Detox, Cleansing and Athletes...Do They Mix?

I hear about detox diets and cleanses all the time, and I bet you do too. The reports claim after a few days of cleansing, harmful toxins will leave your body, along with unwanted pounds and fat, and you’ll feel more energetic and better than ever.

Since I frequently work with athletes, I wondered whether these types of diets are a good choice for an athlete.

What a lot of people don’t know, athletes included, is cleanses are controversial. They lack credible scientific evidence to prove they work and are safe. Most cleanse and detox diets are very restrictive and therefore fall short on necessary calories, protein, and several key nutrients. This can contribute to fatigue and decreased performance, which are major concerns for athletes. For some, the restrictions associated with a cleanse can even perpetuate disordered eating.

Claims for a Cleanse

Cleanses are based on the premise that people are exposed to environmental toxins, pesticides, allergens, waste, and inflammatory substances through the foods they eat on a daily basis. These toxins supposedly build up in our bodies over time, sticking to the intestinal walls where they accumulate. This leaves us bloated, fatigued, with sore joints and muscles, and overweight.

Strict adherence to a cleansing regimen supposedly eliminates toxins from the body, cleanses organs, purifies cells and tissues, eliminates built up waste products, and decreases inflammation. Purported results include weight loss, improved energy levels, clearer thinking, and decreased risk of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Even though there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support a cleanse, there are plenty of testimonials from people who say they feel great after doing a cleanse. Each cleanse is unique, though many share similarities. For example, most cut out alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, highly processed and refined foods, and foods grown with the use of pesticides or herbicides. Most also include a specific regimen for taking supplements or detoxifying drinks that may consist of ingredients such as laxatives, herbal diuretics, maple syrup, and/or lemon juice. Cleanses also vary in the length of time they’re followed. Some can be completed in 24 hours, while others may take more than a month.

The Body Detoxes Itself

I can see how a cleanse sounds enticing, but do they actually work? In all actuality, “detoxing” is done naturally by the body’s organs, and they shouldn’t need any help from a cleanse.

For example, the respiratory system, including the hairs in your nose and mucus in your lungs, filters out harmful substances such as dust and bacteria. The kidneys filter about two quarts of waste per day, which is disposed of in our urine. And the liver metabolizes drugs and filters blood before it circulates to the rest of our body.

For someone looking to drop a few pounds, a low-calorie cleanse will certainly help them do that, but it’s important to understand a lot of the lost weight is water weight and not fat. Quick weight loss from a low-calorie diet also often results in rapid re-gain (and then some) when the dieter resumes their normal eating patterns.

Protein and Cleansing

When it comes to protein, the science-based recommendation for the amount needed to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis is 20 to 30 grams per meal (depending on the type of protein consumed and a person’s age). The majority of cleanses and detoxes are very low, if not void, of protein. The lack of protein in cleanses is especially concerning because it can affect retention of lean body mass. Muscle tissue eventually breaks down due to low protein intake. Inadequate protein intake can also cause athletes to feel excessively sore after workouts. Also, the protein sources in cleanses are generally plant-based, and therefore lacking in essential amino acids the body can’t make itself. For an athlete, shortchanging their body on calories and protein for a few days in the off-season may not be terribly harmful, but it isn’t necessarily helpful.

Hydration and Cleansing

Another pitfall with cleanses is their use of laxatives to help the body eliminate stool. Athletes need to be more fully hydrated than the average person, so they should be especially careful about using any sort of laxative because of their dehydrating properties.

Fueling and Cleansing

It goes without saying, athletes need more calories than the average person, and they need them on a constant basis when training every day. Cleanses drastically reduce calorie intake to a level that can be detrimental to performance both mentally and physically.

They need specific ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and their day-to-day schedules are unique, which can make a cleanse difficult to follow.

Athletic Performance and Cleansing

There is little to no scientific evidence that recommends using cleanses for enhancing athletic performance. It would be especially risky attempting a cleanse during an athlete’s competitive season. Doing so could negatively impact their performance by decreasing glycogen stores to sub-optimal levels and affecting blood glucose levels.

In addition to low blood glucose levels, which can cause fatigue, headaches, and dizziness, another drawback of cleanses is that they are low in several vitamins and minerals. For example, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids are all important for performance and are almost nonexistent in most cleanses.

Positive Aspects of Cleansing

Despite the drawbacks associated with cleansing, there are a few potential benefits. For example, juice cleanses and raw food cleanses are produce-rich, which give the average athlete more servings of produce, and also more antioxidants, nutrients, and phytochemicals, than they typically consume. Any cleanse that cuts out cooked food also temporarily cuts out eh consumption of potentially carcinogenic compounds (such as heterocyclic amines, acrylamides, and lipid polymerization products formed in the cooking of meat and fish) created during the cooking process.

Another positive aspect of a cleanse is the elimination of junk food, refined carbs, and alcohol.

If an athlete insists on a cleanse, I suggest one that isn’t extremely restrictive and only lasts for a short amount of time. Also, time the cleanse so they start it after their season is over when they are taking a break from training.

Bottom Line: For most people, a balanced diet is best, and that’s especially true for athletes. That being said, there are some positive parts of a detox or cleanse, and athletes can work with a registered dietitian to figure out how to incorporate those areas into their everyday diet without losing important nutrients, vitamins, protein, and the calories they need.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods



Spano, Marie, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS. Detox Is Hot. Training-Conditioning. Oct. 2012.



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