There are so many philosophies surrounding the topic of "detoxing." Let’s start with the basics.

  • What is a detox? In general, detoxing means abstaining from certain foods, food groups, alcohol, caffeine, and/or other substances, from chemical additives to medications.

  • Why do it? Some argue that it helps us clean out normal by-products of metabolism. Others regard it as a seasonal necessity.

  • Who needs it the most? The majority of advocates suggest that we all need help, given today’s food and environment, but that some populations (those with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, for example) might be in more desperate need.

  • How does one decide on how/what to detox? This is about half the challenge. Many people have a difficult time identifying where change is needed, especially in light of the vast amount of misinformation about healthy diets (low fat, low sodium, vegan, high fat, Paleo, carnivorous, etc.), and about USDA Dietary Guidelines (for example, how much sugar can our bodies really handle?).

The length and scope of a detox regimen depends on the individual, and should be given significant thought if a program is intended to last more than a few days.

Long-term micronutrient deficiencies can compromise the body’s detoxification efforts. Many of these critical processes require the capacity to make toxins more water-soluble so that they can be excreted. Certain B-vitamins, for instance, are essential for this, so attention to detail can make an enormous difference in what is truly supportive and what might undermine our physiology.

Most of us need a break from:

  1. Sugar. This might be the single most damaging ingredient. It can be organic, "naturally" sourced from fruit juice, or found in dried fruit, but it will still have undesirable effects on most facets of your health. Of course, there is room for some sugar (like the 2-3 grams we get in one large leek or ½ a fresh tomato!), but taking a sabbatical from the really rich sources for few days to a few weeks is a good thing.

  2. Processed and heavily cooked meats and animal protein. A detox plan doesn’t have to be vegetarian, but we all can do without the compounds created when we brown, grill, or burn meat. Of course, the chemical preservatives used in processing meats are terrible. Avoiding heterocyclic amines, advanced glycosylated end-products, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrites, sulfites, and nitrosamines, to name a few, benefits everyone. If you choose to eat animal protein on a detox, cook it slowly in liquid (such as a vegetable-and-meat or fish soup), or have eggs that are soft-boiled or poached.

  3. All artificial sweeteners, additives, colorings, and preservatives. Going back to the Feingold Diet Study of the 1970s, researchers have found consistent responses in both children and adult behavior to a chemical-free diet. For many individuals, a longer window of time without these proves how much better they can think and feel. This is a zero-risk intervention with an enormous potential upside. Whether aspartame or MSG, sucralose or "natural flavorings," leave them behind, hopefully forever.

  4. Baked and flour-based products. If you choose to eat whole grains in a detox program, eliminate all bread, boxed cereals, bagels, and crackers, as well as pasta, rolls, and other baked goods. This includes corn chips and other heavily baked or fried snacks. The truth is, although these often taste great and have served as "fillers" for most of us, they don’t offer anything in the way of nutritional value and often metabolize into sugar and a significant glycemic load. Gluten should be on the detox best-to-avoid wish list, and these baked goods are definitely the richest sources of gluten.

  5. Soy-based ingredients. Whether TVP, soy protein isolate, soybean oil or tofu, these legume-derived ingredients have become far too common in our diets. Todd Dawson, a plant biologist at the University of California-Berkeley, has shown that the vast majority of carbon in our bodies can be tracked to corn. Only soybeans come close to this as a major source of carbon, but they also provide an even larger percentage of our nitrogen. Soybeans now make up more than 10 percent of the calories in the average American diet. The typical meals and snacks that far too many people rely on are loaded with omega-6-fatty-acid-rich soybean oil, contain a top-five food allergen (soy protein), and all of the agrichemicals that wash downstream from soybean cultivation (glyphosates and pesticides). Soybeans (even organic) have become a very dirty component of the North American food system.

In summary, make vegetables — raw, cooked, or juiced — the foundation of your detox program. Look for clues that suggest the most important foods to eliminate. A skin condition or rash, for instance, might be a sign that you should avoid soy, dairy, gluten, and nuts for a while. That last 10 pounds you have been trying to lose might suggest eliminating the carb-dense breads and grains that are the foundation of your diet. If you keep an abundance of salads, vegetable stir-fry and stew-type dishes around, you will be headed in the right direction.

Dr. John Bagnulo is Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies, and leads nutrition and research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.