This Is the Difference Between a "Cleanse" and a "Detox"

Think a cleanse and a detox are the same? Think again.

So, you've decided that this will finally be the year you ditch those last 10 pounds for good. And instead of yet again adopting the slow and steady philosophy that you've tried and abandoned so many times before, this year, you're ready to kick things off with a cleanse. Or is it a detox?

For many dieters, those two healthy living buzzwords are used interchangeably to describe a period of Spartan-like discipline during which your body gets a kind of nutritional reboot. But what many dieters don't realize is that there's actually a significant difference between cleansing your body and detoxing. So, what actually sets one apart from the other?

"The word 'cleanse' and 'detox' are often used interchangeably, but they are different," says clinical nutritionist Ariane Hundt.

"A cleanse focuses more on the digestive tract and helping remove waste product on a superficial level from the colon. A cleanse can be done simply by removing irritating or allergenic foods from the diet and eating lighter fare that helps speed up the digestive process."

While many people assume that swapping out your usual meals in favor of juice will provide cleansing and detoxifying effects, Hundt cautions against using juice cleanses as a cure-all. In fact, in many cases, they may do more harm than good.

"Juice cleanses are popular and lighten the burden on the digestive tract, but don't produce detox effects, even though that's what they often promote," she explains. "A juice cleanse may include drinking several juices a day while not eating solids. However, juices that include fruits are very high in carbs and not bound by fiber. They create insulin spikes and usually result in low energy, muscle loss, and poor focus and mood. The resulting weight loss is due to the bowel contents emptying, but is not lasting fat loss."

Worse yet, Hundt says that juice cleanses may actually slow a person's metabolism through muscle wasting while not addressing the larger issues that may have caused their initial weight gain. "It's a quick fix without lasting outcomes and a superficial approach to wanting to create fast weight loss or health changes," she says.

However, there is a healthier way to cleanse: Hundt recommends a more moderate approach, including cutting out grains, sugar, soy, alcohol, processed foods, and even the bulk of your regular fruit intake. Hundt also advocates for increased physical activity, sleep, and mindfulness as part of any cleanse, if you want to enjoy lasting, full-body effects.

A detox, on the other hand, does more than just clear out your digestive tract. "A detox goes much deeper and focuses on helping the body boost its own detoxification processes through the liver, kidneys, skin, and lungs," explains Hundt. "This usually includes supplementation, a change of foods and drinks, and can also include the use of practices such as infrared saunas and colonics."

And while Hundt admits that the body does already have effective processes for detoxification, a more regimented detox plan may benefit us in reducing the effects of some of our less-than-healthy lifestyle choices. "The goal is to rid the body of toxins we are all exposed to, whether these are pesticides from foods, environmental toxins, smoking, the use of plastic products, or mercury overload from eating too much tuna," explains Hundt.

When in doubt, get a professional involved. "Detoxes should be done under the guidance of a naturopathic physician or skilled professional," she says. And when you want to stay motivated and keep those weight loss goals on track, start with the 30 Best Ways to Stick to Any Diet.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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