The new year often marks the beginning of detox season. After an indulgent Christmas filled with rich food, wine and sweet treats, many people will kick-start January with a new diet and a detox. We have previously written a blog post on the science and history behind the detoxification processes and what nutrients are essential to support this.
In this article, we provide some practical advice on what foods to enjoy and avoid during a detoxification period along with a sample menu at the end, but there are lots of recipes and ideas available online.
What is a detox?
Our bodies are designed to naturally detoxify, every day, through the digestive system, liver, kidneys and skin and certain enzymes in our cells work to ‘biotransform’ and eliminate toxins. However, the purpose of a detox diet is to support these natural processes, whilst at the same time avoiding some of the more uncomfortable symptoms that can occur during detoxification.
During a detox, people may experience symptoms such as headaches, constipation, diarrhoea, brain fog, disturbed sleep, amongst others. These are an indication that the body’s capacity to detox is being exceeded and/or that you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms from some foods such as caffeine, gluten, dairy or sugar. These symptoms can be minimised or even avoided by making changes gradually, supporting the gut and eating adequate protein.
How long to detox for?
Detox programmes are usually a short-term intervention but can vary in length from a few days to a month or more. For a detox lasting more than a few days, you will need to ensure adequate amounts of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and olive oil are included. For those choosing to eat a vegan diet beans and pulses will also be included along with grains such as quinoa and buckwheat (which also provide some protein and have good amino acid profiles) along with rice. Alternatively, a Paleo-style way of eating can be adopted; this way of eating excludes all grains but moderate amounts of wild fish and organic chicken can be included (red meat is avoided during a detox diet). Both these ways of eating emphasise a significant consumption of vegetables and both can be sustained successfully long-term.
A detox diet lasting three to four weeks (or longer if you introduce the changes slowly) could allow you to identify sensitivities to gluten, dairy or other foods, if that is also the purpose of your detox. We have written more about the topic of elimination diets here.
If you undertake a detox plan which focuses solely on vegetables and fruit, you will need to limit the diet to a few days as it will be low in protein and essential fats. This style of detox is also more likely to lead to uncomfortable symptoms. Whilst fruit and vegetables are supportive of liver function, the liver also needs adequate protein and other nutrients in order to work optimally. Adding a good quality vegan protein powder, such as pea protein, would be a good idea for this style of diet.
It is important to choose the right detox diet for your needs as this will help keep you motivated and empowered to continue with your changes. A planned detox must also feel achievable; it does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
Planning a detox
A successful detox requires careful planning. We suggest writing a menu each week and shopping accordingly – think about when you are going to prepare meals and how you will work around any social events. A good detox will spur you on to make permanent improvements to your food choices, such as continuing with reduced sugar intake.
For example, you could build the changes in gradually over a few weeks:
WEEK 1: Avoid sugar, increase vegetable intake, reduce caffeine
WEEK 2: Previous changes, plus reduce gluten and dairy, cut out caffeine, reduce or avoid animal proteins (being mindful of still eating sufficient protein)
WEEK 3: Previous changes, plus cut out gluten and dairy
WEEKS 4-6: Continue all changes for a further three weeks
WEEK 7 & 8: Reintroduce foods containing gluten and note any reactions/symptoms. A few days later repeat for dairy.
After the first few days of your detox, you will begin to experience the benefits of increased mental and physical alertness and energy, and this will encourage you to make long-term improvements to your diet.
Foods to enjoy during a detox
- Fruit – fresh or frozen fruit, especially berries, apples and lemons. Fruit is rich in antioxidants and fibre, but is best limited to two to three portions per day due to its high sugar content. Avoid dried fruit and fruit juices, as they are high in sugar.
- Vegetables – base your meals on vegetables, fresh or frozen is fine and ideally organic. Aim for eight or more portions per day with at least two portions of dark, green and leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, kale). Chicory, which is in season now (January), is high in inulin; a type of prebiotic fibre which encourages the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Of course for this purpose potatoes do not count as a vegetable!
- Beans and lentils – include red kidney, haricot, cannellini, butter bean, black eye, pinto and red, green and brown lentils. They provide fibre, vitamins and minerals.
- Chicken – during a detox, animal products are limited or avoided for several reasons as they can be a source of toxins and can be more demanding on the digestive system. Because of this, high protein is best avoided during a detox. However, as mentioned, it is important to eat some good quality protein; so if including animal products then a small portion of organic chicken can be eaten two to three times per week.
- Fish – especially white fish such as cod and haddock, which is easier to digest and lower in heavy metals than oily fish. If choosing oily fish, go for small and wild, rather than farmed oily fish or fresh tuna which can be high in heavy metals. Choose wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring (the SMASH fish). Occasional tinned tuna is ok in either olive oil or spring water.
- Nuts (unsalted, unroasted) – enjoy walnuts, almonds, Brazil, hazelnuts, pecans and pistachio, but avoid peanuts.
- Seeds – sunflower, pumpkin and linseed (also known as flaxseed).
- Oils – extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin coconut oil.
- Vinegars – apple cider vinegar, red wine or white wine.
- Flavourings – garlic, fresh ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices and fresh herbs – especially parsley, coriander, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
- Bone broth – made using organic bones. Cook the bones in a slow cooker for 12-24 hours, a couple of chopped onions, celery and carrots, with one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (this helps release the minerals from the bone). Strain once boiled and leave to cool. This will then keep in the fridge for one week or you can portion and freeze. Drink a small cup of broth daily – this is rich in collagen and minerals and is supportive of gut health.
- Non-dairy milks – unsweetened almond or coconut is best, avoid soya milk.
- Homemade smoothies – smoothies are preferable to juices as they include fibre (we have included a recipe at the end of this post). If you prefer a juice, opt for vegetable juices over fruit juices, which can be high in sugar.
- Water – preferably filtered or mineral water and aim for around two litres a day. Adequate hydration is always important, but particularly during a detoxification.
- Herbal or fruit teas – these can be included as part of your water consumption.
Foods to avoid during a detox
- Sugar – In the UK, most people consume an alarming 1-2lbs of sugar per week. A lot of this is hidden in processed foods, rather than physically added. It is essential to remove sugar for a detox as this well help keep blood sugar balanced and reduce stress on the liver.
- Caffeine – Caffeine is detoxified by the liver, so removing it for a short while allows the liver to process other toxins. To avoid a caffeine withdrawal headache, it is best to start by reducing caffeine over a few days rather than stopping it ‘cold turkey’. The European Food Safety Authority’s recommendation is that daily caffeine consumption should not exceed 400mg of caffeine (from all sources), consumed through the day, with a maximum of 200mg in one serving.
- Red meat – Reduce or eliminate all red meat during the detox (beef, lamb, pork – including bacon – and processed meats).
- Sunflower / safflower / corn / soybean oils – These oils are all high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids so are best avoided at all times, not just during a detox. It is also best to avoid margarines that are made with these oils.
- Alcohol – It goes without saying that alcohol must be avoided during a detox.
- Wheat and gluten grains – Wheat has a rapid effect on blood sugar. Eating 2 slices of wholemeal bread has been suggested to increase blood sugar faster than some chocolate bars! Also, the protein, gluten, found in wheat (as well as in rye and barley) increases gut permeability leading to inflammation. If you do decide to go gluten-free, then keep commercial ‘gluten-free’ foods to a minimum as they are mostly highly processed and lacking in fibre and nutrients.
Whether you include the following foods depends on your personal preferences and what you are hoping to achieve from a detox. All detox programmes agree on the need to eat lots of vegetables and avoid certain foods such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol, but some foods are included in some detox programmes and avoided in others.
If you suspect you have certain food sensitivities, then it would be best to remove these foods for three to four weeks and then slowly reintroduce, making a note of any symptoms that arise.
Eggs – eggs are highly nutritious, containing protein, phospholipids, B vitamins and sulphur – all of which are useful for supporting detoxification. However, some people can react to eggs (sometimes without knowing it) so they are eliminated from some detox programmes. If you choose to include eggs during your detox, limit to one per day.
Grains – as well as wheat and gluten grains, other grains including oats, corn and rice can be problematic for some people. This is because:
- grains are high in starch, so eating large quantities can unbalance blood sugar, leading to symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, poor sleep, constant hunger etc; and
- some people who are ‘gluten sensitive’ may also react to non-gluten grains
Some concern has been raised about grain-free diets being low in B6, so we suggest including a multivitamin as insurance. Have a read of our blog on gluten free diets here.
Dairy – avoid cheese and milk during a detox. Cheese is high in salt and is hard to digest, and milk is high in hormones designed to help calves gain weight rapidly. Plain natural yoghurt does have some health benefits, provided you are not intolerant to it. If you suffer autoimmune or inflammatory illness, then it would be worth removing all sources of dairy for the period of the detox and seeing how you react to a reintroduction.
Soya – fermented soy is eaten in small quantities in Asia where it is associated with a number of health benefits. However, in Western societies, some people eat and drink large quantities of unfermented soy (milk, margarine, yoghurt, mince). Factors in soy can inhibit protein digestion and it is also a highly allergenic food. On the other hand, it provides a good source of plant protein and so may be consumed by vegans and vegetarians in small quantities.
Potatoes – white potatoes are high in starch and can unbalance blood sugar. Whilst potatoes do provide some fibre and small quantities of vitamins, they are not a ‘nutrient dense’ food so are best avoided during a detox and limited at other times of the year. However, sweet potatoes are a good alternative.
Nuts / seeds / beans and pulses / nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes) – if you suspect you have a sensitivity to any of these foods or if you suffer an autoimmune illness, then you may want to consider a trial elimination of these foods as well. This will mean a fairly restricted diet and would be best undertaken with some guidance – you might like to consider our free health questionnaire service to help you.
Salt – Some salt is important for all of us to help maintain certain functions. If eating a wholefood, unprocessed diet without bread, you can add a little salt. Choose Himalayan salt or Sel de Guerande rather than table salt.
How to deal with problems that may arise?
Two common problems associated with a period of detoxification are constipation or diarrhoea. A healthy gut function is vitally important in helping the body eliminate waste materials, so it is important to remember to support the gut. Regular – at least once daily – bowel movements are essential.
- Drink smoothies rather than juices; smoothies include the fibre from the vegetables, whereas juices are very high in sugar and low in fibre.
- Eat one to two tablespoons whole linseeds each day. These need to be ground (i.e. added to a smoothie) or alternatively soaked. Linseeds (i.e. flaxseeds) are particularly high in fibre.
- Take psyllium husk – a gentle soluble fibre which expands on contact with water. It is important to drink plenty of water at the same time as taking psyllium husk.
- Take a multi-strain Live Bacteria supplement daily.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Undertake light exercise.
For loose bowel movements:
- Take psyllium husk – a gentle fibre that absorbs water.
- Take Saccharomyces boulardii daily, ideally alongside a multi-strain Live Bacteria supplement.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Lightly cook vegetables rather than eating them raw.
A sample day’s menu to support detoxification
Other detoxification practices
Skin brushing has the effect of invigorating the body through the massaging strokes of the bristles, moving excess waste into the solar plexus area, where it is drained into the intestines and excreted from the body.
Gentle exercise will encourage good circulation to help with toxin elimination etc.
Aim for 8 hours per night. Have a regular bedtime and avoid all screens for at least one hour before bed.
A warning on detoxification diets
The above are all suggested as part of a detoxification programme. We would not consider it appropriate for this kind of approach to be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medication, please consult your doctor first before embarking on a detoxification diet. You should not undertake a detoxification diet if you are unwell.
- Our bodies are designed to naturally detoxify through the digestive system, liver, kidneys and certain enzymes in our cells work to break down and eliminate toxins. The purpose of a detox diet is to support the body’s natural detoxification processes.
- Detox programmes are usually a short-term intervention but can vary in length from a few days to a month or more.
- After the first few days of your detox, you should begin to experience the benefits of increased mental and physical alertness and energy, and this will encourage you to make long-term improvements to your diet.
- Some of the foods you can enjoy during a detox include fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, homemade smoothies and bone broth. Adequate protein is important and this can be provided by beans/lentils/nuts and seeds for vegetarians and vegans; if choosing to include animal products then small portions of wild fish or organic chicken may be included
- Some of the foods to avoid during a detox include sugar, caffeine, gluten, red meat and alcohol. (However, avoid processed gluten-free foods as well!).
- Two common problems associated with a period of detoxification are constipation or diarrhoea. A healthy gut function is vitally important in helping the body eliminate waste materials, so it is important to remember to support the gut. Regular – at least once daily – bowel movements are essential.
- If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medication, please consult your doctor first before embarking on a detoxification diet. You should not undertake a detoxification diet if you are unwell, pregnant or breastfeeding.
- If you would like some more tailored advice, you might like to consider our free health questionnaire service to help you.
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Clare) by phone or email at any time.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01684 310099
Clare Daley and the Cytoplan Editorial Team