As the global obesity epidemic continues, so does the search for easy and rapid weight loss solutions.

In recent years, weight loss cleanses have taken center stage as one of the most popular methods for dropping weight rapidly.

This article tells you all about weight loss cleanses, their effectiveness and risks.

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The word “cleanse” implies making something clean or ridding it of impurities.

There is no standard definition of what a weight loss cleanse is or what it should include.

Generally speaking, the overarching goal of the cleanse process is to remove something from your diet or lifestyle in order to facilitate weight loss.

These cleanses are typically brief and involve a specific set of instructions for diet modification to achieve a certain goal. Some simply aim to reduce weight, while others promise fat loss in specific body areas.

The methods can vary greatly between cleanses.

Some include herbal supplements or exercise, while others focus solely on the types of food you eat.

Summary Though there is no standard definition, weight loss cleanses are usually short-term programs, in which drastic dietary changes are implemented in order to promote rapid weight loss.

It’s difficult to differentiate between detox and cleanse diets because neither method has a standard, scientific definition. Plus, there’s significant overlap.

The two terms are often used interchangeably when referring to this style of dieting, though some people claim that distinct differences exist.

Both diets are intended for short-term use, usually lasting anywhere from one to 30 days.

The main differences seem to lie in the overall intent behind the respective methods.

Detox Diets Focus on Eliminating Toxins

Detoxification (detox) diets usually operate on the notion that your body needs assistance to eliminate harmful substances, or toxins, from your system that may be impairing optimal health.

These toxins may refer to any dietary or environmental substance with the potential to cause harm, including but not limited to:

  • Pollutants
  • Heavy metals
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Pesticides
  • Allergens

Detox diets usually involve very strict dietary regimens that may include fasting, herbal supplements, laxatives, enemas and eliminating many foods. Some of them also claim to detoxify specific organs, such as your liver, kidneys or colon.

While weight loss may be one goal for some detox diets, they more frequently target a wide array of physical ailments, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Acne and skin rashes
  • Hormone imbalances

Though detoxes remain very popular, there is no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of this kind of diet regimen (1).

Cleanses Usually Emphasize Healthy Foods

Some cleanse diets operate very similarly to detox diets and involve strict dietary modifications and supplements — others are less rigid.

Generally, cleanses focus on eliminating unhealthy or highly allergenic foods while replacing them with nutrient-dense, whole foods to support overall health.

Weight loss is a common goal of cleanse dieting, but cleanses may also be used to treat various digestive issues or food cravings.

Foods frequently eliminated as part of a cleanse diet are:

  • Sugar
  • Processed foods
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Gluten
Summary Cleanse and detox diets are difficult to differentiate, as neither is clearly defined. Though they’re quite similar, detox diets typically aim to eliminate harmful substances (toxins) from the body while cleanses aim to reduce weight and food cravings.

The variety of weight loss cleanses is immense. If you google the subject, you’ll find an abundance of cleanses and their associated products.

This overwhelming number is likely due to the lack of a standardized definition.

Here are some examples of popular weight loss cleanses:

  • Whole30: A 30-day diet cleanse that eliminates multiple groups of foods, including sugar, dairy, legumes, grains and alcohol. During this time, you’re encouraged to consume plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
  • Juice Cleanses: Typically lasting 3–7 days, these cleanses eliminate all foods other than juice and water. There’s often a specific series of fruit and vegetable juices to be consumed in a particular order.
  • The Master Cleanse: Also called the Lemonade Diet, this cleanse consists of eating only a mixture of lemon juice, water, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for 10 days.
  • BeachBody Ultimate Reset: This is a 21-day diet focusing on eliminating dairy, meat, eggs, sugar and processed foods. Nutritional supplements, probiotics and herbal laxatives are included throughout the process.
  • 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse: This cleanse replaces all meals with specific green smoothies that are made from various fruits and vegetables. You’re also allowed to eat unlimited amounts of non-starchy vegetables.

As you can see from these few examples, weight loss cleanses can vary greatly in terms of restrictions, duration and necessary ingredients.

Summary Weight loss cleanses show great variation in terms of duration, restrictions, supplements and foods. For example, some are restricted to liquid foods while others eliminate certain food groups.

No scientific studies have been conducted on specific brands of weight loss cleanses. Thus, their effectiveness has yet to be established.

Despite limited research on cleanses, they’re most comparable to short-term, very-low-calorie diets (VLCDs).

Most research defines a VLCD as consisting of 450–800 calories per day. This number is comparable to that of some popular weight loss cleanses.

Several studies on VLCDs in obese people revealed significant reductions in weight (2, 3, 4).

Interestingly, one 15-week study showed that short-term, rapid weight loss by way of a VLCD was more effective at lowering cholesterol and blood sugar than slower, sustained methods for weight loss (5).

Both slow and rapid weight loss strategies led to a reduction in weight and body size. However, the group that used the slower weight loss strategy preserved more muscle mass (5).

It should be noted that most of the VLCDs in these studies also incorporated total nutrition needs as part of the dietary strategy. These methods were closely monitored, well planned and nutritionally balanced.

Weight loss cleanses differ from VLCDs, as they often eliminate vital nutritional components — such as protein — without providing any guidance for replacing them during the cleanse.

These restrictions could ultimately lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, making such cleanses unbalanced and unsafe.

Additionally, though appropriately planned VLCDs may be effective for weight loss in the short term, maintaining weight loss over a longer period is only possible through balanced, healthy eating behaviors after the VLCD period is complete.

Summary Research suggests that very-low-calorie diets (VLCDs) may be effective for rapid weight loss, but many weight loss cleanses exclude vital nutrients. For long-term weight maintenance, a balanced and healthy eating style is critical.

No reliable scientific research exists on weight loss cleanses despite the wide array of health claims that typically accompany them. Most of these statements are marketing taglines that are at best based on anecdotal evidence.

Most weight loss cleanses are low-calorie and brief, and some research supports the notion that short-term, very-low-calorie diets (VLCDs) have a positive health impact.

Several studies in people with type 2 diabetes noticed that a VLCD regimen significantly reduced fasting blood sugar levels (3, 6, 7).

Some of the same studies also revealed a significant reduction in markers of heart disease risk for those who lost weight using a VLCD (4, 5).

Keep in mind that many of these health effects are likely to be seen with weight loss in general and not necessarily unique to the VLCD method.

It’s well known that achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can help treat and prevent various chronic diseases. VLCD methods are just one of many ways to lose weight and may not be ideal for most people.

A VLCD in the form of a weight loss cleanse can be socially isolating and difficult to adhere to, as it’s far from a long-term, healthy eating pattern.

Additionally, VLCDs in the aforementioned studies were carried out under medical supervision, whereas a weight loss cleanse sold on the internet won’t have that advantage.

Many popular cleanses also replace a supportive and balanced approach to healthy living with costly investments in juices, supplements and instruction manuals — with little to no evidence backing their effectiveness.

Perhaps most importantly, these extreme styles of eating don’t teach healthy behaviors for maintaining weight loss after the cleanse is complete.

Summary Limited research exists connecting weight loss cleanses to any measurable health benefits. Yet, very-low-calorie diets may improve blood sugar control and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Weight loss cleanses are an extreme approach and come with potentially detrimental health effects. Because there are so many different kinds of cleanses, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which risks are greatest for each type of cleanse.

Rapid weight loss, such as that promoted by most weight loss cleanses, is associated with adverse health reactions, including dehydration and the development of gallstones (8, 9).

Due to the restrictive nature of many weight loss cleanses, they may have a negative psychosocial impact on people prone to eating disorders (10).

Furthermore, VLCDs accompanying many cleanse protocols could significantly increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies. Of course, this risk may vary depending on the duration and degree of restriction of a particular cleanse (11).

What’s more, two recently published studies indicate that juice and smoothie cleanses that involve consuming very high quantities of green vegetables could lead to progression of kidney damage in people with chronic kidney disease (12, 13).

For most people, focusing solely on weight loss at the expense of other health issues not only jeopardizes physical and mental wellbeing but also hinders the development of skills to implement long-term healthy behaviors post-cleanse.

Summary Weight loss cleanses may be dangerous, especially for people with preexisting health conditions.

Weight loss cleanses are extreme dietary approaches that promise rapid weight loss through very restrictive eating patterns.

There is little research to support their use.

In addition, they’re often nutritionally incomplete and may be dangerous for certain people, especially without appropriate planning or medical supervision.

Implementing balanced, healthy eating behaviors that can be utilized long term may be a safer, more effective weight loss solution.