Detox Diets: Claims Versus Facts

People freak out about toxins and chemicals. What does the evidence say?

No matter where you look nowadays, someone is trying to sell a diet, pill, or potion that promises to help you detox. Counter to this, there are myriad science and evidence-based sites that will tell you detoxing is a bunch of hokum and that there is no benefit to any detox diet or supplement. So is there any evidence that detox diets or supplements help?

Let’s take a look at a few claims people make about detox diets.

Claim 1: Detoxing Helps You Lose Weight

Many people do lose weight on detox diets. It’s often claimed that this is because ‘toxins’ encourage the storage of fat, but in all likelihood, it is because while following a restrictive detox diet the person simply eats less. As an example, a 2015 study demonstrated that the ‘Lemon Detox’ diet helped women lose weight.1 but that this was likely due to simple calorie restriction. Any time you drastically restrict calories you will lose weight, and this has nothing whatsoever to do with toxins.

Overconsumption of anything – even certain vegetables, herbs, and fruits – can be harmful to the body. [Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

Claim 2: You Have to Avoid All Toxic Chemicals

There are toxic chemicals in our environment and in the food we eat (these are technically called ‘toxicants’). The reality is, these toxicants are found in relatively small amounts, and most of the time our bodies are good at processing and excreting them. The simple act of possessing a liver, kidneys, and skin puts you in the perfect position to detoxify almost all of what life throws at you. And if you don’t have those things, you have much bigger problems on your plate!

Of course, it is common sense to avoid common, known, dangerous chemicals (such as dyes, petrochemicals, etc.) as much as possible. But you don’t have to become obsessed with the chemical bogey-man lurking under your sink. There will always be toxic chemicals created within the body and absorbed into it from our immediate environment, and there will also always also be a constant process of breakdown and destruction, healing and growth happening within the body. This process creates metabolites that we need to remove.

Most compounds are benign at a low level of intake and only become damaging when found in excess. The amount varies depending on the individual chemical, but it is fair to say that damage relates to the dose and exposure to a chemical, not the mere presence of it. Many substances that are seen as ‘toxic’ and removed during detox diets (such as coffee and alcohol) are actually health promoting at low doses and only become damaging to the body in higher doses. For example, the evidence suggests that up to five cups of coffee per day are health-protective and that around one alcoholic drink per day (and no binge drinking!) is associated with improved all-cause mortality.2 Overconsumption of anything – even certain vegetables, herbs, and fruits – can be harmful to the body.

Claim 3: Natural Detoxification Is All or Nothing

Most of the research on dietary and supplemental interventions that might help with natural detoxification systems or the body’s resistance to toxic chemicals has been performed on animals, due mainly to the ethics of exposing humans to toxic chemicals. A lot of the research focuses on the oxidant effects of exposure to heavy metals. While most of us are not suffering from heavy metal exposure, this research does offer a glimpse into nutrition interventions that might improve the resilience of the body. Here are some of the findings so far:

  • Spirulina and chlorella, milk thistle, dandelion, ginseng, onion, garlic, curcumin, resveratrol, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and E, reduce the oxidative damage associated with heavy metal toxicants.3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • Mercury excretion is also enhanced by spirulina and chlorella.10,11
  • Spirulina plus zinc increases the excretion of arsenic in chronic arsenic poisoning12 and absorbs cadmium.13
  • Chlorella may be useful in inhibiting the absorption of dioxins via food and preventing accumulation of dioxins within the body.14
  • Milk thistle reduces oxidative damage and may reduce entry of toxins into cells.15,16
  • Folate is critical for the metabolism of arsenic.17
  • Alpha lipoic acid supports detoxification processes.18
  • Treatment with cysteine, methionine, vitamin C, and thiamine can reverse oxidative stress associated with arsenic exposure and result in a reduction in tissue arsenic levels.19

Be Realistic

Rather than focusing on expensive and unnecessary pills, potions, and fad diets for detox, the best way to live the healthiest, highest-performing life in this modern world is to focus on the basics:

  • Eat a diet that is based around a variety of quality, natural, whole, and unprocessed foods.
  • Eat traditional and ‘heirloom’ vegetable types (such as dandelion).
  • Take a quality multi-nutrient product that supplies some of the micronutrients you may be missing, especially vitamins A, C, E, zinc, alpha-lipoic acid, and possibly some of the supportive greens (chlorella and spirulina) and herbs (dandelion and milk-thistle).
  • Eat enough protein. Amino acids from protein (such as cysteine) are crucial for the body’s inherent detox and antioxidant systems.

Move. Exercise is good! Not only does it help the body to utilise nutrients more effectively, but also, the simple act of moving is the stimulus for lymphatic drainage which helps to clear metabolic waste from tissue. Sweating can also help to remove waste via the skin as a secondary detoxification route.

And last but not least, relax! People freak out too much about toxins and chemicals. Focus on the positives – being lean, strong, and energetic – and the simple, effective things you can do to be your healthiest you.

More on detox diets:

Cleanses, Diets, and Juice Fasts: Do They Work?


1. Kim, M.J., et al., “Lemon detox diet reduced body fat, insulin resistance, and serum hs-CRP level without hematological changes in overweight Korean women“, Nutr Res, 2015: 35(5): p. 409-20.

2. Harvey, C., “Is there a ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption?”, Holistic Performance Nutrition, 2016.

3. El-Desoky, G.E., et al., Improvement of mercuric chloride-induced testis injuries and sperm quality deteriorations by Spirulina platensis in rats“, PLoS One, 2013: 8(3): p. e59177.

4. Karadeniz, A., M. Cemek, and N. Simsek, “The effects of Panax ginseng and Spirulina platensis on hepatotoxicity induced by cadmium in rats“, Ecotoxicol Environ Saf, 2009: 72(1): p. 231-5.

5. Ola-Mudathir, K.F., et al., “Protective roles of onion and garlic extracts on cadmium-induced changes in sperm characteristics and testicular oxidative damage in rats“, Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2008: 46(12): p. 3604-3611.

6. Eybl, V., D. Kotyzova, and J. Koutensky, “Comparative study of natural antioxidants – curcumin, resveratrol and melatonin – in cadmium-induced oxidative damage in mice, Toxicology, 2006: 225(2–3): p. 150-156.

7. Milton Prabu, S., K. Shagirtha, and J. Renugadevi, “Quercetin in combination with vitamins (C and E) improves oxidative stress and renal injury in cadmium intoxicated rats, Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, 2010: 14(11): p. 903-14.

8. Messaoudi, I., et al., Protective Effects of Selenium, Zinc, or Their Combination on Cadmium-Induced Oxidative Stress in Rat Kidney, Biological Trace Element Research, 2009: 130(2): p. 152-161.

9. Daniel, S., et al., “Through metal binding, curcumin protects against lead- and cadmium-induced lipid peroxidation in rat brain homogenates and against lead-induced tissue damage in rat brain, Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 2004: 98(2): p. 266-275.

10. Uchikawa, T., et al., The influence of <i>Parachlorella beyerinckii</i> CK-5 on the absorption and excretion of methylmercury (MeHg) in mice, The Journal of Toxicological Sciences, 2010: 35(1): p. 101-105.

11. Uchikawa, T., et al., “The enhanced elimination of tissue methylmercury in <i>Parachlorella beijerinckii</i>-fed mice, The Journal of Toxicological Sciences, 2011: 36(1): p. 121-126.

12. Misbahuddin, M., et al., “Efficacy of spirulina extract plus zinc in patients of chronic arsenic poisoning: a randomized placebo-controlled study, Clin Toxicol (Phila), 2006: 44(2): p. 135-41.

13. Doshi, H., A. Ray, and I.L. Kothari, Biosorption of cadmium by live and dead Spirulina: IR spectroscopic, kinetics, and SEM studies, Curr Microbiol, 2007: 54(3): p. 213-8.

14. Takekoshi, H., et al., “Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice“, Chemosphere, 2005: 59(2): p. 297-304.

15. Abenavoli, L., et al., “Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future“, Phytother Res, 2010: 24(10): p. 1423-32.

16. Feher, J. and G. Lengyel, “Silymarin in the prevention and treatment of liver diseases and primary liver cancer, Curr Pharm Biotechnol, 2012: 13(1): p. 210-7.

17. Heck, J.E., et al., “Consumption of folate-related nutrients and metabolism of arsenic in Bangladesh, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007: 85(5): p. 1367-1374.

18. Rogers, S.A., Lipoic Acid as a Potential First Agent for Protection from Mycotoxins and Treatment of Mycotoxicosis, Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, 2003: 58(8): p. 528-532.

19. Nandi, D., R.C. Patra, and D. Swarup, “Effect of cysteine, methionine, ascorbic acid and thiamine on arsenic-induced oxidative stress and biochemical alterations in rats“, Toxicology, 2005: 211(1–2): p. 26-35.

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