Are Detoxes & Cleanses Doing More Harm Than Good?

juice cleansing

If you’ve fallen off the bandwagon and want to get back on track as quickly as possible, then a ‘detox’ can certainly seem like a good idea.

I mean, who isn’t tempted by the promise of immediate, drastic, noticeable results? Who would rather spend a couple of months working hard to lose 15lbs when they could get the same results in a few weeks, maybe even a few days?

There’s a lot of different options out there, but cleanses and detoxes usually refer to the same thing. They’re phrases that are used interchangeably to refer to plans that restrict your food intake to pressed juice, involve avoiding specific types of food, or drinking a concoction of juices/teas.

The idea is that this will remove something ‘harmful’ from your body. Sometimes, detoxes ‘target’ specific organs like the liver or colon, and supposedly, they can make you feel better.

But let’s be honest: a lot of people (if not the majority) go on detoxes and cleanses to lose weight. They’re more interested in how they look on the outside than what’s happening on the inside.

So the question isn’t only; are they good for us? We need to know whether they can help you get in shape, too.

Do You Need To Detox?


As the name suggests, the idea of detoxing is to flush toxins out of the body, which begs the question: exactly which toxins are we trying to eliminate?

The most obvious example of a toxin is alcohol. While it’s toxic, most people can safely drink one glass of wine with a meal because the body can metabolize it in small amounts. However, if you try to drink fifteen glasses of wine within an hour, you might end up in the hospital with blood-alcohol poisoning.

But even fruits and vegetables contain forms of toxins that would harm us if we consumed them in extreme amounts. For example, along with high amounts of Vitamin A and other important nutrients, bok choy contains glucosinolates, which have been shown to contribute thyroid problems.

Most of us could safely eat a cup of raw bok choy every day (if we wanted to). Our bodies would metabolize the glucosinolates and we’d enjoy the vegetable’s benefits. But if we tried to eat fifteen cups per day, we could end up with hypothyroidism. In those quantities, the usually-super-healthy bok choy would be toxic.

Point being: almost everything we consume is toxic at some level. We can’t avoid it.

But the body is pretty damn good at self-cleansing and detoxing. The liver, kidneys, lungs, and several other organs work around the clock to remove harmful substances and excrete waste products of metabolism (that’s what you go to to the toilet for!). They don’t need any help from ‘charcoal lemonade’ (the latest fad). If they did, and we actually did need a yearly detox, we’d probably all be dead.

Moreover, an investigation performed by Sense about Science in 2009 (yep, these things have been around for a while) examined 15 commercial detox products and not a single one could name specific toxins, agree on a definition of what a detox really is, or provide evidence for their claims.

As my friend Sol Orwell over at Examine points out:

To scientifically determine the effectiveness of a treatment, the toxin being investigated first needs to be identified in order to accurately measure its accumulation in the body. Then, researchers would investigate the effects of pharmaceuticals or supplements on the toxin. Finally, scientists would begin to explore a hypothesis for why the toxin is affected by a particular drug or supplement… The fact that no company can name the toxin their product targets reveals just how little of an effect cleanses have.

Don’t buy into the unproven (and costly) claim that a detox or cleanse will make you healthier. It’s not about what you do one or two weeks out of the year – it’s about the bigger picture of what you do the majority of the time.

A 72 hour cleanse or detox isn't going to miraculously make up for six months of eating junk. Click To Tweet

Are Cleanses Safe?

While most of these cleanses and detoxes aren’t dangerous, they can cause some problems that are worth knowing about:

  • The juicing process strips fiber from the fruits and vegetables. Fiber slows down digestion and aids absorption of nutrients. If you want to clean out your pipes, the last thing you want to do is eliminate fiber.
  • Many cleansing diets are also low in protein. Protein deficiencies are known for inhibiting the body’s ability to eliminate toxins. Yep, you read that correctly.
  • High levels of fruit juices can cause major swings in blood sugar levels, which makes them dangerous for people with diabetes and potentially risky for others.

These issues, amongst others, result in people commonly reporting:

  • Feeling weak, fatigued, dizzy and even nauseous.
  • Banging headaches (possibly from the abundance of nitrates found in celery and beets).
  • Inability to sleep.

But perhaps the most important side-effect to be aware of is that detoxes and cleanses – along with any other form of restrictive eating – encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.

We live in a world filled with delicious food and if you can’t find a way of incorporating it into your diet, you are doomed to fail eventually. And when that happens, you’ll find yourself in a cycle of yo-yo dieting that is hard to get out of.

Can Detoxes Help You Lose Weight?

juice cleanse

As explained in my article looking at calorie counting, if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight.

There’s no two ways about that, but the type of weight you lose depends on the way in which you limit your intake of calories. Under caloric restriction, the body’s glycogen stores can easily be depleted in 24-48 hours, resulting in several pounds of weight loss (both from the glycogen burned, and the water weight associated with glycogen storage).

This temporary weight loss leads a lot of people to believe the cleanse worked, but any weight loss from a detox is most likely water, carbohydrate stores, and intestinal bulk — all of which returns in a few hours after the detox ends.

Detoxes are tricking you into thinking there's a quick fix for fat loss. There isn't. Click To Tweet

Still, there is an important connection between body fat and toxins, because fat cells don’t only contain fat. They’re also a storage site for certain fat-soluble toxins we ingest. So, the leaner you are, the less real estate you have available for toxins.

Since fat-soluble chemicals can be stored in fat, when fat is broken down, the chemicals can enter the bloodstream, which may help explain why many people feel lousy when they’re going through a period of rapid fat loss.

Are There Any Benefits To A Detox?

If the body is so great at self-cleansing, and a detox isn’t an effective way of losing fat, why would anyone consider detoxing in the first place?

Well, the real answer is marketing. But we do get in the way of our bodies’ ability to cleanse itself. We put a lot of stuff in/on our bodies each day and don’t always use our bodies correctly:

  • We use medication excessively.
  • We don’t sleep enough.
  • We eat crappy food.
  • We slather chemicals on our skin.
  • We drink too much. Way too much.

With this in mind, detox diets typically recommend nutrient-rich ‘superfoods’ like:

  • Green tea
  • Omega-3 fats
  • Fruits and vegetables

All of these foods may help the body deal with incoming toxins and can be a healthy addition to your diet. But that’s not to say they should make up your entire diet!

Rather than sacrificing our entire diet for a detox, wouldn’t it be simpler to change some of the above habits and simplify what we ingest?

How To ‘Detox’ Naturally & Healthily


1. Eat reasonably. If you’re eating too much, you’re probably accumulating more toxins. Eating one doughnut instead of six is a detox. Having a few glasses of wine instead of the whole bottle is a detox. Slow down and chew your food.

2. Build your plate around plant foods and eat organic when possible. This minimizes your exposure to toxins while supplying your body with compounds that can help the body deal with all of the incoming chemicals. Choose foods that I talk about in this article.

3. Get lean (and stay that way). Easier said than done, I know. Certain fat-soluble compounds can accumulate in body fat. Less body fat means less room for potentially harmful chemicals. If you want help getting lean, you might want to consider my coaching program.

4. Drink plenty of fluids, including water and tea. Simple.

5. Exercise and sweat regularly. This should really be a no-brainer. Our skin is a major organ of elimination, but to make the most of it you need to be doing intense exercise, which requires plenty of energy from food.

6. Limit unnecessary dietary supplements. Supplements don’t automatically equal better health; some might just be another burden on the body. Make sure each supplement you use serves a purpose. You can read about the supplements I recommend here, and natural substitutes for each.

Have You Ever Tried a Detox?

You’ve probably guessed that I’m not a fan of detoxes and cleanses, but I want to know what you think.

Do you know anybody who’s tried one, or have you tried one yourself?

Did it work?

How did you feel afterward? Did you lose or gain weight? Did you consult a doctor beforehand? Leave a comment below and let me know!

Photo Sources: Morning Juice Next To MacBook


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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I use an AdvoCare cleanse which increases healthy fiber intake, adds a probiotic, introduces fresh fruits and vegetables, encourages protein intake and teaches you how to eliminate processed foods from your daily food consumption. AdvoCare taught me how to fuel my body properly for optimal performance and healthy activity. AdvoCare is all about educating you to choose healthy options and planning your meals ahead so you don’t opt for an unhealthy meal in a pinch. These are things I can do on a daily basis to maintain my own healthy choices and if I want to splurge or enjoy a meal out with my family then I don’t have to deny myself. Enjoying anything in overabundance is what gets us in trouble. 😉

    • That sounds great Connie! I’m all for a ‘cleanse’ that involves cutting out processed food and picking up real, healthy food instead. Glad you’ve something that works for you 🙂

  • I was asked to do a detox by the nutritionist I was seeing. Needless to say, I found myself a different nutritionist. Detoxes are in no way healthy. We need to fuel our bodies with the proper nutrients if we truly want to feel healthy and energized.

  • Mate, that is one of the best, most common sense articles I have read on health, fitness and nutrition lately. Detoxes, like so many other fads prey on people who are looking for an easy, quick and largely painfree solution to a problem for which no such answer exists. Long term lifestyle changes incorporating diet and exercise are the only proven detox I know of. Great article. Thanks again.

  • I did alot of research on detox I ended up doing doctor jj smiths green smoothie detox. I’m the healthiest I have been in a long time. My doctor is so proud of me. I still drink a green smoothie a day and exercise. This book is great. Weight is still off and I just have a better way of eating now. It has been almost a year now.

  • I don’t do either per se, but I do take one day and drink water the whole day. I do this so that I know the feeling of being hungry and so that food doesn’t have a hold on me. I over eat, but I also eat because i have nothing else better to do

  • I’m actually doing a ‘teatox’ right now. But haven’t changed my eating habits beyond changes that I wanted to give a go anyway in line with January 2015 🙂 The way it works is you drink the same tea every morning (it’s actually really tasty) and then every other night you drink a tea heavy in fennel to stimulate the bowels so you go to the loo the next day. As someone that can suffer from constipation this has been a godsend for me.
    In terms of eating I’ve cut out meat, bread and alcohol and have been filling up on (a lot of) fish, eggs and veggies, I’ve had to be waay more imaginative with my meals so there’s been lots of wholegrain pasta, brown rice and quinoa and some fun salad concoctions. I guess the teatox for me – has put me in the mindset of paying attention to what I’m eating. I’m also exercising 3-4 times a week and getting a brisk 30 min walk in 4-5 days a week. I guess that it’s all about balance.
    I don’t think I could do a ‘juice cleanse’ mainly because gross. I love food (I’ve just had a bowl of porridge with blueberries, honey, seeds and cinnamon mixed in) who would give that up? Also I’ve noticed people that do cleanses etc. Are usually people that don’t want to think about what they put in their bodies it is such an easy option which I hate because I pay so much attention to what I eat and how I eat it!

    • Hey Natasha. I think you’re right! They’re marketed as a quick fix for people who aren’t more mindful of what they eat day-to-day.

      Honestly, your teatox doesn’t sound bad at all. As long as it’s an addition to (not a replacement for) an already healthy diet, and it’s it helping you stay on track it’s a winner in my book.

      • it’s been great for getting me back on track actually after an injury and the excesses of Christmas 🙂 I also think that a lot of juice cleanses and stuff are really expensive! I can more readily afford tea and veggies than I can the other stuff!

      • I was reading an email about walking an can’t get to it on here, anyways I was walking outside for 5 miles everyday an running a little with it, then my knee started feeling like it was going to pop outta place so long story short I’m finally”released from the dr but I can’t run because everytime I do it hurts… My question is will walking 5 miles for atleast 5 days an the same route help me lose weight an tone up without doing anything else?? I was 225 an now 185 but that was all before any walking…

        • Yes it will definitely help. But if you want to tone up (which is really just getting lean and having some muscle underneath), you really need to focus on your diet and some form of resistance training (bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, lifting weights etc).

  • I have done a couple 3 day and a 7 day juice cleanse. I found it highly effective and got excellent results. I felt and looked better. I have not had large problems maintaining the results. My cleanses have definitely made it easier for me to enjoy fruits and vegetables. I was a hardcore vegetable hater not long ago. I do not completely agree with your take on cleanses. I have read a lot of info that advocates both sides. I personally will keep doing my cleanses because anything in moderation is usually not bad for you.

  • Hi Will, looks like I’m a year old to the party, but I’m very happy someone wrote the truth instead of praising these idiotic cleanses. I shared it on Twitter to spread the word. Thanks for this!