Does Losing Weight Release Toxins?



Gene writes: “I’ve read that toxic chemicals get stored in our fat cells and that when you lose weight, these are released into your body. But all the sources I can find are companies selling detox products. Is there any truth to this claim or is this just another scam to separate us from our hard-earned money?”

What is a Toxin?

Before we Gene’s excellent questions, let’s talk about this word “toxin.” For most people, the word suggests things like synthetic pesticides or cleaning chemicals, which, ironically, are not technically toxins at all.  Strictly speaking, a toxin is a poisonous substance produced by a plant, animal, or microorganism, such as venom from a snake or the bacterial toxin that causes botulism.

Whenever you see the word toxin or toxic, be sure to ask whether the amount you’re likely to be exposed to has actually been demonstrated to cause harm–especially when someone is trying to sell you something.

In the popular lingo, however, the word toxin is often used to describe any compound that might have a negative effect on health. But the first rule of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. Substances that may be harmful (or toxic) at high rates of exposure may be completely harmless–or even beneficial–at low doses. And virtually any substance, including water, can be harmful—or toxic—if consumed in sufficient quantity.

Whenever you see the word toxin or toxic, be sure to ask whether the amount you’re likely to be exposed to has actually been demonstrated to cause harm—especially when someone is trying to sell you something.

Do toxic substances get stored in fat cells?

It is true that certain types of potentially harmful chemicals end up stored in our fat cells. Of particular concern in this regard are a class of chemicals knowns as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Unfortunately, avoiding POPs is extremely difficult because they are, as the name suggests, persistent in our environment and in our bodies.

The body has lots of ways of dealing with harmful compounds. We have enzymes that break chemicals down into smaller or less active compounds and various ways of transporting unneeded substances out of the body. However, we seem to have a limited ability to disarm and eliminate POPs. Sequestering them in our fat cells could be the body’s way of protecting other organs from exposure to these compounds.

Does fat loss release toxins into the bloodstream?

It is also true that losing weight can temporarily increase the amount of POPs in the blood stream as these stored compounds are released from fat cells. 

What we don’t know for sure is what effects these circulating POPs might have. People selling detox supplements may tell some pretty scary stories but at this point, it’s all speculation.

The good news is that many of the released POPs end up leaving the body, without the help of expensive detox products. Ultimately, weight loss tends to reduce the total amount of POPs in the body.

And, just in case you’re wondering, not losing weight doesn’t protect you from these fat-stored compounds. Although weight loss can accelerate the release of POPs into the bloodstream, they are also released into the bloodstream when you’re not losing weight, just at a slower pace.

In my opinion, for those who are overweight, the benefits of weight loss outweigh the potential for harm. But way you go about it can certainly help minimize any risks.

What can you do to minimize the risks?

1. Avoid rapid weight loss

The rate at which POPs are released into the bloodstream is directly tied to the speed of weight loss. To minimize your exposure (and for all kinds of other reasons as well), I suggest losing weight slowly. Instead of trying to lose 1-2 pounds a week, try for 1-2 pounds a month.

2. Increase protein and decrease sugar

An interesting experiment done in mice found that a diet that was higher in protein and lower in sugar seemed to reduce the amount of POPs that accumulated in the bodies of the mice and enhanced their ability to detoxify and eliminate these compounds. Of course, we’d now want to see this experiment repeated in humans. But this dietary prescription advice has so many other other potential advantages, I see no reason to wait for confirmation.

3. Consider a Vitamin C supplement

I don’t put much stock in detox supplements that claim to support your liver or kidneys or cleanse your colon. Many are simply diuretics and/or laxatives that simply speed up your body’s natural processes, often with negative side effects. However, a recent study found that taking 1000 mg of vitamin C can help reduce the amount of POPs in the bloodstream. Because vitamin C is both safe and inexpensive, that seems to me to be a very reasonable move, especially during weight loss.

Comments? Questions? Post them below.