Strategic Diets: What to Eat If You’re in Major Need of a Detox

No inordinate amount of dandelion tea required.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations.

The 500-calorie-a-day diet. Week-long juice fasts. Carrying around a 64-ounce jug of dandelion tea.

As detoxing became increasingly trendy, the number of options advertised as a cure-all for cleansing our body multiplied. And with each one we experienced an even greater shift in the way we view detoxing.

Suddenly a process that our body is naturally doing all the time—think of all the different ways our body filters out waste and eliminates it—became a marketing ploy convincing people to fill their carts with powders, pills, and juices.

If you’re feeling sluggish or sick, have put on a few extra pounds, or are having digestive issues (constipation, we’re looking at you), eating too much of the wrong kinds of food may be to blame. A detox may be the solution to your problems. But we’re not talking the detoxes that late-night infomercials are made of. Instead, it’s about getting out of your body’s way so that it can do its thing.

“The liver and the intestinal tract perform most of the work, but the kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system—and even the skin—each play a large role,” wrote Amie Valpone, author of Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation, and Reset Your Body. “These organs each work together to eliminate toxins so they won’t hang around in your body’s tissues creating health issues, weight gain, and above all, toxicity.”

The liver is the body’s major detoxification system, processing virtually everything you eat, drink, breathe in or rub on your skin. It works around the clock to filter your blood, clearing it of bacteria, drugs and other substances like food additives, harmful minerals and toxic medications; regulates most chemical levels in the blood; and converts harmful ammonia to urea that is then excreted in the urine.

Your kidneys also perform an important role in filtering and disposing of waste in the body, regulating the body’s salt, potassium and acid content, removing waste, excess fluid and drugs from the body, and filtering and returning 200 quarts of fluid to the bloodstream every 24 hours.

It’s pretty apparent that our body has got this.

“The body has its own amazing detoxification systems: the liver and the kidneys,” said Ranit Mishori, a faculty member in family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Unless there’s a blockage in one of these organs that do it day and night, there’s absolutely no need to help the body get rid of toxins.”

Sure, one of those trendy cleanses may leave you feeling less bloated and a few pounds lighter, but that is because you’re consuming no solid food for five days straight.

“We live in an era where there are daily assaults on our psyche and body, so cleansing may give you a false sense of getting the gunk out,” says Mishori. In actuality, detox is not the process that marketing ploys make it out to be.

“Detox is not what you think. It is not a juice cleanse, it’s not about deprivation, and it’s not about starving yourself to be skinny. Detox is about living a clean life and removing the toxins in your environment and foods that are causing inflammation in our body,” said Valpone.

It’s about supporting your body’s ability to naturally detox on a daily basis. Here’s what to eat—and what to avoid—to do just that.

“Cleansing” Foods

This whole thing should come as a relief. Cleansing just became pretty straightforward: Give the body what it needs to function, and cut out what it doesn’t.

Our bodies need certain things to function properly and remove toxins. “To function properly our bodies require plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and essential fatty acids, as well as fresh organic fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins,” said Valpone.

Sounds like you have a lot of eating to do. (Pretty different from most cleanses, huh?) Begin by filling your plate with:

  • Plant-based proteins. Since animal proteins, especially red meats, have been shown to increase inflammation in the body, sticking to plant-based options is a smart move when trying to create an environment that aids in the detoxification process. Beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and edamame are all great options. Amino acids—the building blocks of protein—are a “critical component of supporting liver detoxification,” wrote wrote Lauren Felts, certified nutritionist. “Glutamine, glycine, taurine and cysteine are the specific amino acids needed to properly clear toxins and ingested alcohol.” Grass-fed beef, free-range eggs and poultry, and beans are all great sources.
  • Produce. Organic fruits and vegetables also contain higher amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C and sulfur, and they are rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and phytochemicals that help the body to naturally detox, lessening the impact of allergens, hindering the growth of cancer cells, and boosting the production of enzymes that flush toxins out of the body. Specifically:
  • Dark, leafy greens are high in B vitamins, which are vital to the liver’s detoxification process. “B2, B3, B6, B12 and folic acid are needed to turn toxins into water-soluble metabolites, which are then processed through Phase II [of the liver’s detoxification process]. Without ample B vitamins available, this process is hindered, which can lead to toxicity in the liver and damaged tissue,” wrote Felts. They are also rich in plant chlorophylls that can neutralize heavy metals, chemicals and pesticides, and help protect mechanism for the liver.
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are high in glucosinolates, which activate detoxification enzymes in the liver that help flush out toxins. 
  • Citrus fruits. Lemons and limes in particular are high in citric acid, which inhibits kidney stone formation. Your kidneys are important for excreting wastes from the body, and the presence of kidney stones shows that the organ isn’t functioning well.
  • Selenium-rich foods. Selenium is a potent antioxidant that stimulates liver detoxification and is also critical for glutathione synthesis in the liver, which increases the breakdown of alcohol and toxins, wrote Felts. Garlic activates liver enzymes that help your body flush out toxins, and is also high in selenium and sulfur, both of which help flush toxic substances.
  • Sulfur-rich foods. “Sulfur is a compound that is needed for both phases of liver detoxification. It is also a vital building block for the production of the antioxidant, glutathione. It is a powerful antioxidant, protecting the cell’s DNA from damage while also aiding in their repair,” according to Felts. Foods high in sulfur include garlic, onions, shallots and leeks, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, as well as eggs. 
  • Spice rack staples: “Ginger stimulates the liver to flush out toxins,” said Valpone. Turmeric “gets its yellow coloring from a compound called curcuminoid, which is anti-inflammatory and stimulates the natural detoxification process of the liver and gall bladder.” Cinnamon is another great source of antioxidants (and a substitute for refined sugar in coffee and baked goods).

Foods to Avoid

“The following all contribute to our toxic load: inadequate quality protein; processed foods and refined sugar; refined oils; and conventional meat, dairy, egg and poultry that are exposed to chemical pesticides and shot up with hormones and antibiotics,” said Valpone.

These foods also all trigger inflammation in the body, adding to the toxic load that leaves us feeling sluggish, carrying extra weight, and with a lower immune system, and over time can increase risk for more serious diseases.

  • Refined Sugar. Sugar needs to go—now. “Processed sugar is easily digested and goes right into your bloodstream, which causes your blood glucose levels to shoot sky high,” said Valpone. “This puts strain on your organs, causing wear, tear and aging.” Researchers behind a study published in the journal Obesity claim they proved that sugar is a toxin. They found that after just nine days of having total dietary sugar reduced to 10 percent of their daily calories, participants’ fasting blood sugar levels dropped by 53 percent, their triglyceride and LDL levels declined, and most importantly, they showed less fat in their liver. That’s enough convincing for us to give sugar the axe.
  • Processed Foods. We’re eating clean here, which means nothing that comes from a box or a bag. Those chips, cookies, and the bread basket at the restaurant are all high in refined carbs that break down into sugar, and these foods also tend to be high in the trans fats that promote inflammation in the body.
  • Consider ditching gluten and dairy, too. At least temporarily. “Everyone reacts differently to allergens, drugs, chemicals, and toxins. There are some common toxic triggers, however, that affect most people. These include gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar, refined oils, corn, alcohol, eggs, peanuts, processed foods and caffeine.” While you can always add some of these foods back in slowly to see how your body reacts to them, it’s best to nix them when you’re feeling the negative affects of you diet and want to help give your body a leg up int he detox department. Then. as you slowly add back in each food individually, you will be able to tell how your body reacts to each. This elimination method will help narrow down which foods are negatively affecting how you feel and how your body operates.

Here are 5 recipes that help boost your body’s natural detoxification process.