Nutrition’s Role in Detoxification: Not just another “fad diet”

August 23, 2017, 2017
By: Joanna Foley, RD


The word “detox” is one that has generated a lot of controversy over the years due to many unhealthy and scientifically unsound “fads” that have been promoted by the media. Popular detox diets have included the “Master Cleanse”, also known as the lemonade diet, and various forms of juice cleanses. While these diets do succeed in eliminating unhealthy and processed “junk foods” and may induce short term weight loss, they often deprive the body of vital nutrients necessary for proper detoxification and are not recommended by most Registered Dietitians or other health professionals.

What is detoxification?

Detoxification is a biochemical process in which the body rids itself of toxins from both the environment and those produced within the body (endotoxins). The human body is naturally designed to detox with help from organs such as the lungs, kidneys, skin and liver and does so through processes including urination, bowel movements, sweating, and breathing.

However, despite this innate ability to detox, the body can get into a state of toxic overload, or “oxidative stress”, which occurs when the amount of toxic exposure surpasses the body’s ability to detoxify. When this happens, studies have shown that chronic diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation can occur. One of the biggest contributors to a toxic overload for the average American is consuming the Standard American Diet that is lacking in key nutrients to support proper detoxification.  Other contributors to this overwhelming toxic load include repeated exposure to pollution, tobacco smoke, pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, heavy metals and many man-made chemicals found everyday household items. Fortunately, proper nutrition and lifestyle factors can help to both prevent this oxidative stress and aid in proper detoxification processes.

Dietary compounds to support detoxification

  • Antioxidants: True to their name, foods high in antioxidants help scavenge free radicals and reduce the damaging effects of toxins. Foods high in antioxidants include berries, nuts and seeds, leafy green and orange vegetables, coffee, tea, dark chocolate and many spices such as cinnamon.
  • B vitamins: B vitamins are required for the biochemical detoxification pathway that occurs in the liver and without them the liver's ability to detox is compromised. Some foods rich in B vitamins include whole grains, beans, poultry, dairy, eggs, and many fruits and vegetables.
  • Glutathione: Also necessary for the detoxification pathway in the liver, glutathione is a protein made up of the amino acids cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid. It also serves as a powerful antioxidant. Consuming foods like whey protein and sulfur rich vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, garlic, onions, etc.) are two ways to boost glutathione levels in the body.
  • Fiber: Both soluble and insoluble fiber help promote regular production of bowel movements, which is a major way the body excretes toxins.
  • High quality protein: Protein provides amino acids, which are necessary for the liver’s detoxification pathway. High quality protein foods include organic meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and soy.
  • Curcumin: Curcumin, the active constituent in the spice turmeric, has shown protective effects towards the gallbladder in promoting bile flow, another method of detoxification.

Lifestyle factors to reduce toxic exposure

  • Avoidance of following the Standard American Diet (SAD), which includes high amounts of refined sugar, refined fours, artificial ingredients, inflammatory fats and preservatives. Instead, aim to consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, anti-inflammatory fats, and high quality protein.
  • Reduce exposure to pesticides by choosing organic produce whenever possible, specifically of the Dirty Dozen.
  • Reduce exposure to man-made chemicals found in plastics, cleaning products, hygiene products, and many other everyday use items. This can be done by storing food and beverages in glass containers and purchasing cleaning and hygiene products that are made from naturally derived ingredients whenever possible.
  • Reduce exposure to cigarette smoke and polluted air.


While it’s true that the body is naturally designed to detox, following a diet and lifestyle plan that will reduce toxic exposure and aid detoxification may help treat and prevent the conditions associated with toxin buildup. However, rather than thinking of detoxification as a short-term fad diet, viewing it as an everyday lifestyle can help promote longer term and more sustainable health improvements. Working with a Registered Dietitian can help identify sources of toxins in the diet and create an individualized plan to help reduce exposure and promote proper detoxification in the body.

What are your thoughts on detox diets? Feel free to share your comments below.

For more on detox, check out our Archived Webinars, including "Why Detox? Tips and Tools for Guiding Your Patients towards a Healthy Liver" presented by Mary Purdy, MS, RDN.  We'll also be hosting a Twitter Chat on August 29, 2017 at 8PM ET on "Decoding Detox", and we'd love for you to join the conversation.