(Image: Unsplash/Jessica To'oto'o)


A detox diet refers to a period of fasting or heavily restricted eating. The program may include supplements and is typically short. It is undertaken to eliminate unhealthy matter from the body and/or to eliminate unhealthy long-term eating habits.


It’s obvious tosh, this detox business. Claims that a half pint of apple cider vinegar or a fistful of milk thistle can cleanse the human body better than it cleanses itself have no foundation. They serve no one so well as the naturopaths, authors and “wellness” firms who rebrand laxatives as health and very rarely identify the “toxins” these will remove.

No reasonable adult can have faith in this for-profit purification ritual. Perhaps it is possible to be scared straight by salad, but not one scholar in seven academic databases searched has been bothered to test this upbeat outcome. Many science communicators suggests poor mental health outcomes from a restricted eating program, particularly for those susceptible to anorexia and bulimia nervosas.

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Detox and its sickly new child “clean eating” — basically detox, but forever — are not much chop, and sometimes worse than that. That it is lawful to promote and publish unproven, potentially unhealthy health claims is rotten. That such claims can be lawfully made in the language of science is putrefaction — toxic, perhaps.

It is not Nanny Statist to criminalise herb peddlers and Instagram influencers for their use of terms like “lymphatic” or “alkaline” but in the liberal tradition of property defence. Such language is the property of science, not the creators of the Valerian Root and Urine Retention Miracle Ten Week Cleanse.

“The Valerian Root is that-a-way!” (Image: Unsplash/Emily Sea)

The overwhelming majority of us don’t know our science from Shinola, but we do recognise and respond to its grammar. If a few seconds of a pop song can be claimed as property, then science can claim market ownership of its distinct expression.


With one notable exception, our legislators do not appear to care for the regulation of Blood and Soil dietary mysticism at all. Jane Garrett is the politician who cunningly made raw milk, a product to which infant deaths have been attributed, indigestible. She also gave a book company a dose of regulatory ipecac. Penguin, publishers of Belle Gibson’s dodgy recipe book, no longer sell natural health advice without advice on the jacket that this stuff ain’t science.

Our health providers care. I’m sure they’d like to regulate the seductive claims of post-truth green juice soldiers, just as they’d enjoy slapping an injunction on Pete Evans. Food is not medicine and the persistent claim that it is endangers health.

Emergency ward staff have quite enough to do without cleansing the stomachs of January’s cleansers. Our legislators have so little to do, they fill their parliamentary time banging on about who called who a mean name. As such, you’d think criminalising the hazardous misuse of scientific language would make sense.


  • The term “detox’ is not borrowed from the true detoxification to which the patient of drug recovery submits, but from yoghurt enthusiasts of 1908 whose work on “auto-intoxication” was of limited interest to science at the time but very popular with ladies displeased by their stools.
  • Auto-intoxication” and the original medical text that describes it remains in favour with the clean-eating and detox set. People are still very keen to improve their poo
  • Detox is not a thing 
  • Detox is a sham. No, not just some detox programs, all of ‘em
  • There is no estimate of the money made by purity’s purveyors. Forbes calculates that the “juice cleanse” fad, one sector of the Western detox market, profits at $US3.4 billion annually in the US alone
  • The most persistent detox ruse is The Master Cleanse. Originally devised by some bloke called Stanley, who also went by the name Aaron, in the 1940s is a diet of “lemonade”, AKA a thin drink made of cayenne pepper. Although Stanley was convicted of murder, later revised to voluntary manslaughter, for the deep abdominal massage he administered to a critically ill man, Lee Swatsenbarg, Beyonce still enjoys her Lemonade.


Detox is done like a dinner here in The Lancet. The author is an agreeably cranky GP struck far less by the naivety of non-doctors than he is by his peers’ unconcern. Having attended a meeting at the Royal Society, he notes “that its catering department offers a ‘Detox Break’ (herbal teas, fruit, and decaffeinated coffee)”.

When scientists agree to eat the negation of their discipline for morning tea without complaint, we may despair, and not only at the veneer of legitimacy that can be bought with big marketing budgets, but the cultish belief in the pure self. “Leave our food as natural as possible” was the slogan of a Nazi physician in use as “pure” food was promoted by the Instagram Aryans of the Reich.

Our GP asks, “What on earth is the world’s premier academy of science doing, perpetuating such nonsense?”

Let us join his crucial tantrum. Permit the Magic Happens vendors their redemptive crypto-racist chakra lingo, but not the words of medical science.


Stanley Burroughs (1976). The Master Cleanser

Anthony Warner (2017). The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating  

David Rakoff (2004). Life in the Fastlane (Audio)

Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2008). The dubious practice of detox

Michael Pollan (2008). In Defence of Food

Michael Pollan (2007). Unhappy Meals

Edzard Ernst (2013). The Holocaust and Nazi alternative medicine 

Eugenics Archive. John Kellogg and the racial hygiene diet

George Davey Smith, (2004). Lifestyle, health, and health promotion in Nazi Germany

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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