Deconstructing Detox Diet Scams


Detox:  you constantly see it mentioned but what does it mean?  Actually — nothing;  it’s a nebulous term used by snake oil-salesmen to sell products cloaked in pseudoscientific babble on late night television and throughout the Internet.   Untold numbers of believers swear by detoxes and cleanses — a group that includes such celebrities as Dr. Oz, Donna Karan, the Kardashian klan and Gwyneth Paltrow, who recently launched her own $425 goop cleanse.  Yet, it’s all a money-driven myth.  Marketing materials for detox treatments typically describe an array of symptoms and diseases linked to toxin buildup: A few that are general enough to apply to anyone (e.g., headache, fatigue, insomnia, hunger) with a few specifics to frighten you (cancer, etc.) Which toxins cause which disease is missing, and how the toxins cause the symptoms is never actually explained. There’s absolutely no scientific support for most of the “detox systems” and “cleanses” marketed by various companies. The British organisation Sense About Science has described some detox diets and commercial products as “a waste of time and money

Despite the variety of toxins that are claimed to be causing your illness, marketing claims for detox treatments cannot specific toxins to specific symptoms or illnesses. Some detoxification proponents claim that intestinal sluggishness causes intestinal contents to putrefy, toxins are absorbed, and chronic poisoning of the body results. This “autointoxication” theory was popular around the turn of the century but was abandoned by the scientific community during the 1930s. No such “toxins” have ever been found, and careful observations have shown that individuals in good health can vary greatly in bowel habits.

But what about Master Cleanse, CleanseSmart, Detox and Cleanse Complete, Clean Program, Tava Tea, Red Smoothie Detox, UltraClear and the hundreds of other promotions promising cleansing and detox diets?  The facts are that they are essentially scam artists who  know exactly what to say and do to convince people to buy that $80 bottle of potion or pills that will supposedly change your life.  There is a big difference between these cons and diets, like that popularized by former President Bill Clinton, which focus on healthy eating.   Lifestyle changes work — detox/cleanses simply don’t.  Could all of those marketers be lying?  Sadly, yes.

Here’s The Real Deal on Toxins

The reality is that our bodies are constantly being exposed to a huge variety of natural and synthetic chemicals. The presence of any chemical in the body, (natural or synthetic) does not mean that it is doing harm. Many naturally-derived substances can be exceptionally toxic, and consequently the human body has evolved a remarkable system of defenses and mechanisms to defend against, and remove unwanted substances. The skin, kidneys, lymphatic system, our gastrointestinal system, and most importantly, the liver make up our astoundingly complex and sophisticated intrinsic detoxification system. Importantly, the dose makes the poison – even water can be toxic (dilutional hyponatremia) when consumed in excessive amounts.The idea that you can wash away your calorific sins is the perfect antidote to our fast-food lifestyles and alcohol-lubricated social lives. But before you dust off that juicer or take the first tentative steps towards a colonic irrigation clinic, there’s something you should know: detoxing; the idea that you can flush your system of impurities and leave your organs squeaky clean and raring to go just isn’t factually accurate. It’s a pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things.  If toxins did build up in a way your body couldn’t excrete you’d likely be dead or in need of serious medical intervention.

“Detox” is a legitimate medical term that’s been hijacked by marketers to  treat a nonexistent conditions. Medically speaking, detox is just the removal of a dangerous substance from the body. For example, a drug addict may require detox to rid their body of the drug and then teach their body how to function without the drug. Detoxification treatments are medical procedures that are not casually selected from a menu of alternative health treatments, or pulled off the shelf in the pharmacy. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals when there are life-threatening circumstances. The “toxins” that alternative health providers claim to eliminate are entirely fabricated threats that can’t be identified with any specificity because they don’t exist.

In 2009, a network of scientists assembled by the UK charity Sense about Science contacted the manufacturers of 15 products sold in pharmacies and supermarkets that claimed to detoxify. The products ranged from dietary supplements to smoothies and shampoos. When the scientists asked for evidence behind the claims, not one of the manufacturers could define what they meant by detoxification, let alone name the toxins. Or check out the detox dossier; a group of scientists examined 15 common “detox” products, from shampoo to juices to foot pads. All the products failed to explain what “toxins” they were combating or how their product worked, and there was no evidence of usefulness for any of them.

Most of the “toxins” that detox diets supposedly “cleanse” you of either don’t exist, or are nonissues because your body is completely capable of dealing with them on its own. “Too much food” is not a toxin, regardless of how guilty you might feel about it.  Yet, inexplicably, the shelves of health food stores and websites throughout the Internet are still packed with products bearing the word “detox” – it’s the marketing equivalent of drawing go-faster stripes on your car. You can buy detoxifying tablets, tinctures, tea bags, face masks, bath salts, hair brushes, shampoos, body gels and even hair straighteners. Yoga, luxury retreats, and massages will also all erroneously promise to detoxify. You can go on a seven-day detox diet and you’ll probably lose weight, but that’s nothing to do with toxins, it’s because you would have starved yourself for a week.

How Your Body Actually Cleanses Itself

The liver breaks down alcohol in a two-step process. Enzymes in the liver first convert alcohol to acetaldehyde, a very toxic substance that damages liver cells. It is then almost immediately converted into carbon dioxide and water which the body gets rid of. Drinking too much can overwhelm these enzymes and the acetaldehyde buildup will lead to liver damage. Moderate and occasional drinking, though, might have a protective effect. A healthy liver receives all the blood that flows away from the stomach and intestines. Then it sorts through and picks out the good stuff to keep and the bad stuff to excrete. You can see this at work in the case of alcohol. Alcohol is a drug like any other drug, and has the potential to cause some serious damage if it hangs out in your bloodstream for too long, so it gets sent to the liver, where it’s metabolized and ultimately excreted.The same goes for other poisons or toxins. If necessary, they’re first transformed from fat-soluble (lipophilic) forms into water-soluble forms that can be easily excreted. Then they’re passed out of the liver into urine or feces, and flushed down the toilet where they won’t do you any harm. Your liver uses a two-phase process to break down chemicals and toxins. During phase 1, toxins are neutralized and broken into smaller fragments. Then, in phase 2 they are bound to other molecules, creating a new non-toxic molecule that can be excreted in your bile, urine or stool.

Your kidneys also help by filtering out more waste products from the blood and passing them into the urine.  Your liver and kidneys are very good at detox: that’s their job. This doesn’t make toxins healthy to eat: if you can avoid causing stress to your body, avoid it. So if you eat foods that support your liver and kidneys, or avoid foods that stress your liver and kidneys, you’re already detoxing every day — and unless you’ve gone through something like a serious bout of alcoholism or heavy metal toxicity, you don’t really need any fancy herbal blends or colonic cleanses

And the myth of the “autointoxication” from the colon deserves to die a quick and painful death. There’s no evidence that toxins get stuck in your colon, start putrefying in there, and need to be “cleansed” away with any kind of special diet or therapy. That’s just scare tactics. If they accumulate in your body at all, toxins accumulate in the liver and the fat cells, not the colon.Your colon is equipped with several natural mechanisms to keep toxins from building up.  The colon is, quite literally, a waste removal system. It’s specifically designed to handle large amounts of toxic fecal matter. It’s “dirty” just like the inside of your garbage can is dirty. It’s supposed to be dirty! It’s built to hold all that dirt and keep it from ending up where it doesn’t belong. Sure, people have problems with their colons from time to time, but ripping it asunder with a bunch of fiber and regularly shooting it with a powerful stream of water won’t help you there.For example:

  • Natural bacteria in the colon can detoxify food waste.
  • Mucus membranes in the colon can keep unwanted substances from reentering the blood and tissues.
  • The colon sheds old cells about every three days, preventing a buildup of harmful material, and even allowing for expulsion of parasites

If colon cleansing or enemas have any effect in making you feel like you have more energy or have been “cleansed”, it is more likely to do with an activation of specific reflexes in your gut that cause your nervous system to relax, along with stimulation of bile production by the liver, which can indeed improve digestion, have a laxative effect, relieve constipation and cause you to go to the bathroom. Sure, this could potentially make you feel better by allowing you to better digest your food, or to even pass some feces that may have built up over the past few days.

For your liver, you can do things like avoid high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats from processed and packaged foods like canola oil and French fries, and instead eat those type of fats from fish, meat, seeds and nuts. You can avoid high amounts of fructose and sugar, limit alcohol, consume plenty of egg yolks (which contain choline that your liver uses to process fats), eat good, organic liver every now and then and pay attention to what kind of soaps and shampoos and household cleaners you’re using.
For your kidneys, you can limit intake of high fructose corn syrup, drink plenty of water, limit alcohol intake, and — if you are predisposed to renal issues — limit excessive protein intake (e.g. more than 200g/day of protein).  So, if you simply eat a moderate-carb diet, limit fructose intake and ingest choline, you’ve helped your liver without having to shell out big bucks to some scam.  But where’s the money in that?   So the marketing fraudsters have proliferated a number of largely useless detoxes and cleanses that they use to justify cleansing you of your money.

Types of Useless Detox

The sham detoxes almost always start with  some combination of food additives, gluten, salt, meat, fluoride, prescription drugs, smog, vaccine ingredients, GMOs, and alcohol that are causing a buildup of “toxins” in the body. A common characteristic of these detox treatments is they never name the specific toxins that these rituals and kits will remove. For example Renew Life promises you that it will rid the liver of toxins through some “targeted” treatment, but never mentions a specific toxin.
CleanseSMART is a 2 part, 30 day, advanced herbal cleansing program that claims to cleanse and detoxify the entire body, but toxins are alluded to – not named. It sounds somewhat plausible, but is non-specific.  It’s the same with Master Cleanse, also known as the lemonade diet, the Master Cleanse protocol prescribes a strict detox diet consisting of distilled water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, with morning salt water flushes. Yeah, you basically drink nothing but spicy lemonade for thirty days and this is supposed to remove “harmful toxins,” accelerate “healthy weight loss,” and bring about “the correction of all disorders. According to the Harvard Medical School: “There are no data on this particular diet in the medical literature. But many studies have shown that fasts and extremely low-calorie diets invariably lower the body’s basal metabolic rate as it struggles to conserve energy. Once the dieter resumes normal eating, rapid weight gain follows.”

“Colon Cleansing”

Colon cleansers are marketed as powders to which water is added before use. The ingredients vary from one product to another, but the basic ingredients include fiber (e.g. psyllium, flaxseed, bentonite) and laxatives such as cascara and magnesium oxide. Other ingredients include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and probiotics, all of which are variously claimed to promote detoxification, boost the immune system, promote weight loss and restore helpful bacteria. Magnesium oxide is claimed to release nascent oxygen. The laxative ingredients may be included in the powder or as a separate herbal tea. Users are generally instructed to drink 6-10 glasses of water daily. The recommended duration of use varies from a few days to several months. Some people have reported expelling large amounts of what they claim to be feces that have accumulated on the intestinal wall. However, experts believe these are simply “casts” formed by the fiber contained in the “cleansing” products.   As the US National Library of Medicine states, “There is preliminary evidence to suggest that certain foods such as coriander, nori and olestra have detoxification properties, although the majority of these studies have been performed in animals….no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans.”

Cleansing” products offer no additional benefit, and some can cause unnecessary bloating, cramps and diarrhea. As explained above, there is no evidence of any kind that toxins accumulate in the colon, or that they need to be “cleansed” or “flushed out.” You cannot help your body “detox” by taking harsh drugs that work on an organ completely unrelated to your detoxification system!  Taking a huge megadose of fiber and laxatives is not the way to better health. But these therapies — which include enemas and colonics, as well as laxatives and herbal remedies — are not medically useful, according to the Mayo Clinic.  A common “cleanse” is milk thistle – which has never shown benefits in any controlled studies. They’re generally low-quality supplements and not worth your money.

In fact, colon cleansing can sometimes be harmful. In fact, coffee enemas sometimes used in colon cleansing have been linked to several deaths. Colon cleansing can also cause less serious side effects, such as cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting.Other concerns with colon cleansing are that it can:

  • Increase your risk of dehydration
  • Lead to bowel perforations
  • Increase the risk of infection
  • Cause changes in your electrolytes, which can be dangerous if you have kidney or heart disease or other health problems

Similarly, colonic irrigation (also called colon hydrotherapy) is intended to flush the entire length of the colon. Colon irrigation has a few legitimate medical uses, such as preparation for surgery or radiological endoscopy and for treating fecal incontinence, but its use for “detoxification” is irrational

Quack Devices

Two types of quack detoxification devices are widely promoted: ionic cleansing devices and detox foot pads. During ionic cleansing, sessions, the customer’s feet are bathed in a container in which salt water is subjected to a low-voltage current. During the process, the water typically turns reddish brown. Proponents claim that the process draws toxins from the body and that the color is due to the toxins entering the water. However, investigations have revealed that the color change is the result of precipitation of rust (oxidized iron) created by corrosion of the device’s electrodes and that the water would change color whether or not a foot was placed in it .
Various adhesive pads and patches are claimed to detoxify the body when users apply them to the soles of the feet and leave them on overnight. By morning, they claim, the pads will absorb toxins and turn muddy brown or black. However, investigators have found that the darkening had nothing to do with toxins; the pads contain a chemical that reacts to moisture by becoming darker.

Of course, it always feels good to rest your tired feet in a container of warm water, and the slight tingling sensation caused by the low-voltage current might even be rather pleasant. But the stuff about drawing “toxins” out of your body is pure bunk. That’s the job of your kidneys, which are exquisitely suited to this task. But any scientists will confirm for you that:

  • there is no way an electric current passing through a part of your body can distinguish between “good” molecules and “bad” molecules (“toxins”), most of which are electrically neutral anyway;
  • the skin is impermeable to all but a few chemical substances; there is no evidence that any that are found inside the body can pass through the skin to the outside, with or without the help of an electric current.

All but a very few of the “toxins” produced as metabolic products are colorless— suggesting that what you see during these “treatments” is put there for show.
You place your feet in a bowl of water to which a bit of salt has been added. A small electric current is passed between two electrodes immersed in the water, which soon becomes quite discolored. The color, of course, comes from electrolytic corrosion of the metal electrodes. These are usually made of iron, nickel, and copper, all of which decompose into colored ions. These colors will vary with the amount of salt present and the pH of the solution, and they can be changed and greatly intensified by the substances that either added to the bath before use, or are present in the “soaps” often used to prepare the patient’s feet. By-products of the electrolysis process are bubbles of hydrogen and chlorine gases (both of which are dangerous in confined spaces) and sodium hydroxide, commonly known as “lye”. The latter tends to soften skin, allowing it to flake off, pick up various colors on reacting with the metal ions, and complete the illusion that one usually pays dearly for: individual treatments can be from $50 up, and the grossly overpriced power supply “machines” sold for home use can go for more than $1000. (You could of course build your own power source from parts obtainable from Radio Shack for around $35; see here for instructions.)

Similarly, with detox foot pads, some of the plant extracts contain flavinoid compounds, many of which are known to darken as they become air-oxidized in the presence of moisture. But you can be sure that these have nothing at all to do with “toxins” All that really gets cleaned out is your wallet!

Sweating Out Alleged Toxins

Some recommendations for “detoxification” are based on blood tests that can detect chemicals in concentrations of parts per billion. This enables levels too low to be clinically significant to be misinterpreted as dangerous. If any “toxin” level is interpreted as abnormal, the patient may be advised to use exercise, sauna treatments, showers, massage, herbal wraps, and/or high doses of niacin (which can increase blood flow to the skin). Real detoxification of foreign substances takes place in the liver, which modifies their chemical structure so they can be excreted by the kidneys which filter them from the blood into the urine. Sweat glands in the feet can excrete water and some dissolved substances, but its minor role in ridding the body of unwanted substances is not changed by anything done to the skin.For the most part, toxins are filtered from the liver into bile, where they pass through the gallbladder and exit via feces or urine. There’s a very minimal amount of evidence that small amounts of toxins appear in sweat, but the study linked is full of hedges about “crude experimental techniques” and precautions like “sweat concentrations measured in research settings are not well validated.” Also, compared to the liver, sweat is a very, very minor detox pathway: less than 1% of all toxins are filtered through sweat. You’d be much better off focusing on liver health, as described above.

Anti-Amalgam Quackery

A small but vocal group of dentists, physicians, and various other “holistic” advocates claim that amalgam fillings are a health hazard and should be replaced. Anti-amalgam dentists sometimes use a mercury vapor analyzer to persuade patients that “detoxification,” is needed. To use the device, the dentist asks the patient to chew vigorously for ten minutes, which may generate tiny amounts of mercury from the fillings. Although this exposure lasts for just a few seconds and most of the mercury will be exhaled rather than absorbed by the body, the machine gives a falsely high readout that the anti-amalgamists interpret as dangerous. However, scientific testing has shown that the amount of mercury absorbed from fillings is too small to be significant. Removing good fillings is not merely a waste of money. In some cases, it results in tooth loss because when fillings are drilled out, some of the surrounding tooth structure will be removed with it.

Chelation Therapy

Chelation therapy involves the administration of a substance that combines with metallic chemicals to increase their excretion by the kidneys. The most common form is a series of intravenous infusions that contain a chelating agent (EDTA) and various other substances. Doctors who offer chelation therapy as part of their everyday practice typically claim that it is effective against autism, heart disease and many other conditions for which it has no proven effectiveness or plausible rationale. they’re wonderful – if you have a diagnosable, detectable case of heavy metal poisoning. If you’re wondering whether you do or you don’t: you don’t. If you did, you’d be in the hospital talking to a doctor. No controlled studies have ever demonstrated the usefulness of chelation agents for “detox” outside of hospital-level heavy metal toxicity.

“Provoked” testing” is used to trick people into thinking that they have lead or mercury poisoning. To do this test, the patient is given a chelating agent before the specimen is obtained. This artificially raises the levels of lead, mercury, and/or other heavy metals in the urine. The test report, a copy of which is given to the patient, states that its “reference values” are for non-provoked specimens. However, if a test level exceeds the reference values—which it usually will—it is reported as “elevated” even though it should be considered insignificant. The patient is then advised to undergo “detoxification” with chelation therapy, other intravenous treatments, dietary supplements, or whatever else the practitioner happens to sell [7]. This advice is very, very, very wrong. No diagnosis of lead or mercury toxicity should be made unless the patient has symptoms of heavy metal poisoning as well as a much higher non-provoked blood level. And even if the level is elevated—as might occur in an unsafe workplace or by eating lead-containing paint—all that is usually needed is to remove further exposure.

There is no credible evidence to demonstrate that detox kits do anything at all. They have not been shown to remove remove “toxins” or offer any health benefits. The same can be said for quackery like coffee enemas – there is no credible evidence to support claims that coffee enemas help the body to “detoxify” compounds, or help the liver function more effectively. Vitamin injections are another treatment that fail to offer meaningful benefits to consumers, and have no beneficial effect on the ability of your liver or kidneys to work effectively. Chelation injections are touted as a cure-all for all kinds of illnesses, but unlike real chelation that’s administered in hospitals for real cases of poisoning, naturopath chelation is not science-based and doesn’t seem to do much of anything.

Our Bottom Line

Any product or service with the words “detox” or “cleanse” in the name is only truly effective at cleansing your wallet of cash. Alternative medicine’s ideas of detoxification and cleansing have no basis in reality. There’s no published evidence to suggest that detox treatments, kits or rituals have any effect on our body’s ability to eliminate waste products effectively. They do have the ability to harm however – not only direct effects, like coffee enemas and purgatives, but the broader distraction away from the reality of how the body actually works and what we need to do to keep it healthy. “Detox” focuses attention on irrelevant issues, and gives consumers the impression that they can undo lifestyle decisions with quick fixes. Improved health isn’t found in a box of herbs, a bottle of homeopathy, or a bag of coffee pushed into your rectum. The lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. Our kidneys and liver don’t need a detox treatment. If anyone suggests a detox or cleanse to you, you’d do well to ignore the suggestion, and question any other health advice they may offer. All the potions, pills, enemas and lengthy books are doing little in the way of  cleansing and detoxifying.  To the extent they reduce your intake of processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, candy, soda, commercial meat and snack foods, you are giving your liver and kidneys a chance to step up and do their normal detoxification duties, since they’re no longer overburdened with bad food and not enough micronutrients and minerals to support their normal function.  But you already know that…..and you didn’t have to pay us a penny to get reminded about what you already know.

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