Despite the fact that the detox diet industry is booming, researchers have determined that there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets (Klein & Kiat, 2014). In fact, no rigorous clinical investigations of detox diets have been conducted and the few studies published thus far suffer from various limitations to their findings (Klein & Kiat, 2014).
Moreover, the human body has evolved such that the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin, and lungs all play a role in a highly sophisticated system for eliminating toxins (Anzenbacher & Anzenbacherova, 2001). As such, not only are detox diets unnecessary for eliminating toxins, they can be harmful – consumers run the risk of being deprived of adequate nutrition or overdosing on certain supplements. Additionally, these diets can perpetuate unhealthy relationships with food and nourishment for some individuals.
Given the dearth of scientific data supporting these diets, the fact that these diets are unnecessary, and the data illustrating that they can actually be harmful, the question is: why are detox diets promising toxin elimination so seductive?
The promise of purification through toxin elimination is a fantasy that may be connected to an inner sense of contamination.
Based on the scientific literature, it seems that this inner sense of contamination may be more metaphorical than real in nature. What does the urge to detox or cleanse tell us psychologically? Perhaps the urge points to a sense of inner emotional toxicity. It might be easier to do one of these diets than face the hard work of understanding and talking about what is leading to a sense of inner toxicity. Is there a need to eliminate toxic relationships, toxic self-talk, toxic self-image, or toxic shame? In this context, detox diets can be seen as a psychological defense mechanism. They can be a concrete way to protect ourselves from our feelings. Specifically, in a sense, a detox diet can be viewed as a form of splitting — splitting is a defense mechanism that involves a black and white way of thinking leading to an inability to integrate the complexities of one’s inner life into a cohesive whole. In this defense mechanism, the world becomes either good or bad. Similarly, one could say that a drive to cleanse or detox could be an effort to get all the “bad” out of the body so one is left being good and pure. Instead of splitting off the bad or toxic, perhaps a more integrated approach would be to see how we can come to terms with the parts of ourselves that are less than ideal – how can the “good” and “bad” co-exist? Perhaps the real task is to integrate ourselves into a cohesive whole as opposed to vilifying parts of ourselves and getting rid of them in the name of purity.
Detox diets may be a form of magical thinking that serves to perpetuate a vicious cycle of deprivation and indulgence.
Another reason detox diets may be so seductive is that they engage the consumer in a form of magical thinking that gives a sense of control over internal processes that are largely out of our control
(i.e., our body knows how to cleanse itself without our involvement). Perhaps they give a false sense of omnipotence in the face of a lack of trust in one’s body. Some consumers turn to detox diets when they are desperate for change — perhaps feeling out of control with overeating. In this sense, the detox diet is an attempt to break a vicious cycle. While these programs can be helpful for changing patterns of behavior, it is also important to remember that drastic measures to change can end up perpetuating a vicious cycle. For instance, it is known that restriction can often lead to binge eating. For more information about this topic, see
With an understanding that detox diets may be a form of a defense mechanism that end up perpetuating a vicious cycle, it is important to ask ourselves what motivates our desire to detox.
By giving ourselves some reflection time when the urge to cleanse or when detox comes up, we can become aware of what we really need on an emotional level. By asking ourselves what we really need, we can become open to an answer that is a bit bigger than a detox diet or cleanse. Is there a possibility that we look to detox diets to solve something we are not fully conscious of? Part of healing our relationship with food and with our bodies involves making the unconscious conscious so that we have choice and can have a new experience of having needs met. It is incredibly helpful to start by putting thoughts and feelings into words. When we put our thoughts and feelings into words, we don’t have to put them into actions and can understand ourselves and others better. In the context of detox diets, this, once more, means that we can shift our focus from the action of following the instructions of cleanse, rinse, and repeat, to the space of putting into words what is happening inside of us.
Anzenbacher, P. & Anzenbacherova, E. (2001). Cytochromes P450 and metabolism of xenobiotics. Cell Mol Life Sci, 58, 737–747.
Fairburn, C. G. (2013). Overcoming binge eating. Guilford Press.
Klein, A. V. & Kiat, H. (2014). Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Nutritional Sciences, 28 (6), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jhn.12286).
I’m Brooke Rowland, one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles
where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People
Brooke received her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from the University of Southern California and holds a B.A. in History from UC Berkeley and a Juris Doctorate from Loyola Law School. Brooke’s clinical training and experience includes working with trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, and emotion dysregulation. She has worked with diverse populations and in diverse settings including community mental health and holistic addiction and trauma treatment centers. She believes that the therapeutic relationship can create a safe place in which one can regain a sense of trust in relationships, increase self-awareness, recognize and verbalize needs, and ultimately, find a voice.