For decades, Americans have tried dieting by substituting liquid for food. From the Master Cleanse—a diet of lemonade, maple syrup and cayenne pepper developed in the 1940s—to the juice concoctions du jour, they're said to detoxify the body and help you lose weight fast.
But while detoxing might help you drop a few pounds, that doesn't mean a cleanse is recommended for meeting weight-loss goals, says Rick Henriksen, MD, a family medicine physician at University of Utah Health.
"It doesn't help build good habits for long-term weight loss or removing toxic materials," he says. "It's not sustainable."
Here, Henriksen answers more questions about detox diets.
Q: Can a detox diet help you lose weight?
A: It could be effective, short term. But what we're trying to do is build an overall lifestyle of health. Removing processed foods, including processed carbohydrates and industrial vegetable oils, is the goal. Doing a cleanse might help for a week or two, but it will not establish long-term healthy habits.
Q: Do these diets have potentially harmful side effects?
A: The biggest issue is that you're likely to lose lean muscle mass. The weight loss will also be, in large part, water weight. You might be dropping pounds, but you're not necessarily improving your body composition. You can also develop fatigue and other issues such as difficulty sleeping, difficulty with concentration or an unhealthy change in bowel habits. Whenever we cut our energy intake, especially in a drastic way, our body will naturally decrease our metabolism to compensate.
Q: Do we even need to detoxify our bodies?
A: We have toxins that come from food. Some of those products aren't healthy for us long term, but they're not something you're going to get rid of in a short time by doing a juice diet.
Some plants create toxins as a natural defense mechanism against insects, bacteria and even animals. These can also be damaging to us. Our liver can work to remove these from our blood.
Q: So what's the better alternative to a detox diet?
A: Eating healthy, whole foods from natural processes. Try to avoid any food that comes in a package; it has gone through some type of industrial processing. Focus on foods closest to their natural states.