Cleanse vs. Detox: What's the Difference?

Cleanse vs. Detox: What's the Difference?

No doubt, you’ve heard of juice cleanses, sugar cleanses, and detox diets.

And if you’ve ever tried to break through a weight-loss plateau, beat the bloat, or get back on-track after a little too much mac and cheese, someone has probably suggested doing a body cleanse or detox diet (also known as a detox cleanse) to get things going again.

Cleansing and detoxing are getting a ton of hype right now — do a Google search for “detox” or “cleanse” and you’ll get millions of results. Turns out you can pretty much cleanse or detox almost every aspect of your life.

You could use them to end toxic relationships, block toxic trolls on social media, or do a “digital detox” to break your screen habit. A noble idea, that last one, but you’ll have to pry my smartphone out of my cold, dead, Pinterest-addicted hands.

When it comes to body cleanses and detoxes, the amount of info out there is overwhelming.

But doing a cleanse or detox diet is more than just unfriending a bully or unplugging your iPad. It can affect your health and nutrition, so it’s important to dig deeper to figure out the truth behind the hype.

There are key differences between a cleanse and a detox diet, but people tend to use the two terms interchangeably, which makes things even more confusing. So what’s the difference between a cleanse and a detox? Read on to find out.

Cleanse vs. Detox: What Are Toxins?

What Are Toxins?

When people talk about body cleanses or detox diets, they talk about the dangers of “toxins” a lot, but usually in a very non-specific way: “Toxins are all around us! Your body is filled with toxins that need to be flushed out!”

But what exactly are these “toxins”?

Toxins are potentially harmful substances we come into contact with every day — pesticides on your produce, pollutants in the air, unpronounceable ingredients in processed food, or heavy metals like mercury and arsenic in the soil, to name just a few.

You’ve probably also heard that foods like gluten, dairy, and refined sugar are “toxic” — but unless you have an allergy or intolerance, you don’t have to swear off bread forever.

While anything can be toxic if you consume too much of it, the occasional handful of cookies won’t turn you into a biohazard.

But in our modern world, many of us are constantly bombarded by toxins in the air, in food, in our cleaning products, everywhere — and those toxins can add up.


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Newsflash: Your Body Detoxifies Itself

Assuming you don’t fall face first into a radioactive swamp, your body is equipped to deal with most toxins.

When you inhale, ingest, or absorb toxins, your liver and kidneys work to flush many of them out — and they’ve been doing this long before cleanses and detoxes came about.

But if you’re constantly hammering yourself with environmental toxins and skimping on nutrients and proper hydration, your body’s natural detoxification system can be inhibited.

“Your body wants to get rid of the unhealthy stuff, but if you keep eating more junk, you’re not going to be able to get the other junk out,” says Denis Faye, M.S. and Openfit’s executive director of nutrition. “It’s like clogging a drain.”

It puts your liver and kidneys under a lot of pressure — and that’s where cleansing comes in.

Cleanse vs. Detox: What's the Difference between a cleanse diet and a detox diet?

What Is a Cleanse?

Cleanse diets don’t just eliminate junk from your diet — they also focus on fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods that support your natural detoxification processes.

“Fluids, fiber, and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables can go a long way in terms of supporting your wellness and your body’s natural systems,” Faye says.

By stripping your diet down to the essentials, you’re giving your liver and kidneys a chance to do their job more efficiently.

But don’t jump willy-nilly into a program: It’s important to do research and preparation ahead of time so you know what to expect before and after you do it.

And while you will have to make some food sacrifices, believe it or not, you won’t have to give up flavor or variety.


What Is a Detox Diet?

Detox diets (or detox cleanses) also eliminate unhealthy grub from your diet, but they often require a super-restrictive diet consisting of a small number of foods that claim to have “detoxifying properties.”

We can get behind eating healthy foods that help your body detoxify itself, but some of the detox diets out there sound like straight-up torture — do you really want to drink lemonade laced with cayenne pepper for 10 days straight or eat cabbage soup at every meal?

The thing is, those foods won’t actually flush your system.

“‘Detox diet’ is kind of a misnomer, because food is not going to detox you,” Faye says.

In other words, it’s still your liver and kidneys doing the cleaning — not the food itself.

And if a diet is too restrictive, your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs to carry out its natural processes.

One way of looking at the difference between a cleanse and a detox is that detox diets usually focus on “out with the old” in the short term. But cleanse programs also address the “in with the new” aspect.

Good cleanses can help you form new eating habits that support your body and help you stay healthy (and nontoxic!) for the long haul.

Bottom line, don’t just accept the latest buzzy trends at face value — the devil is in the details: Do your homework, find out what the hype is all about, and make sure it’s serving your goals of living a healthier life.

(Pro Tip: It’s always a good idea talk to your doctor before you make any significant dietary changes, especially if you’re on any medications or have an ongoing medical condition.)

Kara Wahlgren


Kara Wahlgren is a contributing editor at Openfit and a freelance health writer whose work can be found at Prevention, Seventeen, Women's Health, and more. When she's not writing, she enjoys beach volleyball, traveling, live music, and running half marathons reeeaaally slowly.

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