Cleanse Diets: Do they Work? And Which one Should you Try?


Should you try a detox diet to cleanse after the holidays? Before starting one, learn what you should cleanse from and which cleanses to avoid.

‘Tis the season… for cleanses.

Now that the holidays are over and everybody is repenting from all of the treats in which they’ve indulged, “cleansing” has again become immensely popular.

Have you heard of cleanses? The basic idea behind a “cleanse” is that our bodies have been exposed to many toxins (either environmental or in what we eat) and so we need to cleanse our organs or our colons. I see these fad diets in the news, on social media, and sometimes I’m even asked about them.

Cleanse diets run the gamut of crazy-and-dangerous to healthy-and-worth-your-time. It’s important to distinguish one from the other.

A Brief Explanation of Relevant Human Physiology

The idea that a “cleanse” is necessary to rid your body of toxins stems from a misunderstanding of our human physiology. In order to better understand how to determine a good cleanse from a bad cleanse, let me introduce you to a few of the organs that continually detoxify your body.

Detox Organ 1: Kidneys

These cute kidney-bean-shaped organs (yes, that’s where the bean gets its name) are located in the lower part of your back. Although small, they are super-duper important. Among other things (like converting vitamin D to its active form and maintaining your body’s sodium/potassium and acid/base balance), the kidneys filter some medications and toxins from your blood and excrete them into your urine. This is normal, natural, and beautiful – nothing to be fearful of.

Detox Organ 2: Liver

Oh, what a mighty organ! The liver is unbelievably important. It’s also a badass. It can withstand a lot of abuse and even regenerate if part of it is surgically removed. While most famous for metabolizing alcohol and drugs (including medications), the liver has a lot of jobs. The liver also converts nutrients to usable forms (like creating glucose out of fructose for energy), makes cholesterol (which sounds bad, but is actually a vital part of cell walls), and stores nutrients (including vitamin A and some sugar, for example).

Probiotics & Prebiotics in Easier-than-you'd-think Homemade Sauerkraut

Probiotics & Prebiotics in Easier-than-you’d-think Homemade Sauerkraut

Detox Organ 3: The Digestive System

Instead of filtering out toxins, the digestive system protects you by never absorbing these toxins into your body in the first place. The thing you need to know is that the digestive system is not a simple tube. It’s actually tens of thousands of cells all working together to move food, digest food, and absorb nutrients. It’s a really intricate, beautiful process. That being said, it’s important to know that (unlike the drainpipe in your shower), your gut doesn’t ever need to be cleaned out (except, perhaps, before a colonoscopy). Rather, to keep your gut healthy, you should focus on two things: #1: Keep your cells healthy and #2: Keep your microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut) healthy.

The important thing to note about these organs is that they each have a specific function. In the case of the liver and the kidney, these organs are meant to detoxify your body. In the case of the digestive system, unabsorbed toxins are already naturally excreted in the feces.

I’m not suggesting that you increase your consumption of toxins (you definitely can poison yourself doing this – please don’t try at home). However, if your body is to the point of toxicity that your organs are unable to detoxify your body, you’ll likely be in the hospital. In the case of the kidneys, this would mean dialysis. In the case of the liver, this would mean taking certain medications and praying for a liver transplant.

Cleanses to Avoid Like the Plague

Are you getting the idea that most “cleanse” diets aren’t necessary? Cleanses range from dangerous for your health all the way to expensive placebo effects. Let me give you a guide to choosing (or not choosing) the “cleanse” for you:

All-Natural Broccoli Rice Casserole. Because I believe healthy food should taste delicious.

All-Natural Broccoli Rice Casserole – all the flavor without the condensed soup

Avoid Extreme Cleanses that Sound Crazy (Because they Probably Are)

No, really. If somebody tells you to drink lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup alone for a week, please walk away.

These cleanses are often the most dangerous type of “cleanse” – instead of “cleansing” your body of (imagined) toxins, you’re actually at risk for dehydration, alterations in your blood sodium/potassium levels, and possible heart palpitations.

Doing extreme dieting for one week probably won’t kill you, but the more frequently you indulge in extremely low calorie diets (especially those that don’t contain adequate protein), the more muscle mass you will lose, ultimately altering your metabolism and making it difficult to lose weight (healthfully) in the future.

Just say “no” to extreme cleanse diets!

Avoid Juice Cleanses

There, I said it. I’m really not a fan of juicing.

As you know, fruits and veggies have a ton of awesome properties, so they’re way better than any supplement you could take. The logic of juicing, then, is that pulverizing your fruits and veggies into a drinkable form will give you a concentrated source of all this good stuff.

Roasted Asparagus: so easy, so healthy, so delicious

Roasted Asparagus: so easy, so healthy, so delicious

Here’s the thing though – the process of juicing is the process of removing the fiber from your fruits and veggies. Why would you want to do that?? Here are some of the great things fiber does for you:

  • Makes you feel full after eating

  • Slows digestion

  • Prevents a huge spike in blood sugar levels

  • Feeds your healthy gut bacteria

  • Provides bulk to the stool to make it easier to poo

  • Slows down how fast you eat (so you usually end up eating less without missing out)

Instead of following Dr. Oz’s weekend cleanse and making all that juice, just eat the fruits and vegetables.

Avoid Cleanses Which Make you Buy a Bunch of Supplements

At best, cleanse diets which encourage you to buy the “right” protein powder or vitamin mix are a gimmick which cause you to spend a lot of money on things you don’t need.

At worst, these types of cleanses are right up there with the “crazy” diets in terms of how dangerous they can be. Most “cleanse” supplements are actually packed with laxatives with the idea that dumping the contents of your guts is healthy. (This is NOT healthy; it’s a form of disordered eating. But that’s another subject for another day.)

Beware of dangerous supplements with laxative effects (including natural ingredients like black walnut), as they can cause dehydration and alter your electrolyte status.

Beware of expensive vitamin supplements because you’ll spend a lot of money, then waste a lot of money peeing out all the extra water-soluble vitamins in your urine (because your kidneys detoxify your body even of too many vitamins).

Before starting any supplement, I highly recommend that you talk to your doctor or dietitian (and bring the ingredient list with you) before starting it.

With the exception of certain health conditions (like osteoporosis or Cystic Fibrosis) – and a few specific supplements like vitamin D – most people can obtain the nutrition they need from a balanced diet. (Read more: Should I Take a Nutrition Supplement?)

Lentils are my favorite. Try this easy, yummy Lentil Frito Pie

Lentils are my favorite. Try this easy, yummy Lentil Frito Pie

The Best Post-Holiday Cleanse Diet

Because research shows that restrictive diets don’t work – at least, not in the long-term – I encourage you to consider an alternative to a “cleanse.” Focusing solely on which foods should be removed from your eating pattern can trigger the cycle of hunger and deprivation —> intense cravings —> overeating the trigger food —> feelings of guilt and shame —> more food restrictions.

Instead, it can be helpful to think more holistically about the health of your mind, body, and your soul.

Cleanse from Unhealthy Thoughts

Moving from a mindset of deprivation to a mindset of inclusion and honoring your body takes time; this is what I work on with my 1-1 nutrition coaching clients and it takes months – and often years! – to feel fully confident to trust your body with it’s nutrition.

A helpful place to start this process is to identify the all-or-nothing thoughts which come with diet culture and to start replacing these with a more nuanced view. Here are a few examples:

Instead of: “I can’t have sugar because it’s bad for me.”
Try: “I enjoy the taste of sugar and can have it when I want it. Is this what my body needs right now?”

Instead of: “I can’t stay away from the fudge.”
Try: “I love fudge and am mindful when I eat it, noticing how it tastes and how it makes my body feel.”

Instead of: “We have to throw away all the chips because I can’t stay away from them.”
Try: “The chips are in the pantry for when I’m hungry. When I feel hungry, I think about what nutrients my body might need – is it time for chips? Or time to make dinner?”

A delicious, healthier alternative to cinnamon rolls: Pumpkin Porridge

A delicious way to enjoy the flavors of the season: Pumpkin Porridge

Focus on Inclusion of the Nutrients and Fuel your Body Needs

Instead of asking, “What should I cut out of my diet?” a more helpful question can be, “What nutrients does my body need?”

It’s true that the detox organs mentioned above need to have adequate nutrition in order to optimally function. This means including lots of color in your diet from fruits and vegetables which contain antioxidants and naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals, as well as foods which support digestive health like those full of fiber (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) and probiotics (any fermented food like yogurt or natural sauerkraut).

Instead of focusing on the negative (i.e. what foods to avoid), which is what triggers those feelings of deprivation and can drag you back into the dieting cycle, identifying and adding back in the foods which you’ve been missing will naturally help you rebalance your eating pattern.

Over the holidays, are there foods which you’ve been missing? Would your body feel better if you included more plant-based proteins? How about adding more color to your plate with a side of Roasted Butternut Squash? Maybe you’ve noticed you haven’t been as intentional about including breakfast in the morning and so are struggling with lots of cravings later in the day; how about prepping some Overnight Oats or Pumpkin Porridge to start your day off with a tasty boost of nutrition?

If you need ideas for meals and recipes which are nutritionally balanced and full of flavor, consider a free trial of the Peas & Hoppy Meal Guides to help take the stress out of dinnertime.

Cleanse the Soul

The holidays can be noisy. They are so fun! And they can also be draining. It’s important to honor this need to refuel intentionally.

In fact, your cravings for sugar, fat, and alcohol may be your body’s way of asking to cleanse and fuel your soul.

Runs with the bestie are a great way to cleanse the soul <3

Runs with the bestie are a great way to cleanse the soul <3

When you find yourself craving a food you feel isn’t good for your body, pause and consider what you might need in that moment. Are you feeling stress? Have you noticed a negative emotion you’re trying to avoid? Are you feeling sad? Tired? Run down?

It can be hard to sit with these thoughts; here are some other coping tools you can use when this is difficult:

  • Schedule an appointment with your therapist

  • Practice meditation – use an app, be still outside, or pray to your higher power

  • Move your body: dance alone in the kitchen, go for a walk with a friend, practice yoga with a class

  • Read a book, do a crossword puzzle, or snuggle up on the couch with your favorite sitcom re-run

If you’ve tried these things and are still craving that food, it’s okay to honor that craving. Simply grab your food craving and sit down in a quiet place to mindfully enjoy your eating experience. Notice the flavors, the texture, and the crunch (or smoothness) of the food. Notice how it feels in your mouth, in your stomach, in your body. Appreciate the food with gratitude for having something to eat.

All foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern – and that includes foods which fuel your soul!

I hope you and yours enjoyed the beautiful, crazy joy of the holidays. May your body and soul now enjoy a healthy and prosperous new year!

With love,

Ann from Peas and Hoppiness


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