If cleanliness is next to godliness, we must be in the midst of a truly spiritual era. Not only do some Americans wipe germs off their hands every few hours, but now a growing number of celebs, as well as perfectly normal women, want to clean up their insides, too—by following a detoxification routine. “I like to do fasts and detoxes a couple of times during the year,” Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on her lifestyle website, GOOP. The actress is a particular fan of the Clean program, developed by New York City cardiologist Alejandro Junger. After three weeks on the regimen—juices interspersed with one small solid meal a day—“I feel pure and happy and much lighter,” she reported.
Detox diets are based on the unproven premise that our bodies are constantly bombarded with toxins from pollution, chemicals, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, processed foods and other unsavory sources and that these “poisons” can build up and cause health problems. According to this line of thinking, the older we get, the longer these noxious substances have been in our bodies causing damage; hence the perceived need for us to flush toxins periodically and, in theory, restore internal vitality.
To that end, cleansing diets prescribe restricted menus for a defined period of time; offending food ingredients such as sodium, caffeine and sugar are banned. “There’s something to be said for limiting choices. You’re giving your body a chance to rest, and that’s a good thing,” says Leslie J. Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The diet may even give you a psychological boost. “Because you’re following a program, you can feel like you’re in control,” says Sandra Haber, PhD, a New York City psychologist who specializes in eating issues.
There are other benefits, too. If you forgo salty, sugary and processed foods—items you probably shouldn’t be eating too often anyway—and eliminate or reduce alcohol, “you may feel more energetic,” notes Keri Glassman, RD, a private nutrition consultant in New York City and author of The O2 Diet. “Also, taking refined starches and salt out of your diet for a few days can help you feel less bloated and make your belly flatter, since both can cause you to retain water.”
However, there’s a difference between giving your body a respite and giving it a complete overhaul. What a detox diet won’t do is act like a CentralVac that scoops up and gets rid of toxins inside your body. The truth is, you don’t need that kind of assist. “A healthy liver and kidneys do a masterful job of detoxifying the body on a daily basis,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. And some ingredients purported to help cleanse, such as lemon juice, don’t do so (though lemon juice may improve digestion). Others, such as the nightly laxatives recommended on the Master Cleanse, are downright risky: They can dehydrate you and lead to electrolyte imbalances.
In fact, most nutritionists advise steering clear of some cleansing programs. Liquid-only diets, for instance, are unhealthy when they are low in calories and do not contain essential nutrients, Bonci says. A famous example: Master Cleanse, developed around 1940 by alternative medicine practitioner Stanley Burroughs, who was reportedly looking for a way to deal with stomach ulcers. In this plan, you consume a mix of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water six to 12 times a day for 10 days. Such a regimen can make dieters feel dizzy and headachy and could, within 48 to 72 hours, lead to nutritional deficiencies, according to Katz.