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Do detox diets work? What a dietitian wants you to know

Doing a "cleanse" or "detox" doesn't work exactly the way a lot of people think.

Most of the time when you think of a cleanse, you probably think about the popular idea of liquid cleansing, whether it’s lemon water and cayenne or green juices. But, the truth is, there’s no real definition.

For some people, cleansing might be juicing, for others it may be eating raw food — and for still others, it can be as simple as taking fried food out of their diets.

Red Smoothie Bowl

So let’s start here: My idea of a cleanse might be a little bit different than what you've heard. I am a fan of a good cleanse and think it’s important to free your body of harmful toxins and chemicals, but my ideal way of cleansing is to use real food to help your body do the job it’s designed to do.

What many people don’t realize is that our bodies are natural cleansing systems built to detox all the time. Instead of starving your body through a liquid diet to combat toxins, I believe in feeding it with nutritious, naturally cleansing foods that help heal it.

Our liver, skin, urinary system and GI tract are constantly helping to cleanse our bodies through sweat, urine and bowel movements. As toxins build up in our systems, any number of health problems can occur, including weight gain, headaches, dull skin, fatigue, lowered immunity, and aches and pains. The process of cleansing may help remove these toxins from the body.

So the best way to stay cleansed is to consistently incorporate greens and lots of veggies, fruit and healthy fat into your diet. Eating a diet high in fiber and loaded with water and taking out all packaged and processed foods will help ensure that your body is cleansing itself naturally all the time.

The mistake most people make is equating detoxes and cleanses with weight loss. Doing an extreme cleanse such as a liquid or extremely low-calorie diet may lack essential nutrients, cause electrolyte losses, fatigue, headaches and nausea.

This is why “cleanses” and “detoxes” that are based solely on liquids are not recommended for certain people, including those with low blood sugar, diabetes or people with a history of yo-yo dieting. Plus, more extreme versions of cleanses may set you up for failure by slowing your metabolism and making you crave everything you just gave up — and they can deprive your body of essential nutrients.

In short, liquid cleanses don't help you or your body learn about and develop a healthy lifestyle.

There is a time and place for some people to do a cleanse the healthy way. Whether you just over-indulged on vacation, you've been in a fast food rut or you’re looking for a jump-start to a healthier lifestyle, a real food cleanse with adequate calories may help you reboot.

Before you even begin, it’s also crucial to have a plan of attack for when the cleanse ends. A cleanse should lay a foundation for what you will eat going forward. Because you don't want to revert right back to the junk food you were avoiding in the first place.