A nutritionist tells you which red flags to look for.
Credit: Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill

Eating protocols labeled as a “detox” or “cleanse” are hot right now, but these terms have no real definition—meaning they often vary widely in recommendations and safety. An example is Cooking Light’s interpretation of “detox,” which to us means eating whole, minimally processed foods while purging less healthy, toxic eating habits.

Yet, “detox” for others may mean a plan based on extreme measures that promise quick, fast weight loss or health improvements. To help you navigate what’s healthy and what’s not, here are five red flags and five signs that the plan may be worthwhile.

5 Red Flags

1. Juices are your primary source of nourishment

Juice is a good source of nutrients, but juices don’t contain all the nutrients the body needs—not to mention the fact that some nutrients in the fruit are lost during the juicing process. Consuming a juice-only diet, even with the addition of tea and water, is often extremely low in calories, protein and other nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin D.  Continued consumption of a diet like this can eventually lead to electrolyte imbalances. Unless medically-advised for a health condition, there’s nothing magical or restorative about only consuming only juice or liquids.

2. Daily calories average less than 1200

Look at the calories over a 3 to 4-day span of the diet, and calculate the daily average. Steer clear of any that average less than 1200 calories daily. The minimum calories that an adult body needs is 1200 a day—and that’s before factoring in activity, body size and lean body mass which means many individuals have a higher minimum. Eating below your energy needs day after day leaves you tired, sluggish, and more susceptible to illness—symptoms that are due to a lack of nourishment, not a withdrawal or detox process that some plans like to suggest.

3. Enticing promises with quick results

Reset metabolism, lose 10 pounds in a week, break free from cravings, activate your body’s natural healing ability! Let’s be real, there’s smart marketing behind most diets and diet products. The messages purposefully play to our problems or concerns and entice us by offering an easy fix. If an ad, review, or label suggests health perks or solutions that sound too good to be true, keep moving. Either the plan isn’t going to deliver those promised results or may attempt to do so while putting your health in jeopardy.

4. Supplement or product pushing

Put your guard up when an eating plan or diet tries to sell you supplements like vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes or even packaged food. A healthy eating regimen works regardless of whether you take the extras being sold or not, and product pushing is often a sign the true focus is profit, not health. Remember too that there’s little to no oversight by the FDA for these products that the claims being made are true, that ingredients being advertised are in there, or that they’re safe to take.

5.  Crazy food combinations or restrictions

Unusual or bizarre food combinations may momentarily seem like your answer when frustrated with weight loss. But, the reality is that there’s nothing magical in lemon-cayenne pepper water, and no special combination can even come close to competing with eating minimally processed plant foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats—not to mention that these foods usually taste much better too!  

5 Signs You Might Give It a Try

1. Research-backed recommendations

You want an eating approach that isn’t afraid to back their claims with published research in reputable journals and not just client and celebrity testimonials. Look for a plan that is either backed by medical institutions, professional organizations like the American Dietetic Association or American Diabetes Association, government agencies, or aligns its recommendations from one of these. This usually signals there’s some real science behind the the plan.   

2. Emphasis on whole foods

We don’t know much about the effect that diet has on the liver’s detoxification abilities—or if diet even has much of an impact. So focus on what we do know is good: eating whole foods—particularly fruits and vegetables—and limiting highly processed items. A good plan for everyone, but particularly those eating fewer calories, emphasizes plant foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and good-bacteria supporting foods which will not only keep the body healthy and reduce risk of disease, but may also aid the liver in doing its job.

3. Adaptable, not all-or-nothing

Many diets take a strict, regimented approach, and prescribe a very specific food and nutrient intake. The problem with plans like this is they create an all-or-nothing mentality and set an expectation for diet perfection, and no one can remain “perfect” forever. Falling off track is when problems arise for many leading to unhealthy eating binges, as well as a feeling of failure. A good plan has adaptability to your lifestyle, food preferences, and health needs.

4. Long-term potential

Hypothetically, could you follow this plan long-term and stay healthy based on calories and nutrients provided? If the answer is yes, then this is a good indicator that you’ve found a solid plan. While I’m not suggesting anyone stay on a diet, cleanse, or detox plan long-term, I am suggesting that you consider the potential long-term health effects of the diet as a indicator of whether it’s a solid, science-based approach for the short-term or not.   

New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here, with the Cooking Light Diet.

5. Whole health approach

Health encompasses a lot more than just calories, so look for an eating plan that also takes into account aspects like hydration, gut health, activity, stress management, reducing inflammation, or regulating blood glucose. Also, remember that there’s no right or wrong way to detox—only safe and sensible or unhealthy and impractical/unrealistics/irrational—so focus on how you feel and what health habits you feel you need to focus on most.