisms. They then analyse the results to check for carcinogenic, mutagenic and other abhorrent behaviour, and can often determine the level at which a substance ceases being non-toxic and becomes toxic. This is important because our bodies do require trace amounts of heavy metals such chromium, as was said by the Renaissance physician Paracelsus, “ the dose that makes the poison.”

The threat that toxins pose is also blown out of proportion by the detox diet industry. According to the Lemon Detox Diet website, “in this day and age most of our bodies are unable to function effectively with the amount of toxins entering and taking over our system.” However, this study covered by the BBC showed that in terms of kidney and liver function, a week-long detox diet was no different to a diet containing red meat, alcohol, coffee, tea, pasta, bread, chocolate and crisps.

If we believe everything we read and hear about detox, we are forced to confront our apparent ingestion of considerable quantities of toxic material on a daily basis. We also have to accept that removing said toxins from our bodies is something we are innately unable to do. If we believe that detox dieting is beneficial and necessary, we are saying that the only way to mediate the toxicity of our environments is to purge them from our bodies using a combination of lemon juice and cayenne pepper, or some other proprietary approach.

If the advice from these fad diet peddlers was to live a healthy lifestyle and to try and not overindulge, then I could live with that but, suspiciously, their advice always involves abstinence from a toxic diet and the consumption of an expensive cocktail designed to cleanse your system within a commercially viable timeframe.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that some pens, paints and glue are advertised as non-toxic. I appreciate that this is primarily done to assure parents that their children won’t die after coming in contact with various stationery, but the many interpretations of “toxin” and “toxic” that float around are designed to confuse and make it easier for companies selling dubious products to cheat people out of money.

Having said this, it’s good to know that whilst stationary essentials do contain chemicals that aren’t nutritionally sound, some brands are deemed fit for human consumption – whether it be orally, or through the skin – in small amounts. Why? Because our liver and kidneys can, for the most part, easily cope with the toxins in our environment.

You don’t need detox diets to be healthy. In fact, you (and your bank balance) are almost certainly healthier without them.


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