A Vegan Diet is Not a “Detox” Plan

A Vegan Diet is Not a “Detox” Plan

By |2010-01-10T11:09:00+00:00January 10th, 2010|Tags: , |19 Comments

My husband—the lucky guy—has a colonoscopy scheduled for this week. In case you’ve never had the pleasure, prepping for a colonoscopy involves several days of a very low fiber diet (delightful vegan meals like white rice with tofu, canned carrots and white bread) followed by industrial strength laxatives. The idea is to empty the colon and get it squeaky clean so that the little camera can see everything.

It’s the ultimate cleansing regimen and no one in their right mind would want to do it. But it’s the only way to thoroughly clean out your intestines. As far as cleansing or “detoxifying” the rest of your body—well, you already have a highly sophisticated system for that, which includes the liver, lungs, and kidneys.

There is no diet or regimen that will detoxify your body. You can eat all the raw foods and juices you want and your body will still produce toxins (because that’s the nature of normal metabolism) and will still do its usual work to neutralize or eliminate those toxins.

Eating a healthful diet that is rich in whole plant foods will certainly go a long way toward supporting those systems and promoting health. But that’s different from expecting that a week or two of some special diet will actually cleanse your body of harmful substances.

Adopting a vegan diet doesn’t cause your body to detox, either. Which is a good thing, since the last thing we want to tell people is that they are going to feel unwell when they first go vegan. Some new vegans might experience discomfort if their diet is suddenly higher in fiber or beans. But that can be handled pretty easily by consuming some refined grains, more cooked foods, and more lentils (they’re less gas-y than other beans), and transitioning gradually to a higher fiber intake.

Going vegan should feel good. For many, there is a distinct sense of psychological relief when diet and lifestyle choices start to reflect actual feelings and beliefs about animals. Let’s not ruin that with made-up claims about some transition period of “detoxification” and discomfort.

19 Comments

  1. stantoro January 10, 2010 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Interesting perspective – thanks! I don't remember any discomfort when I went vegan, but that may be because I had gone vegetarian and then cut out dairy (as a check on some intestinal discomfort) over the course of about a month. Certainly nothing compared to the prep for a colonoscopy, which is a pretty violent experience!!!

  2. ginger January 10, 2010 at 11:20 am - Reply

    i recently tried to reduce my fat intake on a specialized vegan weight loss diet called the mcdougall plan and within a couple of weeks noticed some very horrible side effects of leaving essential fats out of my diet. i smartened up and reintroduced the good stuff and was back to normal in no time only to be lectured by a friend who told me i was just doing it wrong and that i needed to detox for a month or so first. i thought that sounded wacky…so, thank you for the confirmation.

    good luck to your husband and his colon.

  3. Rhea Parsons Riker January 10, 2010 at 11:40 am - Reply

    I've had people tell me, after eating one of my vegan meals, that they felt sick and were "in the bathroom all night." My response: that is what happens when you never eat veggies and then suddenly eat a bunch of them without the colon-clogging meat.

    Being vegan has made me feel healthier but it certainly isn't a detox – still depends which vegan foods you eat, as you wrote.

    It is discouraging when people see a vegan diet as a fad or a short-term way to lose weight or detox rather than see it for the long-term healthy goals, for them, the animals and the planet.

    Best to the hubby 🙂

  4. Kate O' January 10, 2010 at 11:50 am - Reply

    I think the words "detox" and "cleanse" may be the points of disconnect, then, between what you're saying and what the spectrum of food-for-life approaches are about. I do feel like, when I switched to a raw vegan diet, that I began noticing obvious changes in my body that could loosely be described as detoxification: for one, my lifelong problem skin cleared up significantly. And for that matter, when I first went vegan 12 years ago, I noticed different improvements then, too. "Detoxification" may be overstating the case — and I certainly don't mean to downplay what your husband is going through in preparation for his colonoscopy because that sounds hideous and he certainly has my sympathy — but the sloppiness of language makes it difficult to convey the physiological phenomena we do actually experience when we make sustained step changes in our diet for the better.

  5. Dave Rolsky January 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    I think your post gives too much credence to the pseudo-scientific nonsense floating around out there. Until proponents of so-called "detoxification" actually define what this mean, what exactly are you arguing against?

    @Kate O': As to whether a vegan diet helps with skin problems (or any other specific problem). Maybe it does. If skin problems are linked to specific components of one's diet, it's no surprise that switching diets might improve your skin quality.

    But rather than using ridiculously broad, ill-defined terms like "toxins" or "detofixication", it's best to describe specific results.

    Also, just because you noticed a specific (possibly entirely unrelated-to-diet change) doesn't mean anyone else will. I've been vegan a long time, and during that time I've developed patchy eczema around my body. Should I ascribe that to my diet too?

    • Bari January 24, 2013 at 9:02 am - Reply

      Hmmm, since I’ve been vegan for approx five years, I’ve had a patchy rash on my body limbs… Been trying to figure out the cause for years.

  6. Ginny Messina January 11, 2010 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Thanks all, for your comments. I agree that the whole idea of a "detox diet" is not very well defined. Generally, I think people refer to a detox plan as something that will produce immediate (that is, over a period of a few weeks) cleansing of all toxins from the body. My point was that there is no such thing as a diet that will do that. If people note specific improvements or problems when they go vegan, it's likely to be due to some specific food. For some people, removing dairy might eliminate acne (there is some evidence that dairy makes acne worse.) Other people who suddenly go on a very low fat vegan might actually notice some problems associated with that. Or sometimes, the changes are merely coincidental.

    But to answer Dave's question, what I am arguing against is the idea that there is a specific diet that will neutralize toxins in the body.

  7. Rowan Morrison January 11, 2010 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Having done numerous cleanses (always using the "Master Cleanse" protocol developed by Stanley Burroughs), I can testify that there is no magical diet that will "detoxify" one's body. However, I think there is definitely value in giving your digestive system a break, which is where "cleansing" comes in. Ever since I started doing cleanses, I have (1) never suffered from allergies again (2) never suffer from arthritis, at least during the cleanse, and (3) feel great! There may be no scientific basis for it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.

  8. David January 11, 2010 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Excellent post, thanks. Like Dave (we're different people, promise!), I'm not a fan of the "vague toxins" gambit. Since going vegan, I feel "cleaner," but I'm pretty sure that has more to do with psychological factors rather than digestive ones.

    Perhaps one of the reasons people think a vegan diet cleanses the body is how terrible vegans feel after eating meat. I ate some soup that had ground beef in it after being vegan for 4 months (it was the only thing to eat and not the venue for activism), and I felt awful. Headache, nausea, the works.

  9. Marni January 12, 2010 at 7:17 am - Reply

    Great thoughts. I appreciate your insight on being a vegan and how you stress that it is all about health and not just about "dieting" as a vegan.
    Love your website as well. Great info!
    -marn

  10. Ava Odoemena March 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    A lot of the detoxification memes running around in rawfood (and other) scenes, can be attributed to magical thinking.

    There seems to be some self-organization-selection of people who are gluten intolerant to do very well on raw food, duh, because it usually leaves out all grains and therefore contains no gluten.

    People who "just feel great" after "detoxifying" with raw food, then, would achieve the same result with a gluten free diet, and exchanging the grains which do contain gluten with others that don't. Like Amaranth, Quninoa, Rice, Maize and so on.

  11. jessika August 9, 2010 at 7:30 am - Reply

    I agree that claiming that there will be a magical detox when you become vegan or anything else is absurd. Did I feel a difference when I stopped consuming dairy? Yes, but I’m lactose intolernt. I think it should be more of an emphasis on treating the body with food, as opposed to giving some.foods, in ridiculous combonations, some sort of short term cure. Will some people feel like they’re “detoxing”? Yes, but it’s just the high fiber intake and the body getting rid of the mucus if they consumed too much dairy.

  12. cyrell October 25, 2010 at 1:41 am - Reply

    I think if you are 'detoxing' on a vegan diet or not depends on how your life and diet was before the change.

    It is simple when you think about, just with staying away from cigarettes…you will feel cranky because you do not get your drug..and especially milk has a high account of hormones, endorphines which influence the human psyche, but also with meat it is proven that the hormones trigger the same area in the brain as cigarettes do..and also sugar does.
     
    Second thing why you feel cranky is when you eat better and the body has the chance to get rid of chemicals and other stuff which is concentrad in animal based foods, but less in plant based food…and we all know that most bad chemicals are stored in the fat cells, so if you also loose weight in the first weeks it may give you headaches, the sniffles…

    For people with certain conditions it is dangerous to loose to much weight in a certain time because all the chemicals which were stored in the fat are then circulating in the body and liver and kidneys are stressed with getting the chemicals out of the body.
    If you do not have damaged kidneys it will not be dangerous if you loose much weight in a short time, but you may need  more rest or even need bed rest for some time.

    Mercury in fish, biozides in high concentration in meat,milk and eggs..your body gets a lower number of 'evil'stuff he has to get rid of through the liver and kidneys.
     
    But that also may give you a crancy feeling because your body system was tuned in a certain way and now it has to react to changed cicrumstances.
    Enzymes in a person who drinks much alcohol or drinks are different than in a person who does not..and great changes always makes you feel more or lees woozy.
     
    Best example pregnancy…nothing is really wrong with you but the circumstances changed and so your body has to change..the body is build for changes but that does not mean it will not affect you.
     
    It may or may not affect you in a good or bad way..it depends on the person and the lifestyle.
     
    I myself changed from one day to the other.
    Had to catch myself not to lick the knife after i made a friend a cheese sandwich and it was hard the first couple of weeks when i smelled steak or cheese pizza..yeah i was cranky but i also said myself..shove it, you choosed to do it and you know it will get better and you feel better.
    I let myself not get overwhelmed with my cravings and the resulting bad moods. If i had whined and nourished my bad mood i surely would have given in.
    Just the same with people getting away from their habit of smoking and drinking. You have to concentrate on the positive things if your mood treatens to overwhelm you, do somethig else instead of behaving like a caged lion and wandering your kitchen.
     
    If people have bad reactions like cravings or 'detox' because they loose weight/chemical reactions in the body have to change and they do not know why that happens, they will likely abandon their diet and blame it, saying it is bad for the body.
    Your body craves coffee, if you do not get coffee you may get headaches, be tired, cranky…but it will go away and you will feel much better afterwards(if you have a habit as bad as my mother had) Your body has to realise he will no longer get coffee and stay awake by itself, but you also have to take care to get enough sleep…which you may not have gotten before..nothing a couple of mugs coffee could not fix, less sleep more coffee.
     
    You have to tell the people, yeah you may get some bad reactions like when you do not get coffee and your body is tired or gets a headache..but there also may happen absolutely nothing bad and you feel great.
     
    You may get cravings but they get away..you may feel bad at first but much better afterwards.
     
    If you are all positive and people expirience something bad, they blame the diet as bad..so tell them the truth..and check if there is nothing missing in their diet.
    Chips and coke may be vegan, but that is not a good diet and some people will eat all junk food and unbalanced without thought.

  13. Art January 1, 2011 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    I just switched from a high animal protein diet to a vegan diet. I have done detox fasts many times before, and when I cut out the animal protein I felt the same symptoms as when I do these fasts. The symptoms I experience include a constant low-grade headache, muscle aches in the large muscles (back, legs), and a general feeling of irritability in my urinary tract and my bowels. I wish I had known that I would experience a detox ahead of time, because then I would have drank plenty of water along the way so that the toxins wouldn't become so concentrated in my urinary tract and bowels. On about day 7 or 8 of my vegan transition I had to go to the emergency ward of my local hospital to get anti-biotics for a nasty urinary tract infaction. I think it's much safer to assume that you will indeed go through a detox period for a week or two when you cut animal protein out of your diet, and therefore assume that you should help your body flush these excess toxins out during the detox phase. Better safe than sorry!

  14. EMF December 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    (delightful vegan meals like white rice with tofu, canned carrots and white bread) … I respectfully disagree with this statement. It is not a valid vegan meal!

    I for one do not eat white rice, tofu or canned anything. Soy products are never in my diet. I think you are making a generalization that is far too broad. There is truth to the statement …”you are what you eat”. Eating healthy food for some is a lifestyle choice. The benefits are tremendous! And yes you do receive the benefit of detoxification with this lifestyle.

    I do agree that everyone over 40 and who is at risk should have a colonoscopy.

    • Em May 1, 2012 at 6:01 am - Reply

      The “delightful” vegan meal is in accordance to the restrictions of prepping for a colonoscopy. Cooked veggies only, only white rice or potatoes, white bread, canned fruit … (and a little tongue-in-cheek humor!).

  15. […] 4. Eat whole fruits and vegetables. A little juice is okay, but forget about those juice fasts and cleanses. They’re a scam. They do not improve your nutrition, your digestion or help to “detoxify” your body. (There is, in fact, no such thing as a “detox” diet.) […]

  16. Emma December 1, 2014 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    About two years ago, I transitioned to being Vegan. I experienced a “cleansing/detox” period of about 5 days. I had been living on my own, and only eating foods high in MSG and just all around very unhealthy. The day I moved home, I went cold turkey Vegan. About 2 weeks in is when I got sick. It felt like my body was cleaning itself out anyway it could. The day I was better, I had virtually no cravings of all the “bad” food I had consumed for quite some time.

    Last year, I moved out and in with my boyfriend and eventually ate “regular” food. Ever since then, it has been a somewhat painful experience. I can’t tolerate milk anymore, or really any dairy products, and heavier meat and animal bi products make me sick. Every meal that is your run of the mill meal, it sits heavy.

    Granted, I used to work out 5-6 days a week for an hour, drank a gallon of water throughout the day, and took supplements for the vitamins I was lacking (blood tests were performed before going Vegan). Now, I find myself not exactly back to my original unhealthy lifestyle, but close.

    My psoriasis which was away after transitioning Vegan went away, I actually rested, and my iron levels were just where they needed to be according to my doctor. Recently, everything has come back, which I am now feeling the year of neglect. I am very anemic, and just feel so sick all the time. My skin has the patches again, and of course, I have gained the weight that I have lost. Today, I have decided to transition back to the Vegan diet along with exercise plan.

    I am curious to see if I have those “detox” like symptoms again, even though I am not attempting to “detoxify” my body quickly.

    Any thoughts on why I experienced what I did 2 years ago?

  17. ew0054 October 24, 2017 at 11:49 am - Reply

    In the opening paragraph, did you mean “high” fiber diet? Low fiber and laxatives seem opposite.

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