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The problems with detoxes and cleanses…

October 12, 2009

As promised in a previous post, I am going to tackle the issue of cleanses and detoxes.  First and foremost want to be clear that I do not want to offend anyone. Let me explain:

Fundamental Foundational Beliefs

When I was in university I took this awesome course in Philosophy of Religion.  My professor was Peter Horban if I remember correctly, and it was actually his intelligence and sense of humor that helped make this lesson one that I have never forgotten (that and the 80 hours I had to be there).  The idea behind the course was that it may not even make sense for people who believe in God to argue with people who don’t.  There is no shared language of discussion because of fundamental foundational beliefs.  At the core of people’s belief systems are ideas that actually frame the way we perceive the world.  Two rational people with different fundamental foundational beliefs can agree on all of the facts and still disagree on the conclusions.  When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.  You may know many very bright, very intelligent people who disagree fundamentally on things like religion.  They could sit down and hash out all of the facts and still not agree.

After doing research into cleanses and detoxes I have to say that I think that is one of the issues at the core of this debate, fundamental differences of in beliefs on health.  That is why I ask that no one be offended.  I won’t be able to prove that cleanses don’t work.  I won’t be able to prove that vague toxins don’t exist.  To people who want to believe WITH NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT IT, that cleanses and detoxes are healthy, or in any way help in weight loss, I won’t be able to say anything that will change your belief.  There is no new research here at all.  Just a discussion of the known facts.

My only interest is to help people lose weight.  I am hoping to share some of the things that I discovered while getting fit, some of the solutions for us ‘unfit’ people.  I didn’t use any cleanses, or any diets, any Ab Doers or Ab Circle Pros.  None of these things are going to help you get fit.  They just aren’t.  I hope that you can see this, but if you can’t I bear you no ill will or mean feelings.

2 Parts to Fitness

There really are 2 parts to getting fit.  They are equally important and without both, you won’t get fit.  The first part is knowledge of nutrition and exercise.  The second part is knowledge of yourself and knowing how to include those items in your life.  The first part is what you find so often in your fitness books and your diet and nutrition books.  It is where the arguments over ‘whether carbs are healthier to eat than proteins’ are fought.  It is where the arguments over ‘resistance training and cardio’ rage on.  Still, it is only part of the discussion.  People have always thought the 2 issues with living healthy are diet and exercise.  This isn’t correct.  The 2 issues are knowing what is healthy and not and knowing what you can live with and what you can’t.  This is fundamentally why ‘You Are Not A Fit Person’ is different from the other diet products on the market.  Not only does it treat the issues of healthy diet and exercise as the cornerstone to fitness (no debate about which, it is both), but more importantly it finds ways for ‘us’, the chronically diet resistant people in society to include these activities in our life.

What are Cleanses and Detoxes

The issue of cleanses and detoxes falls into the first category: The knowledge of weight loss and fitness.  There has been so much confusion in this area that I do understand why people don’t believe what reports say. I have explained this before here, but a major part of the problem is how the media reports the outcome of scientific studies.  They boldly state that something is good for you, or will cause weight to melt off, when the study that they are referencing doesn’t support this.  We get confused as to what is helpful and that creates an environment in which confusion and superstition flourish.  Don’t let yourself be confused.  The reality is that the recommendations from health professionals actually hasn’t changed as much as you think over the years.

Half of all respondents said they thought scientists and doctors were constantly changing their minds about healthy living advice, although in reality, healthy living advice hasn’t changed at all for at least a decade (don’t smoke, do some exercise, eat more fruit and veg). And a quarter of all respondents said that because scientists keep changing their minds, you might as well eat whatever you want, because it won’t make any difference anyway. Have another pastry and put the telly on.

Ben Goldacre-Bad Science Blog

So with the intent of shedding some light on what cleanses and detoxification drugs and diets are, I am bringing in Wikipedia to help.  First, cleanses and detoxes are 2 separate things.  According to Wikipedia, a colon cleanse is:

Colon cleansing (colon therapy) encompasses a number of alternative medical therapies intended to remove fecal waste and unidentified toxins from the colon and intestinal tract. Colon cleansing may take the form of colon hydrotherapy (also called colonics or colonic irrigation) or oral cleansing regimens.

And also according to Wikipedia detoxification is:

Body cleansing or detoxification is a treatment in alternative medicine which proponents claim rid the body of accumulated harmful substances that exert a negative effect on individual health.

What I am arguing against is the oral cleansing regimens and detoxification diets.  I have to tell you it is so hard to argue against these items because there is NO argument for them.  Really, I know it sounds absurd, but I have been doing my best to find any sensible argument for them so I could create a counter argument.  I really wish I could have found an actual argument (by argument I mean actual supported claim, not a baseless statement) for colon cleanses and detoxes.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many people out there advocating these things.  Many.  But all they do is make groundless claims.  You can see what Wikipedia has to say here.

I will comment on 3 specific cleanses and detoxes here though as it would be impossible for me to encompass all of them with my comments:

Jillian Michaels Triple Process Total Body Detox & Cleanse Plus Probiotic Replenishment™

The claim:

It will help reduce belly bloat, reduce body waste buildup, support your colon and digestive system, help support the liver’s natural detoxification process, and help you feel lighter and more energized.


The claims of Jillian Michaels Triple Detox and Cleanse are so vague as to be meaningless. Belly bloat?  Waste buildup?  ‘Support’ your colon, digestive system and liver?  Feel lighter?

Belly Bloat:

This morning I was talking to my injury prevention coach, a doctor and I asked him, seriously, is there any such thing as belly bloat.  I know that I have lost respect in his eyes for even asking him that question, because it is obvious there is no such thing, but after he stopped laughing, he looked at me with a huge grin on his face, and then did a double take with a much more sedate look and said, ‘oh, wait a minute, were you trying to seriously ask me that?’.  It is absurd to even use a term like that.  What does it mean?  Do the users of it mean that your colon is so full of waste that it is making your otherwise toned stomach appear soft, mushy and distended?  The colon is on the other side of your stomach muscles, so that just can’t happen.  Do they mean that some part of your body, between your muscles and your epidermis (outermost layer of skin) gets bigger because of unnamed toxins?  There is a layer between your muscles and your skin by the way, it is a fat layer and it gets bigger and bigger over the years precisely because your colon and liver work as well as they do.  That is a infinitely more likely explanation of belly bloat.  In fact, no scientific study has found this mysterious ‘belly bloat’, but many have found this fat layer (as well, there is a visceral fat layer, below your stomach muscles that can cause the abdomen to protrude excessively).  I am not entirely sure that it isn’t just water retention/bloating around the abdomen area that they are referring to, or if it isn’t excessive gas in the intestinal tracts (this is Wikipedia’s definitely of bloat).  I actually have no idea what it is that this product reduces to be honest with you.

Waste Buildup:

It just doesn’t happen, except in extreme cases of colon blockage.  I assume we aren’t recommending these cleanses for medical treatment of colon blockages, so I will dispense with that.  Otherwise all evidence points to the colon being a perfectly good functioning part of the human body, that operates best without cleaning.  I defy you to go to your doctor and suggest, although you have no symptoms, you feel that you must have a buildup of waste in your colon, as you haven’t cleaned it lately…  I know it is an appealing idea to think that it will work better if you clean it, that everything will go back to operating the way it used to, when you were young.  I know when I get my car tuned up, it operates better, so I understand where the basis of this comes from.  The problem is, we aren’t mechanical machines, we are biological machines.  The system that we have is designed to clean itself.  Imagine if, in a few years, someone recommended going in for dialysis twice a year.  After all, you need to clean your blood to operate the way you used to.  You wouldn’t do that would you?  Please tell me you wouldn’t….

Supporting Organ Function:

This claim is just so vague I don’t know what to say.  How do you support organ function when presumably the organ is functioning perfectly already?  Some studies have shown chemicals and quite possibly herbs that help organs function when they are damaged, but no study has shown that taking supplements helps your organs to function better when they are healthy.  Why would you think that organs need support?  Even if you did, wouldn’t you want products that have been PROVEN to show that they do this?  I would.  I would want to know that studies exist support these claims.  After all, how do we know what supports an organ and what doesn’t.  It is intensely complicated.  Without research it is like throwing darts at the worlds biggest dartboard, 100 meters away, blindfolded in the dark and expecting to hit the miniscule bulls eye.  The thing is, nobody is asking you to get tested to see if any of your organs aren’t functioning 100% perfectly, and then to use this as a medical solution (please, for the love of god, do not do this, if you have any problems with the functioning of any of your organs, please see a physician).

Feel Lighter:

This is the most pernicious claim of the diet cleanses and the detoxes.  You will be coming down off of a serious diet regiment or a pill regiment that probably made you feel lousy.  You will probably have lost a lot of water weight if the detox or cleanse you took contained a diuretic or a laxative.  You will probably even be lighter, but that doesn’t mean anything at all.  You might have just emptied your body of much of the water it uses to function.  You have to see that this isn’t the kind of lighter you would have wanted.  This will in no way, jumpstart you onto weight loss, as your body will restore the waste and water that was in your system first thing and you will actually gain weight as you being your diet regiment.


I can’t say that the product doesn’t do what it claims, because I am still not sure what in the world it is claiming…  I think this is the most damning thing about this product.

Top Secret Fat Loss Secret:

The Claim:

The Reason You Can’t Lose Weight has Nothing to Do With Your Will-Power, Over-Eating or the Right Diet! … The Reason You are Fat and Unhealthy is Because You Have Disgusting Plaque and Horrible Little ‘CRITTERS’ Living in Your Guts!


Dr. Suzanne Gudakunst is your only friend in the world according to this site, and everyone else is out to poison you, or so it would seem.  In what is one of the most questionable and laughable conspiracy theory rants to do with weightloss.  I have no idea what her product is, but if you pay for the top secret, the one that physicians may well be trying to kill her to keep secret

“…And Now I’m Going to Show You How to Get Rid of All of It so You Can Shed 10 lbs, 25 lbs, 50 lbs even 100 lbs or more – and Keep It Off FOREVER!!”

The website shows pictures of diseased colons and other things, I have no idea what, but they do look disgusting, and blown up parasites.  The idea is to scare you into thinking that your bowels are a disease pit of fighting parasites and rotten flesh.  It is stupid and foolish and her methods of solving this problem are unknown.  Again, like the previous cleanse, it is really hard to comment on whether the results are likely or possible because I have no idea how this ‘Top Secret’ actually works.  This one though, I am betting is an out and out scam.  I would use harsher words, but I am actually worried that these guys might sue someone for defamation if they think they can.  I can’t imagine that they are making much on their ridiculous claims, so that actually may be their business plan.

The Master Cleanse:

The Claim:

According to Wikipedia: The Master Cleanse will eliminate toxins (pesticides, hormones, prescription drugs, chemical fertilizers, heavy metals) and congestion that have built up in the body.[2]

The Response:

Again, I am going to quote Wikipedia:

For people in good health, the body is designed to eliminate normal everyday toxins from itself through the lungs, kidneys, liver, and other eliminator organs.[5] As with other detox diets, there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence of any positive effect.[4]

Nutritionist Jane Clark points to a lack of essential nutrients in this program, citing a deficiency of protein, vitamins, and minerals in the regimen[6] although dietary deficiencies in protein may not lead to the individual showing signs of protein deficiency if it is followed only for a short time. As a result of these deficiencies, including far fewer calories than the recommended amount for health and optimum functioning, individuals on the diet may experience headaches and a variety of other symptoms in the short term.[6] Dr. Joel Fuhrman attributes these effects to detoxification, which he says passes after the toxins are eliminated.[7] Many authors assert the benefits of fasting are related to its lack of nutrients, particularly macronutrients.[7][8][9][10] It could be dangerous if followed in the long term.[6]

Clark also believes that the saltwater “flush” may remove both harmful and beneficial bacteria from the body[6]. A no-food diet may cause the gut to stop passing food, resulting in constipation, or may make the consumption of food immediately after the cleanse painful. People with intestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome may experience discomfort while on the cleanse. Some people who have followed the cleanse feel that a 14-day regimen of the program will eliminate that condition altogether; however, this may be a manifestation of the placebo effect, as there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence of this possible outcome.

Many proponents of the cleanse do not recommend it solely for weight loss, instead mentioning its purported detoxifying properties, however Dr. Sunil Patel of Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre says the cleanse operates as a placebo and has no other health benefits.[11] When following the Master Cleanse, people will certainly lose weight.[12]

Medical authorities say that those who try the Master Cleanse to lose weight will gain it back in time.[13]

Okay, maybe I could have reviewed all of the cleanses and detoxes with just one review.  Vague and ineffective and none of them offer any long term help.  That to me is the most damning thing with these cleanses.  They are short term fixes.  They will never help you lose weight and again, there is no evidence to support the claims they are making.  Why would this work?  Seriously, ask yourself with each and every one of these cleanses, why would they work?  Exercise and healthy eating have been shown in study after study to result in longer life and lower weight as an outcome.   To quote my injury prevention coach, Jason, ‘There are at least 100,000 ideas out there on health and fitness .  Some of them have been proven to work and others haven’t.  Why wouldn’t you pick the items that have been show to work?” If that makes sense to you, then pick up a copy of ‘You Are Not A Fit Person’ because I know incorporating exercise and diet into your lifestyle is no easy task.  That is the missing lesson here.  That is what I think the focus of the diet and fitness world will be on over the next few years.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2009 12:30 pm

    I’ve always found most of these sorts of things to be fads and just that — nothing more than a way to get you to depart with your money.

    I think because we live in a day and age where fat loss is put so highly, many people get sucked into looking for a “miracle pill” kind of solution.

  2. December 4, 2009 7:18 am

    Incorporating diet and exercise? What kind of crazy idea is that? I did it, and people think I’m silly for it. They don’t believe me, it must be a trick. I have a friend who does a cleanse for the whole of February. He could actually stand to gain some weight, or at least muscle, but for reasons that I’m incapable of understanding, he thinks it’s good for him. He has a headache and feels ill the whole month, that shows he’s detoxing. He eats brown rice and vegetables and strange things like clay, all kinds of supplements. He inhales silver, drinks distilled water, does many things that I am under the impression are not healthy at all, yet he won’t do anything “mainstream” for his health. Silver good, flouride bad? Fruit is too sugary, but not juice? Never heard of phthalates, bioaccumulation, or any possibly real threats, is afraid of minerals,non-organic veggies but not burning pressure-treated wood (hello, arsenic, PAHs!). When I try to point out any flaws or inconsistencies, he makes snarky comments about those of us lucky enough to have good genes. I just roll my eyes, he no longer tries to explain his logic to me, because I’m an annoying chemist who doesn’t believe everything (anything) from conspiracies-r-us, or wherever he finds this shit. He actually told me the other day that the reason it’s so hard to quit smoking cigarettes is because of sugar in the tobacco? I laughed, he was surprised. And so we go on.

  3. Charlie permalink
    January 11, 2011 10:08 am

    I found you as I was perusing the internet to see if anyone has stood up to the absurd claims about health and nutrition being made by David Zinczenko and published on the front page of one of the world’s largest email providers, Yahoo. You make some good points about the absurdity of much of his “nutrition” advice, but then you go off the deep end and throw all sensible nutrition opinions (I’m reluctant to use that word to describe fact) under the bus. There’s no such thing as colon buildup?! You know because you asked your “doctor”? Most western medicine physicians have virtually no training in nutrition as most medical schools are run by money given by pharmaceutical companies – fact not opinion. They have therefore been subjected to two generations of new science that has never been proven successfully. You mentioned something about nutritional guidelines being the same for the past decade or so. Really?!?! The proper functioning of the human digestive system is an intricate process which was developed through millions of years of evolution. To optimize this functionality different cultures around the world have been using diets to keep their guts clean. They don’t do it because of “scientific studies” done by “doctors”. They do it because THOUSANDS of years of these diets have proven effective. Yet you put all your faith in the modern medical community and the modern processed food industry, which not coincidentally, are each about sixty years old. Just because someone went to school and paid a lot of money to get a degree doesn’t mean they know more than you. If your doctor EVER laughs at a question you ask, you should 1) tell him to go fuck himself (or herself); 2) get a differing opinion from another expert in the field; and 3) do your own research. The dramatic increase in gut-related (by the way, “gut” is a word that refers to the entire digestive tract, not a beer belly) disease in the western world in the last fifty years – as well as in other cultures that have adopted the western diet – is an epidemic that is undeniable. Just remember to think for yourself. You do a great job of it when you call out all the bullshit being thrown out there. Just please don’t become a slinger of it yourself. Good luck.

    • YouAreNotAFitPerson permalink*
      January 11, 2011 10:54 am

      Hey Charlie, thank you for the comment and the positive words. I think we agree on many of your points. I agree that older diets, to quote Michael Pollan, ‘diets your great-grandma would recognize’ are by far and away the best way to get healthy and stay health. There is no doubt of the wisdom of diets that have been optimized over centuries. There is also no doubt that our current, western, manufactured diet is at the core of much of our current obesity crisis (and more and more evidence that this leads to other chronic ailments). That said, even knowing this, I am still unable and unwilling to switch back to a traditional diet and I doubt most of society is as well. That is the problem we all have to face, not that we aren’t aware that older eating methods were healthier, just that we have met the future and the future tastes good. Too good.
      Given all of this though, none of the claims of colon cleaning hold up. There is no evidence that it works and on top of the lack of measurable claims that the products make, there is even less clinical evidence that they do anything for you and almost no evidence that these liquids and pills were ever used by my great-grandma’s generation . I agree that the body has optimized itself over thousands of years to keep the intestinal track efficient and clean, but that only gives me more reason to doubt that a ‘factory manufactured’ cleanse or detox or both would be of any help at all.
      I applaud your skepticism and I could not agree more by the way. There is a tremendous amount of research and evidence available now, more than ever in history. Taking time to educate yourself and to advocate for your health is the most important thing you can do.


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