By now we all know that new year “detoxes” and “resets” don’t detox or reset anything. Depending on which you choose, they are either unsustainable diets or pure pseudoscience—often a mix of both. And yet, they still appeal.
A “detox” in 2021 may be a week’s worth of smoothies and juices, often guided by a guru who makes big promises about how amazing you’ll feel after you spend a week drinking what you’ve purchased from them. Or it may be a challenge to eliminate certain foods from your diet—no sugar, for example. Whatever the mechanics, these are all restrictive diets branded as self-care.
So let’s take a look at the reasons why people keep coming back to diet reboots and smoothie cleanses. Their marketing (even if it doesn’t look like marketing) definitely ticks some boxes for things that we want in our life: a sense of control, for example, or an antidote to the exhaustion of the holiday season. But there are ways to work on these goals without starving yourself.
If you want more energy
Increased “energy” is often touted as an effect of detox diets, and it’s true that some people experience a sense of increased focus when they haven’t eaten in a while. (People who practice intermittent fasting love to talk about this.) But it’s a temporary state, if it occurs at all, and it goes hand-in-hand with less pleasant mental states. People who complete a detox or reset will often say they felt great, but then in the next breath will say things like “it was really hard, but I got through it.”
For a more realistic way of getting more energy, look at what might be causing you to feel fatigued. Extreme fatigue should be checked out by a medical professional, but often “low energy” can be fixed with one of the following:
Sleep more, and sleep better. Give yourself an earlier bedtime, a consistent wake-up time, and practice good sleep hygiene, like no screens or alcohol before bed.
Make sure you’re eating enough. If you’re constantly on a diet, or if the foods you eat don’t make up a well-balanced diet, just eating better (more protein, more vegetables) may help your perceived energy levels.
Check in with your mental health. Depression, anxiety, and other conditions can cause what feels like a lack of energy. Have you been under a lot of stress lately? Do you need to finally find a therapist?
If you feel gross or guilty about what you’ve been eating lately
All the celebrations in December often leave us heading into January ready to clean up our diets and habits. If you’ve been drinking a lot, cutting back may sound pretty appealing; and if you’ve been eating a lot of holiday treats, a minimalist diet probably appeals in the same way.
But the truth is, a few meals’ worth of indulgences are not a big deal in the long run. You don’t need to swing the pendulum in the other direction by cutting out entire food groups. Instead, try one of these:
Just return to normal. The Christmas cookies are gone (or you can feed them to your dog, freeze them for later, whatever you like). You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.
Find a sustainable way to eat better. What is one small change you could make to improve your diet? Maybe that’s making sure to get an extra serving of veggies at every meal, or finding some recipes you like to cook.
If you want to be better hydrated
It’s true that you’ll be pretty darn hydrated if you’re drinking smoothies, juices, teas, and lemon water throughout the day. Your body works better when it’s well-hydrated than when it’s dehydrated, that’s true. (Most of us probably get plenty of water already, but a little more won’t hurt.)
The cool thing is, you can drink more water—or get more liquids in whatever form you like—without depriving yourself of food. Just add the liquids.
Drink more water. That’s it, that’s the hack.
Moisturize your skin. You know how people say your skin looks amazing when you’re well-hydrated? A moisturizer accomplishes that, too, and it does an even better job of getting moisture to the outer layers of skin.
If you like the idea that somebody else is making the decisions
Ready-made detox kits are popular in part because you get one box with everything you’ll need to eat that week. Letting somebody else make your decisions and do your shopping is, admittedly, a huge amount of mental labor taken off your plate.
But you can do this with real food, too.
Learn to plan and prep your meals. Yes, it’s more work on one day of the week, but then you can pull meals out of the fridge all week long without thinking about them. If you live with a partner or roommate, you can even trade off the chore each week.
Order from a meal delivery service. Home Chef, Trifecta, and Freshly, to name a few, will ship you a week’s worth of actual food for less than the cost of many froufrou detoxes.
If you desperately want to be skinny
It’s unfortunate that many people who say that a detox is just to “feel better” will still take before-and-after pictures, or note their weight on the scale. If you are hoping to lose weight during a short term diet reset, well, you might. But it’s going to backfire.
Quick weight loss, driven by a large calorie deficit, is not just fat loss. Some portion is muscle loss, which impacts your health. And a good bit of it, especially on a low-carb diet, is often water weight. The amount of water we hold in our bodies fluctuates from day to day, and is partly determined by the glycogen (stored carbs) in our muscles and liver. If you eat low-carb, you’ll drop glycogen and thus a few pounds of water weight; but as soon as you have a high-carb meal or two, it comes right back.
Even if there’s a bit of a thrill from short term weight loss, it’s more than outweighed (for most people) by the prompt regain. So a detox isn’t really helping you here. Better to try one of these:
Find a diet that allows for slow, steady weight loss. There is no “best” diet for this, but you can choose one of many eating patterns that makes it easy to eat slightly fewer calories than you burn. If you have health concerns, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about the best way to handle them through diet.
Or just don’t. There is no law saying you need to lose weight just because it’s January, or really for any reason.
If you just want a ritual to give you a sense of control
Often the most Instagram-worthy part of a detox is the shot of a glass of juice or smoothie or lemon water by some window on a peaceful morning. Don’t you see that and want to be there, in that moment, enjoying a little ritual of self-care?
Well, just like hydration, this is something you can do without concurrently depriving yourself of food.
Choose a morning routine that makes sense for you. We have examples: here and here and here, for starters.
Build a ritual that doesn’t center around food. Maybe you can take up journaling, meditating, or another activity that is meaningful for you.
If all your friends are doing it
Honestly, I think sometimes we do a self-improvement project not because of an inner desire but because our friends or favorite celebrities are doing it. I totally admit to falling into this trap myself, and I’m not even convinced it’s a trap. I’ve done things under peer pressure that I might not have tried otherwise; sometimes I’m glad I did, and other times I’ve learned the hard way that something is not for me.
Once again, you can find community without engaging in the specific act of restricting your diet. Try an exercise-based challenge, or find an online community that centers around a hobby that you already enjoy or that you want to learn.
The bottom line is, replacing food with smoothies is not the only way, or even the best way, to get more in touch with your body and your mental health. It may, in fact, be a pretty terrible way. So figure out what you really want, and take smart steps to get the experience you are actually going for.