Detoxing: The new Code Word for Diet?

From the fat-free crazes of the 90s to the Atkin’s super sensation..diets have been a household name forever. Now, the word “diet” seems to be mysteriously missing from the headlines lately.


Around 2010-ish, the word diet might have been replaced by detox—the act of abstaining from or ridding the body of toxic substances.

This makes sense; consider yourself a “Mad Men” advertising exec for a moment. Would you really want to link your new product to a word that’s been associated with crazes gone bad?  Either way, you needn’t look very far these days to see the benefits of a good detox being touted. Some are better than others, however, and it’s best to explore what’s really driving this new phenomenon.

The Lure: An “Easy” Fix

While the majority of Americans are awash in processed calories, alcoholic beverages, and unhealthful eating habits–there are those who do their best to eat right and live healthfully. Unfortunately, all that trying can go to waste when there’s too much information (TMI!) bombarding you from every end of the internet, or something is suddenly found to be “bad” that was once touted as “good”. Things become even more complicated when people seek a silver bullet or instant result. Trendsetters are simply praying on a desire that can be found in all of us; an “easy fix” to our bad behavior.

Hence the appeal of many cleanses, which promise to negate our calorie based sins and allow us to start afresh (in only a few short days!). Of course, cleaning the slate is one thing—keeping it clean is another thing entirely.

Juice cleanses pledge a substantial amount of weight loss in just 7 days, but only because you’ll have spent those days probably starving yourself. Trust me, I do believe in giving the digestive tract a break, and that’s why I prefer to use intermittent fasting (IF), combined with juices, and very specific food ingredients throughout the cleanse. I’m adamantly against the consumption of juice, exclusively, for over 48 hours, and prefer to prescribe layers of cleansing techniques instead.

What is the difference between a diet and a detox?

There’s another definition for diet, one that’s a better fit for my practical advice: “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”. Detoxes, while important, are meant to be temporary–diet comes from the Greek diaita, which quite literally means “manner of living” or “way of life”.

Detoxes should be done a few times a year (after the major holidays for instance); whereas a diet is a systemic and long-term like what I write about in Wild Mediterranean, The Age-Old, Science-New Plan, With Food You Can Trust.  The onset of detox should really be a pretox that journeys into specific ingredients from land or sea for optimal benefits.  All three detox prescriptions are included in the book.

The Ugly Truth:

Why are detoxes meant to be temporary? Well, there’s a bit of ugliness behind detoxes when they’re used long term and do not include whole foods. Fads like the “Master Cleanses” don’t necessarily work in the long run. In fact, they could have unpleasant and dangerous side effects if you overuse them.

Juicing alone–without any whole foods included in your detox–might cause a huge spike in your blood sugar, and could end up feeding a certain type of gut bacteria linked to obesity. This spike is normally counteracted by the fibrous skin you ingest when you eat whole fruit, this benefit is missing from juicing, however (unless you use a high powered blender and keep the skin on).

The low caloric value of these cleanses is another issue. Fewer calories will generally lead to muscle breakdown (yikes!). That means you’re losing weight, but not the kind you are hoping to.

Even worse: you’re not just flushing out “toxins” by drastically altering your diet, you are potentially reorganizing the dominant strains of bacteria in your gut! If you don’t know why the above is bad, check out my articles on healthy gut bacteria and tips on how to cultivate it.

Prolonged attempts at detoxing can lead to muscle loss, fatigue, irritability and an inability to focus; not to mention the high chance of gaining back all the weight you lost and could set you up for a food binge after the cleanse is completed. This is a key difference between a detox and a diet; starvation is bad, and unacceptable in a diet, so why would we allow ourselves to starve when we “detox”? Again, whole foods are the best of both worlds: none of the downsides of a pure juice or temporary detox, and all of the ability to balance and revitalize your digestive tract.

They’re Not all Duds: What to Look For

The best form of detox is a food version; it’s not that veggie juice isn’t healthy, only that it shouldn’t be relied on alone for the long term. Think of it this way: if you really want the benefits that come from the fruits, eat it, don’t just drink it!

Next, see if your detox restricts common allergens. Any digestive “re-set” really should be about cutting out those foods that can really impact our metabolism and well-being (for some of the foods you need to avoid completely, check out my “foul four” and writing on the ills of artificial sweetener.

Finally, check the duration–is it a short-term commitment? For more of my personal recommendations look here.

The Real Key:

Detoxing is only powerful when it’s supplemental to a healthful diet. There’s no point in resetting your system if you’re going to go back to the same bad habits that bogged you down all over again.

“Detox” may be thrown around like the new term for diet, but they’re fundamentally 2 different things–and they work best when paired together. Think of detox as an opportunity to help “reset your slate”; a diet would then follow as a way to build on all the progress you’ve made.

Rather than an either/or, consider them a dynamic duo–working together to make you healthy.