Detoxing the Body for Health using Food and Nutrition

Detoxing the body is important for maintaining health and may help to manage certain health conditions that are associated with increased toxin load and/or impaired detoxification.

Dietary quality and specific foods and nutrients influence healthy detoxification.  

As we are increasingly exposed to toxic compounds in the air and food and water supply, decreasing your toxic load as well as promoting healthy detoxification is an important part of maintaining overall health.  Body accumulation of any substance over a certain threshold can become toxic and impair cellular and metabolic function.  Certain health conditions such as, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have been associated with impaired detoxification.   Environmental toxin exposure has been associated with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.  

Nutritional support for detoxification mainly involves supporting the liver, the main organ of detoxification, but other organs and systems of the body such as, the brain, nerves, kidneys and intestines also play a role in eliminating toxins.

Detoxing the Body: A Healthy Detox Diet 

Everyday you can help promote healthy detoxification with your food choices. 

Key strategies for detoxing the body using food and nutrition include:

Whole Foods Diet: In general, a high quality, nutrient dense whole foods diet that provides adequate calories and quality protein supports detoxification.  Energy (or calories) and certain amino acids are essential to liver detoxification and the reason why I would question the effectiveness of some fasting and water/juice cleanse diets since they may impair detoxification. 

Quality protein that contains the amino acids necessary for optimal detoxification are found in foods such as, fresh, wild-caught low mercury containing fish, organic eggs, organic poultry and organic, non-GMO plant based proteins such as tofu and tempeh (maximum of 1-2 servings per day, traditional and fermented soyfoods are best), wheat germ, nuts, and beans.  Adequate, but not excessive amounts of animal protein is key (serving size = palm of hand).   Eliminate or minimize charbroiled meats as substances produced from charbroiling add to your toxic burden. 

Adequate calories are necessary to optimize the metabolic processes necessary for detoxification and come from low glycemic index carbohydrates.  Refined carbohydrates and sugars are avoided.

Ensure adequate fiber from whole intact grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans.

Eliminate hydrogenated and minimize saturated fats as they increase the workload of the liver and act to inhibit optimal detoxification.  How well we detoxify also includes how our cells use the nutrients we absorb and the right hydration, acid-base balance and healthy cell structure is critical.    Beneficial fats such as fish oils, flaxseed and walnuts and omega-6 fatty acids found in evening primrose and black current oils (often as supplements), monounsaturated fats, and some healthier sources of saturated fats such as coconut are responsible for healthy cell membrane structure.   Products that contain hydrogenated or trans fats and refined vegetable oils should be avoided (care should also be taken when choosing oils for cooking - certain oils are not stable when heated and risk oxidization).

High intakes of caffeine and alcohol should be avoided to eliminate added toxic burden.  

Purified water with lemon (at least 8 glasses daily), non-caffeinated herbal teas, green tea and fresh juicing for health are recommended beverages for detoxing the body.  

Freely spice your food with fresh herbs and spices like ginger, rosemary, curry, parsley and chili pepper.

Antioxidant vitamins and minerals assist in reducing whole body oxidative stress (precursor for disease) and promote healthy liver detoxification.  Carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, manganese and coenzyme Q10 are important antioxidants.  How can you tell if a food is high in antioxidants? Vibrant color. Eat a rainbow,  8-10 servings per day of mostly non-starchy vegetables and some fruit.  Vegetables, wheat germ,  ginger root, herring and smelt, sunflower seeds and nuts are good sources of the antioxidant nutrients.

“Detoxicants” include additional nutrients that are necessary to drive healthy detoxification (detoxification is generally split into phase I, II and III).   Detoxifying foods that contain these nutrients include (there may be some duplication here): 

Supports Phase I detoxification:

Specific B vitamins: organic poultry, wild salmon, organic eggs, dark leafy greens, almonds, wheat germ, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, organic soybeans, walnuts, sardines

Supports Phase II Detoxification:

Glucuronidation: apples, onions, dark leafy greens (kale, dandelion greens), Brussels sprouts, carrots, squash, sweet potato, broccoli, cabbage, bean sprouts, celery, citrus fruits like, orange, tangerine, grapefruit (minimize grapefruit juice as it inhibits or slows down optimal detoxification), almonds, cashew, small wild halibut

Sulfation: garlic, onions, shallots, eggs

Methylation: organic grass fed/finished beef, organic poultry, organic eggs, wild salmon, dark leafy greens, whole intact  grains, lentils, wheat germ

Glutathione support (cysteine rich foods): organic eggs, unsweetened plain yogurt, whey protein; also cruciferous vegetables

Supports Phase I and Phase II Detoxification: brassica/cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and bok choy, pomegranate and other dark berries, watercress, artichoke, turmeric (curcumin), green tea

Supports Phase III Detoxification: beets, artichokes

Diets rich in plant foods that have an alkaline influence on the body promotes  excretion of toxins.  High alkaline foods that promote detoxing the body include, vegetables, fruits and legumes.  Excess animal protein, sugars, fat and processed foods are acid promoting and delay excretion of toxins.

Nutritional supplementation: At the very least you will need a high quality multivitamin/mineral supplement in addition to detoxifying foods. In general, do not take high doses of only 1 or 2 nutrients - vitamins/minerals/antioxidants work best together - and this has lead to harm in certain populations.  Daily, fresh juicing is a way to boost your intake of detoxifying nutrients.  Try a combination of: beet, apple, ginger, lemon, carrot and celery. 


Detoxing the Body: Healthy Detox Diet Meal Plans

An example detox sample menu that is dairy, grain, soy, nut and shellfish free comes from Kathie Swift, MS, RD:

Breakfast smoothie: dark leafy greens, organic apple, fresh ginger root, pumpkin seed protein powder, unsweetened coconut milk

Snack: pink grapefruit slices

Lunch: wild salmon (baked or canned) with parsley pesto, sweet potato, curried cauliflower

Snack: avocado slices with lemon

Dinner: white bean minestrone soup, arugula salad with extra virgin olive oil and lemon vinaigrette

Experiment with a 3, 7 or 10-day trial of this type of healthy detox diet meal plan.

Additional healthy detox meals and recipes can be found at Whole Living magazine website.

Detoxing the Body: Formal Detoxification Programs

[Sidebar: In general, restoring gut health (intestinal detox) and ensuring adequate elimination/open bowels and kidney function is important prior to starting an aggressive detoxification diet.]

Prescribed detoxification diets (generally followed for 7-10 days) for detoxing the body are generally low in animal fat and high in fiber, quality protein, “detoxicants” and antioxidants. Processed foods, refined sugar, alcohol, and caffeine are avoided. Often a comprehensive or modified elimination diet removing common foods that you may be sensitive to is also incorporated into the diet plan.  Medical foods/nutritional beverages and/or nutritional supplements are also incorporated if extra support is necessary.

These diseases/syndromes are associated with impaired detoxification or increased toxic load:  If you have Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s dementia, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities, PMS, endometriosis or other signs of hormonal imbalances, cancer (promoting effective detoxification is important if you have a history of cancer/strong family history), inability to lose weight or if your child has autism or attention deficit disorder a formal detox program under a qualified practitioner may be beneficial. 

If you are having trouble losing weight you might consider trying a  formal or modified detox program.  Practitioners often support healthy detoxification during weight loss as fat-soluble toxins are released which can increase toxin load.  During a formal detox program and when detoxing the body, and sometimes with weight loss in general, people experience negative symptoms (headaches, nausea, body aches) which usually indicate the process needs to be slowed down and/or additional support with detoxifying foods/supplements is necessary.

A general detoxifying foods TO CHOOSE list for a formal detox program includes:

Carbohydrates: rice (brown, basmati, jasmine, wild), rice cakes/crackers, rice bread, rice pasta, quinoa, millet, amaranth

Legumes: mung beans, red lentils

Vegetables, Fruits: all varieties of produce can be used (fresh, juiced, steamed, baked, lightly sautéed in extra virgin olive oil)

Fats, Oils: extra virgin olive oil (use under low heat), unheated/refrigerated flaxseed oil

Beverages: non-caffeinated herbal teas, purified water with organic lemon slice, fresh fruit and vegetable juices made from a juicer (*if you drink a lot of coffee/caffeine its best to wean yourself over a period of at a week least a prior to starting a detoxification program to avoid withdrawal symptoms).

Condiments: vegetable salt, sea salt, apple cider/balsamic vinegars, Bragg’s amino acids, wheat-free tamari, all spices

Foods or ingredients not listed are to be avoided.  General categories to avoid include: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, chocolate, nuts, beans (other than listed above), grains (other than listed above), preservatives, food colorings, all packaged/processed and canned foods.

**This type of aggressive detox plan should be accompanied by medical foods/nutritional beverages and supplements taken multiple times per day under a qualified practitioner.

A detailed formal 10 day detoxification program (Clear Change, 10 Day Program) including shopping lists, recipes, and meal plans can be found at Metagenics website. 

The Ultrasimple Diet” by Mark Hyman, MD is another good resource for a formal, but less aggressive healthy detox diet plan that uses food and incorporates nutritional beverages and supplementation suggestions.

This is a general guide to detoxing the body and may need to be modified based on your symptoms and health condition.  Diet quality and specific nutrients are linked to healthy detoxification and a healthy detox diet is important for general health maintenance and may help in managing certain health conditions.

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Some Resources: DIFM/AND. The Integrative RD newsletter Spring 2012;14(4); AAPI Nutrition Guide to Optimal Health: USING PRINCIPLES OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE AND NUTRITIONAL GENOMICS, 2012; The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Food as Medicine conference, 2012; IFM Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Medicine Approach, 2004, IFM, Textbook of Functional Medicine, 2010; IFM, Functional Nutrition Course, 2012; Lipski, L. Digestive Wellness, 2012

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