If you’ve ever tried to break a plateau, beat the bloat, or get back on track after a little too much mac and cheese, someone has probably suggested doing a cleanse or detox diet to get things going again.
Cleansing and detoxing are getting a ton of hype right now — do a Google search for “detox” or “cleanse” and you’ll get millions of results. Turns out you can pretty much cleanse or detox almost every aspect of your life — end toxic relationships, block toxic trolls on social media, or do a “digital detox” to break your screen habit. (A noble idea, that last one, but you’ll have to pry my smartphone out of my cold, dead, Pinterest-addicted hands.)
When it comes to food cleanses and detoxes, the amount of info out there is overwhelming. But doing a cleanse or detox diet is more than just unfriending a bully or unplugging your iPad. It can affect your health and nutrition, so it’s important to dig deeper to figure out the truth behind the hype.
There are key differences between a cleanse and a detox diet, but people tend to use the two terms interchangeably, which makes things even more confusing.
So what’s the difference between a cleanse and a detox? Here’s what you need to know.
What Are These “Toxins”?
When people talk about cleanses or detox diets, they talk about the dangers of “toxins” a lot, but usually in a very non-specific way: Toxins are all around us! Your body is filled with toxins that need to be flushed out! But what exactly are these toxins?
Toxins are potentially harmful substances we come into contact with every day — pesticides on your produce, pollutants in the air, unpronounceable ingredients in processed food, or heavy metals like mercury and arsenic in the soil, to name just a few.
You’ve probably also heard that foods like gluten, dairy, and refined sugar are “toxic” — but unless you have an allergy or intolerance, you don’t have to swear off bread forever. While anything can be toxic if you consume too much of it, the occasional handful of cookies won’t turn you into a biohazard.
But especially in our modern world, many of us are constantly bombarded by toxins in the air, in food, in our cleaning products, everywhere — and those toxins can add up.
Newsflash: Your Body Detoxifies Itself
Assuming you don’t fall face first into a radioactive swamp, your body is equipped to deal with most toxins. When you inhale, ingest, or absorb toxins, your liver and kidneys work to flush many of them out — and they’ve been doing this long before cleanses and detoxes came about.
But if you’re constantly hammering yourself with environmental toxins and skimping on nutrients and proper hydration, your body’s natural detoxification system can be inhibited.
“Your body wants to get rid of the unhealthy stuff, but if you keep eating more junk, you’re not going to be able to get the other junk out,” says Denis Faye, Beachbody’s Senior Director of Nutrition Content. “It’s like clogging a drain.” It puts your liver and kidneys under a lot of pressure — and that’s where cleansing comes in.
What Is a Cleanse?
Cleanses like 3-Day Refresh and 21-Day Ultimate Reset don’t just eliminate junk from your diet — they also focus on fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods that support your natural detoxification processes.
“Fluids, fiber, and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables can go a long way in terms of supporting your wellness and your body’s natural systems,” Faye says. By stripping your diet down to the essentials, you’re giving your liver and kidneys a chance to do their job more efficiently.
Needless to say, you’ll probably shed a few pounds in the process — but the real goal is to reshape the way you think about nutrition. Refresh is good way to jumpstart a healthy-eating plan or help your body recover from a not-so-virtuous weekend; Reset is a more intensive program that can help transform your diet in the long run.
(Pro Tip: Take this quiz to see which cleanse is right for you.)
But don’t jump willy-nilly into a program: It’s important to do research and preparation ahead of time so you know what to expect before and after you do it. And while you will have to make some food sacrifices, believe it or not, you won’t have to give up flavor or variety.
So What Is a Detox Diet?
Detox diets also eliminate unhealthy grub from your diet, but they often require a super-restrictive diet consisting of a small number of foods that claim to have “detoxifying properties.”
We can get behind eating healthy foods that help your body detoxify itself, but some of the detox diets out there sound like straight-up torture — do you really want to drink lemonade laced with cayenne pepper for 10 days straight or eat cabbage soup at every meal?
The thing is, those foods won’t actually flush your system. “’Detox diet’ is kind of a misnomer, because food is not going to detox you,” Faye says. In other words, it’s still your liver and kidneys doing the cleaning — not the food itself.
And if a diet is too restrictive, your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs to do carry out its natural processes.
One way of looking at the difference between a cleanse and a detox is that detox diets usually focus on “out with the old” in the short term. But cleanse programs also address the “in with the new” aspect. Cleanses can help you form new eating habits that support your body and help you stay healthy (and non-toxic!) for the long haul.
(Pro Tip: It’s always a good idea talk to your doctor before you make any significant dietary changes, especially if you’re on any medications or have an ongoing medical condition.)
Bottom line, don’t just accept the latest buzzy trends at face value — the devil is in the details: Do your homework, find out what the hype is all about, and make sure it’s serving your goals of living a healthier life.