A chocolate cupcake with a cherry on top

It turns out your whole January detox is one big myth

Ahhhh, it’s that time of year again. After a month of chocolate, wine, turkey and missed gym sessions we’re feeling off-peak and more than a little sluggish. Buoyed up by New Year’s resolutions and with the prospect of summer and bikinis now on the horizon, it’s time to make a change. We want to feel better, and fast. And so we jump on the detox train, furiously chucking spinach and cucumbers into a blender, banishing every last gram of sugar, and gulping down “special” tea like it’s going out of fashion. But is it really worth the meal-prep and missed cake?

Detoxing is big business, and undoubtedly has legions of devoted fans; on Instagram alone, a quick search of the #detox brings up over 10.3 million results, featuring everything from superfood smoothie to special capsules. Advocates will say that the process is less of a quick fix, more of a reset and can lead to weight loss, better skin, improved mood and lower your risk of illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

But not everyone is convinced. David Juurlink, a doctor and drug safety researcher with the University of Toronto, attracted huge support when he took to Twitter to pan the idea of detoxes, a sentiment also echoed by dietitians at the UK’s Cambridge University Hospital.

When you look at the evidence, they may have a point, because in actual fact your body is already doing a pretty amazing job of taking care of you. Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, has been particularly scathing of the concept. He told The Guardian: “The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak. There is no known way – certainly not through detox treatments – to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better.”

So, how do a few of the more popular detox methods stack up to their claims? Let’s start with a juice detox, which requires followers to cut all food groups except fruit and vegetables from their diet for a specified amount of time, replacing meals with pressed juices. Sold as being easy to follow, effective, and claiming to give your body a break, sets of ready pressed juice detox bottles can run into hundreds of dollars.

But the nutritional value behind it is dubious, at best. The average daily calorie intake on this detox sits at around 800 calories, despite the fact that the recommended calorie intake for an adult woman is around 2000 per day. Call me cynical, but maybe, just maybe, it’s not the juice that’s magically making the change, but the dramatic calorie deficit - otherwise known as starvation. 

According to Rick Henriksen, M.D., formerly a family physician with University of Utah Health Care, juice detoxes can also have unintended consequences: “The biggest issue is that you’re likely to lose lean muscle mass. You can also develop fatigue and other issues such as difficulty sleeping, difficulty with concentration or an unhealthy change in bowel habits. Whenever we cut our energy intake, especially in a drastic way, our body will naturally decrease our metabolism to compensate.”

Another hugely popular example is the 21 Day Sugar Detox, made popular by nutritionist Diane Sanfilippo with her New York Times bestselling book and website, “The 21 Day Sugar Detox”. The detox, which advocates a diet high in healthy fats and veggies, cuts out all sugar and is very low-carb, even recommending eliminating all fruit in the early stages. No offence sugar detoxers, but no one ever got ill, or fat, from eating a banana.

This particular detox, perhaps more than others, highlights the opportunistic nature of the detox industry. Since it rose to prominence, a number of similar programmes inspired by the sugar detox have popped up. A quick trawl through social media will produce numerous posts telling you to get on board, make a change... for a fee. The fact is though, that more often than not, these people taking the money have no medical background, just an Instagram account and a supportive ear.

And here’s the truth: you can’t fix a month (or year) of eating food that’s not good for you by cutting out sugar for four, 14 or 21 days. You can buy all the official meal plans and books you like, but by cutting out sugar or engaging in dry January you’re not actually doing a detox, you’re just actively making healthier choices. And those choices exist whether you’ve got the book or not.

Then there’s the hugely popular BooTea Teatox, which requires followers to continue to eat meals, but to drink one cup of cleansing herbal tea in the morning and another laxative tea at night. Curiously, their website, complete with a list of FAQs, doesn’t actually explain how the programme works on a scientific level - instead, it simply features a long list of 5* reviews; the website of a major pharmacy chain, on the other hand, averages just a 3* rating.

The truth is that it requires followers to maintain a healthy, balanced diet during the detox anyway, even providing a meal plan; given that this is probably already the opposite of your December diet (chocolate for breakfast, anyone?), you’re already doing half of the work, except you’re paying for the pleasure. Never mind the fact that it can also alter the effectiveness of your contraceptive pill, which has the potential to cause weight gain of a whole different kind.

The icing on the cake is that, away from drug rehabilitation programmes, “detox” is not actually even a clearly defined, medically-officiated term; it has no universal basis, nor do the toxins that the process claims to remove. All in all, it’s clear that - unfortunately - if you want to become the glowing goddess of your wildest dreams, then you’ve got to do it the old fashioned way - with water, healthy food and exercise.

Businesses spend all of December encouraging us to treat ourselves, eat all the pie, drink all the wine, then play on our “what have I done” feeling come January. It’s no coincidence that Diane Sanfilippo’s latest book was released on the 2nd January, is it? But ultimately they rely on you simply changing your diet. So save your cash (and your sanity) and just eat the cake. Maybe less cake than you did in December, but still, eat the damn cake.