Should You Do a Detox? The Answer, Plus 12 Foods to Detox Naturally
The idea of doing a detox diet to rid the body of toxins, lose weight and start fresh is especially appealing this time of year–when the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables makes detoxing seem easier. Summer is also when it's easy to overindulge at summer parties, BBQs, and long-awaited get-reunions, eating fried food, cocktails, cookies, and chips. So should you follow a detox diet to clean up your act?
What is the best way to course-correct after overindulging?
Will a detox diet or "cleanse" help you lose weight and gain back your energy and focus? Or is the notion of detoxing largely a myth? Science tells us that there are benefits of eliminating junk food, greasy fried foods, added sugar, excess alcohol, and choosing plant-based whole foods instead. But "detox" products that are sold as quick fixes don't help, research has found, and the minute you go back to eating the usual way you'll gain back any weight you've lost. Here's what the latest research tells us about how to detox, and what health experts have to say, about the best way to eat to lose weight and keep it off.
Most diet products sold as "detox" are dangerously low in calories and have not been shown to be effective, according to a recent Harvard Health study review that warned of "dubious practices" and detox plans that can lead to unwanted side effects. Still, the urge to hit restart can be a healthy one, if it leads you to eat mostly vegetables, greens, herbs, and fruit and rid your routine of added sugar, excess alcohol, and red meat and dairy, which are inflammatory, so there has to be a way to detox your diet without falling prey to bogus or dangerous claims.
There are basically two types of toxins in your body, according to MD Anderson's article on detox diets.
Endotoxins are one type of toxin, which are byproducts of the body that get carted off in the form of waste – including urea and feces and lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic energy production, or what happens when cells have to create energy without enough oxygen. This takes place during intense exercise or stress on the system.
Exotoxins are the other type, which comes from outside the body in our food, the air, and chemicals we come into contact with, whether they are detergents, cleaning products, cosmetics or air pollution, and pesticides in your food. They can come into the body through breathing, eating, or touching chemicals that get transferred into the bloodstream and need to be "cleaned" up.
Excess amounts of alcohol, saturated fat, and added sugar can all overwhelm your natural detoxifying processes in the body, leading to bloat, inflammation, and weight gain, and even what's known as "fatty liver" disease which means the liver gets clogged and can't do its job. While not actually toxic these foods disrupt your health and become toxic when the liver can keep up with the sheer volume.
Your Liver and Kidneys are your boy's main detox filters
Your liver is the biggest organ in the body (aside from your skin), and it works to absorb toxins and metabolize the food you eat. The liver's job is to help your cells get what they need in the form of energy, store the rest and jettison toxins, moving these dangerous compounds out of the body. Your kidneys also help with this task, sending waste into your urine to be flushed away. Between these detoxifying organs–your liver, and your kidneys–you are kept alive, humming along, and safe from most major toxins, according to a liver cancer specialist and surgeon Thomas Aloia, M.D. “Detoxifying the normal things we eat, breathe and ingest is part of [the liver's] job and keeps us alive.”
As long as your kidneys are functioning well and your liver is healthy, you may not need a specific detox diet. In fact, packaged products that call themselves detox diets may do more harm than good. The best way to do a detox is by eating healthy plant-based whole foods and eliminating toxins (like alcohol) from your diet, according to researchers.
Detoxing for healthy weight loss or eliminate toxins involves eating plant foods
Eating plant-based foods such as cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, citrus fruits, garlic, and herbs has been shown to help your body do a better job of detoxing, according to studies. "There is preliminary evidence to suggest that certain foods such as coriander, nori, and olestra have detoxification properties," according to one review study on the topic of "Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management." But unless you have been told you have fatty liver disease or other disfunction, chances are these processes are happening as you sleep, and without your help.
“There is little evidence that detox diets eliminate toxins from the body,” said Matthew Bechtold, MD, a gastroenterologist at MU Health Care explained in an article about whether detox cleanses work. “Detox programs may help in weight loss by eliminating or reducing high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and by reducing water weight for the period of the detox.” But the minute you return to a regular diet, the weight will come back. Instead of trying extreme detox measures such as teas or laxatives, he warned, eat a healthy diet consistently.
“The colon collects, concentrates, and removes toxins from the body in the form of stools,” he said. “The liver also removes toxins that are absorbed through the gut by the portal vein. This is how the body protects us against ingested toxins.”
However, and this is a big caveat, your liver can only handle so much. Fatty Liver disease occurs when the liver, like a greasy sponge, gets clogged with too much fat, compromising its function. And too much protein can cause kidney failure since your body is not meant to absorb more than a healthy amount of nutrients at any one sitting. Overwhelm the system with an unhealthy amount of carbs, protein, fat, or alcohol and the liver and kidneys can't process them fast enough, causing inflammation, weight gain, and disease.
Rather than detoxing, think of eating vegetables and fruit to support your liver
There are specific foods and drinks that can help these organs do their jobs, and there are foods and drinks that hinder their functioning. Doctors, RDs, and medical researchers have looked at the best ways to help our bodies function better, lose weight and "reset," from calorie restricting and intermittent fasting to specific diets that support liver health, kidney function and shift the gut microbiome to healthier bacteria, to help our bodies rid themselves of toxins more effectively.
Juicing or detoxification diets tend to work because they lead to extremely low caloric intake for short periods of time, however, tend to lead to weight gain once a normal diet is resumed," according to one review study that looked at four methods for weight loss called "Popular Weight Loss Strategies: a Review of Four Weight Loss Techniques." The authors concluded that: "Both intermittent fasting and the paleo diet lead to weight loss because of overall decreased caloric intake," and that exercise works equally well: "Studies on short bursts of high-intensity training have shown remarkable weight loss and improvements in cardiovascular health." But as with any other diet or weight loss strategy, the minute you return to your regular way of eating, you will regain the weight.
The best foods to detox, to support liver health
The amount of food and types of food matter when it comes to detoxing, losing weight, and supporting liver health. Because your liver is the air traffic control tower for everything you eat if you eat too much sugar you make it harder for the liver to regulate blood sugar levels.
Excess sugar gets stored as glycogen and when the glycogen stores are topped off, the extra gets stored as fat. The liver is central to the ebb and flow of energy since when blood sugar is low, it breaks down glycogen to glucose to be used by the cells. Your liver also breaks down the proteins you eat by converting amino acids for rebuilding cells, which releases ammonia. Instead of allowing ammonia to become toxic, the liver converts it into urea which gets eliminated in urine. In other words, your liver is busy. Here's how to help it do its job:
The 12 best foods to help your body detox naturally
- Cruciferous Vegetables. Stock up on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussel sprouts, and mustard greens, which contain phytonutrients, carotenoids, and flavonoids that help neutralize toxins. Broccoli emits sulforaphane when chopped or chewed, which helps the body fight off infection and boosts the liver’s ability to clear chemicals.
- Asparagus. Asparagus contains glutathione, a detoxifying compound that can help destroy carcinogens. It helps cleanse the urinary tract and neutralize excess ammonia, which is one reason you experience "asparagus pee."
- Avocados. These fruits (yes they are in the fruit family) not only help you stay full longer, according to studies, but they contain an array of vitamins and minerals that help decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, according to Patient First.
- Artichokes. Artichokes contain silymarin, a phenol compound that is powerfully protective of the liver. Silymarin is also found in milk thistle, so both are known to help liver function according to studies.
- Beets. These purple roots also contain powerful antioxidants called betalains, which support detoxification by helping increase enzymes that support your liver, according to studies. When your liver is able to detoxify chemicals and toxins more effectively, then your body is better able to balance your hormones, keep your cholesterol levels in check and improve your energy levels.
- Berries. Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and cherries all contain anthocyanins, the pigments that give berries their distinctive colors. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that have anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties since they boost enzymes that help the body clear toxins and lower inflammation, studies show.
- Citrus Fruit. Grapefruit has high levels of vitamin C, A, and folic acid. It also contains naringin, which is metabolized into naringenin. Studies have found that these antioxidants help protect the liver. Lemons and limes contain citric acid, potassium, vitamin C, and flavonoids that help the liver function and reduce inflammation.
- Garlic. Garlic is rich in allicin, vitamin B6, and selenium which all help the liver do its job clearing toxins. Allicin is a sulfur compound that gives garlic its powerful smell and has antioxidant, antibiotic, and antifungal properties. Selenium helps boost antioxidants
- Herbs. Turmeric, ginger, dandelion root, cilantro, and milk thistle have all been shown in different studies to help fight inflammation, help clear heavy metals from the body, and support liver function. The way they do this is slightly different in each case. Cilantro binds with mercury to neutralize it, while turmeric has been shown to help fight liver disease by lowering oxidative stress in the body.
- Leafy Greens. Nutrient-dense leafy greens such as kale, spinach, arugula, swiss chard, collard greens are all rich in magnesium and potassium and contain chlorophyll, which assists the liver by neutralizing toxic chemicals. Collard greens are rich in sulfur compounds known as glucosinolates that support the natural detoxification process and studies show they lower the risk of breast, colon, bladder, prostate, and lung cancers.
- Nuts. Walnuts, especially are a great source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are heart-healthy and lower your risk of disease. Walnuts contain the amino acid arginine, which helps your kidneys remove excess ammonia from the body.
- Green Tea. Studies show that green tea is not only preventative against liver disease but may even be therapeutic in helping to cure it. One meta-study that reviewed all the others found that "green tea intake is a protective factor for liver diseases." That's because the powerful flavonoids called catechins in green tea help bind to the lipids in the blood and sweep them away.
5 foods and drinks to leave out when you're detoxing
Alcohol is not your detox friend.
Over 30 percent of Americans have fatty liver disease, which is akin to your liver acting like a greasy sponge that needs to be wrung out before it can be fully functional again. Alcohol can inhibit the liver's ability to metabolize fat, making this situation worse. If you're detoxing, stay off the booze, even wine, and beer which add extra carb calories to your diet.
Kick added sugar to the curb.
Your detox needs to eliminate all added sugar, including simple carbs: Get rid of cereals, bread, pasta, white rice, cookies, and chips. Gluten is inflammatory and to detox properly you want to go into a slight calorie deficit, but you need to eat something so try soups, salads, and whole vegetables, fruits, complex whole grains (quinoa and faro), and nuts and seeds. If added sugar is on the label, it's off the table.
Avoid processed food with preservatives.
Your liver will filter our chemicals, food additives, even nail polish if you bite that off. So it makes sense that you want to lighten your chemical load where possible and that includes the preservatives in your junk food, which may not seem like a lot but can add up and act as disruptors in the body's hormonal balance. These chemical disruptors appear everywhere, such as plastic containers, soup can liners, anti-bacterial agents in your personal care products, and even in your food.
The less packaged food you eat, with preservatives and chemicals, the better since your endocrine system can get confused, and your body may react in any number of ways, and long before you see signs of injury or disease, your liver is awash in trying to rid the body of any extra chemicals it doesn't need. Wash fruit, avoid household chemicals and cleaning agents, and use natural cleaning products when possible.
Ditch meat & dairy that cause inflammation.
Studies have shown that dairy, along with red meat, drives up inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is toxic to your cell function, leading to diseases such as heart disease, stroke type 2 diabetes, and more. Your liver reacts to this because inflammation is linked to higher fat metabolism, which in turn can trigger insulin resistance. The easiest fix is to ditch the dairy, as well as the saturated fat-laden meat.
Oils and high-fat dressings can contribute to "fatty liver" syndrome
Salads are healthy. Dousing your greens with oil or sauteeing in an inch of olive oil is not. Ultimately too much of anything, even vegetable oil, is going to create a load on your liver since it's in the liver that all these macros get broken down, whether you eat carbs or fat or protein. Too much of a good thing is still too much.
Bottom Line: Your body naturally detoxes itself. The exception is if you overwhelm it with toxins including alcohol, greasy junk food, and chemicals (such as from cleaning supplies or processed foods). Pesticides are also chemicals so wash your fruit and vegetables. But if you want to detox eat healthy plant-based foods that support your liver's health and you'll be fine.