It’s that time of year again. The “new year, new you” pressures are mounting and it seems like every last person is hopping on the Dry January or Whole30 train. If you also feel like some back-to-basics eating is in order after a splurge-heavy holiday season, we get it. But do us (and yourself) a favor and forget the "detox” plans of the juice or soup cleanse variety. Why? Because they don’t actually work.
“A myriad of ‘detoxification’ regimens have now flooded the market based on the traditional but unproven concept that our body needs help getting rid of unwanted toxins,” says Sharon Horesh Bergquist, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the Emory School of Medicine. “The reality is that your body is a detoxification machine, fully built with its own elaborate way of ridding toxins and unwanted chemicals.”
In fact, you may be surprised by the body’s innate mechanisms for nixing unnecessary materials from our systems. “Residing in your digestive system, respiratory tract, and skin, immune system mediators are ready and armed to catch invaders and turn them over to your liver,” explains Dr. Bergquist. “Your liver then filters and neutralizes toxins and hands them over to your intestines and urine to eliminate them from your body.”
As it turns out, the best way to support these multifaceted mechanisms is by feeding our bodies the right way—with adequate calories, sufficient hydration, and foods that are high in fiber and healthy fats.
Soup and juice cleanses limit your caloric intake by design, but that doesn’t make them healthy or even weight loss-promoting. Diets low in calories can leave you feeling weak and, if done for too long, may negatively affect your metabolism. “Without adequate protein and calorie intake, your body may switch to breaking down muscle for energy,” Dr. Bergquist says. “Over time, that can slow your metabolism.”
Also less-than-ideal: “When we juice foods, we remove all of the fiber from the fruits and vegetables, leaving the sugar behind, which can in turn create blood sugar spikes and leave you ‘hangry’ with a headache,” adds Amy Shapiro, RD, a New York City-based dietitian with Daily Harvest. “People often say headaches are a sign of detoxing but they aren’t, you’re just hungry.”
Cleanses meant to flush out the intestines are equally bad. “While they intend to clear out retained stool, they may inadvertently clean out the healthy, good bacteria in the gut as well,” says Dr. Bergquist. “Without adequate fluid intake, the loose, watery bowel movements can leave you dehydrated and depleted of essential electrolytes.” Yikes.
Perhaps the main problem with “detoxes,” though, is the fact that they’re meant to be quick fixes, which usually means they’re unsustainable in the long term. “Many cleanses don’t provide support on how to eat after you finish the program,” says Shapiro. Not only does this tend to result in feelings of failure post-detox, but it also means there’s nothing stopping you from binging on all the foods you so diligently avoided for the last 72 hours, because why not?
Many of us do need structure when it comes to getting back on track with our eating habits, and that’s AOK. Instead of choosing a liquid-only meal plan, experts suggest opting for a regimen that eliminates processed foods to help you cut back on salt, added sugars, and saturated fats.
Instead of prescribing juice cleanses, Shapiro gives detox-interested clients daily plans that include nutrient-dense meals like smoothies, loaded salads, roasted veggie bowls, and fruit and nuts as snacks. Tea and water are allowed all day long, while soda, coffee drinks (other than organic black coffee, if tolerated well), and alcohol are off-limits.
Dr. Bergquist also encourages patients to eat simply when they want to reboot their diet. “Reintroduce foods closest to their natural form,” she says. “We know from an abundance of studies that the healthiest dietary patterns in the world are those that include whole or minimally processed, plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and spices.”
Finally, if the January cleanse craze is making you feel even worse about your holiday season diet slips, know this: “What’s done is done, remove the guilt, enjoy the experience, and then go back to healthy eating,” Shapiro tells clients. “Take a break from desserts every night or don’t open a bottle of wine at home; only enjoy a drink when you’re out. Make sure half your plate is filled with veggies at every meal and aim for three to four workouts a week. We get results from the choices we make most of the time; small blips or indulgences don’t mean we have poisoned our bodies and need to detox them.”