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Health Matters: Is a "detox diet" good or bad for your health?

Health expert Madelyn Fernstrom discusses "detox diets" and how they effect your physical and mental health.
Maskot / Getty Images/Maskot

While we’ve all heard the term “detox diet”, but what exactly is it? It can be tough to describe because it can range from fasting, to all liquids, to specific food elimination plans – all in the name of flushing out dangerous toxins from your body to make you look and feel great. Despite claims to the contrary, there’s no real proof that these diets support better health. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that some plans can be risky and ultimately harmful.

It’s time for some detox diet myth-busting. If you’re still thinking about trying one – get the facts first!

MYTH #1 – Your body needs a way to cleanse itself from all the wear and tear of daily life.

FACT: The human body is well equipped for daily cleansing using your liver, lungs, skin, and kidneys. These organs work together to cleanse your body from head to toe.

MYTH #2 – You need to give your digestive tract rest by consuming all liquids.

FACT: Your digestive tract thrives on fiber rich foods and foods containing pre- and probiotics. Fiber acts like a roto-rooter to keep the pathway functioning smoothly. Plus, fueling with probiotics (like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and other fermented foods) supports healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. Eating prebiotics (like bananas, asparagus, garlic, and onions) provide the fuel for the healthy bacteria to thrive.

MYTH #3 – Fasting is a quick and easy way to cleanse your organs and get rid of toxins.

FACT: While a 24-hour fast is safe for most healthy people, longer periods can be a health risk. Muscle can start to break down to provide amino acids for daily body needs, dehydration can set in, and weakness and dizziness often occur.

MYTH #4 – Eliminate dairy products.

FACT: If you have no digestive issues with dairy products (like milk, yogurt, and cheese) it’s a great contribution to healthy eating. A triple-duty boost for bones and teeth – with protein, calcium, and fortified with vitamin D – even the “milk solids” (the stuff that makes dairy white) contribute to bone and tooth strength. Of course, if you are lactose intolerant, to any degree, eliminating dairy will support better digestive health. But some studies show that even those with a poor tolerance for dairy can often digest one serving of yogurt daily. Make sure to find alternate sources of calcium and vitamin D to meet nutrient needs if you’re not able to tolerate dairy.

MYTH #5 – Eat only plant proteins and eliminate all red meat.

FACT: Plant proteins are most definitely a health plus because there is no artery-clogging saturated fat, and in combinations, an excellent source of complete protein. But red meat also provides rich sources of many nutrients not found in high amounts in plants – like iron, vitamin B 12, and zinc – in addition to being an excellent source of complete protein. Choosing the right type - and portion size - of red meat is the key to smart eating. There are more than 20 cuts of lean or ultra-lean red meat that support heart health. Other healthy animal proteins include skinless poultry, fish, and pork tenderloin.

The best advice for a detox diet? Be a “clean” eater: choose simply prepared, fresh foods the way they’re found in nature – and include plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables. What could be easier?

And remember - always talk to your doctor before making any significant changes in your daily eating.

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.