It can be tempting to try a detox or cleanse this time of year. After the excesses of the holidays, with so much food and booze, you might be feeling tired and bloated, and you may be carrying a few extra pounds. Flushing out toxins and feeling renewed and refreshed sounds so appealing. But science says your body is perfectly able to rid itself of toxins—your liver, kidneys, and digestive tract can do the job! And liquid diets may do more harm than good. “I have a hard time with those words,” says Jae Berman, MS, RDN, CSSD, and head coach at Habit. “Toxin is a strong term, and if you really needed to detoxify, you should probably be in a hospital! The better concept is hitting the reset button and cleaning up your diet, without going to extremes.”
Here’s what you need to know before you start starving yourself. Plus, the better, healthier way to help your body bounce back after the holidays.
Why Detoxes Don’t Work
At the extreme, detox diets tell you to drink liquids only for days or even weeks. That might mean cayenne-lemon water, green smoothies, a rainbow of juices, bone broth, or “tea toxes” (which may hide laxatives). The crazier trends include tacos, vodka, even charcoal. Some programs also tell you to buy pricey supplements (read labels very carefully—they may not be regulated by the FDA).
Technically, toxins are always hanging out in your body, explains Berman. You’re exposed to chemicals, parasites, and bacteria—from the food you eat, but also the air and environment—all of the time, and your body naturally defends itself. Post holidays, you may also have more alcohol and sugar in your system, and if you’ve been flying or up in the mountains, you may simply be dehydrated. So it’s great to drink up, but lemon water won’t kill bad guys.
“If you exclusively drink liquid for a series of days, you’re just going to lose water and muscle,” says Berman. “The second you start eating regular food again, you’ll gain the weight back. You’re putting stress on your body—it doesn’t know you’re downtown in an office, it thinks you’re starving in the desert! And it will hold onto every morsel.”
Another misconception is “sweating out” toxins. You only lose a trace amount of toxins through your skin, meaning a tiny bit. But if you’re doing a juice cleanse, the sauna or treadmill might actually be unsafe. Berman’s metaphor: “You’re starving in the desert, and now you’re being chased by a lion! That’s hard on your body.”
How to Recover the Healthy Way
Still want to try it? Rather than worrying about toxins, there are more sane ways to help your body recover in the new year. “Hit the reset button,” says Berman, “But don’t call it a detox. Let’s just call it clean eating.”
It’s not about starvation. Don’t deprive yourself! You should never feel ravenous. Even if you cut calories, continue to eat real food and have small snacks, every 2 to 3 hours.
Two days is enough. There’s nothing wrong with eating light for a couple of days, but a weekend is all you need. Reset, reflect, and practice healthy habits you can maintain all year.
Just eat clean. Take a break from alcohol. Cut out processed foods—anything in a package, with a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce. Cut back on sugar, salt, and saturated fat, which aren’t toxins, but aren’t supporting your health either.
Eat more plants. Replace cocktails, cookies, and roast beef with colorful fruits and veggies. If you really want a detox diet, the soup trend is a good way to do it. Fill a pot with veggies that provide fiber and minerals, plus plenty of liquid.
Drink lots of water. It’s one of only things liquid diets get right. Hydrate to help your body to function efficiently, particularly your digestive system and kidneys—the cleansing champions.
Rather than starving and making yourself miserable, the real point is to spend a couple of days being kinder to your body. Get back to basics, drinking water and eating veggies, to give your organs the nutrients they need to do the job. Get back into your workout routine, and give your mind a break, as well! Lay low this weekend, and make a nourishing soup or big batch meal for the week ahead. Then carry healthy habits and self care with you through the rest of the year—clean eating isn’t only for the month of January.