Activated Charcoal:The Detox Cure-All? (Or Not)

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I have a ritual every morning I get to work: Turn on my computer, heat up my breakfast while my computer boots up (this morning it was potatoes, boiled eggs, and some coffee), check work emails, then check my personal email. My personal email is full of various unimportant things: an email from my mom, the weather for the day (which I should be reading before I leave my apartment), and a bunch of emails from various and popular health websites. One of my favorites (favorite not necessarily because I enjoy it, but really because they’re often ridiculous) sent me an email with the headline “Swap out your coffee for this morning detox drink.” Oh, boy. Already the word detox is glaring at me, I wonder what this pseudo-scientific article is about…

Drinking activated charcoal is apparently the newest detox trend (as if we didn’t already have enough that don’t work). So what is activated charcoal? Activated charcoal is wood, or any other carbon-rich material, burned at very high temperatures creating a black and odorless powder. Through a special process, it is activated, by creating holes and crevices on the particles to increase the surface area. It is considered one of the most effective treatments for poisoning and drug over dose; when consumed, it binds to the substance preventing it from being absorbed into the blood stream. It’s also used in your water filter to clean water.

Because of its use in medicine, many have latched on to the idea that activated charcoal has the potential to pick up the work that your kidneys and liver are seemingly failing at, detoxifying the body. Activated charcoal’s use in medicine has been (incorrectly) linked to removing toxins out of our bodies. From preventing cancer to promoting glowing skin, sparkly, stainless teeth and weight loss, activated charcoal is sometimes proposed as a cure-all. But the reality is that none of these claims is supported by scientific research. Your liver and kidneys already do a great job of eliminating toxins from your body. No need to add charcoal to your normal, totally free, and effortlessly convenient “detox program.”

So if you want to be healthy and lose or maintain weight, you’re going to have to go the tried-and-true route: Eat a variety of food in moderation. And honestly, that’s better anyway. While activated charcoal proponents claim that it detoxes the body, the reality is it has no nutrients or calories. But blueberries have antioxidants to support total health. Chicken has protein to maintain muscles. Oats have fiber for digestive support. And yogurt has probiotics for a healthy gut. The reality is you don’t need charcoal to have a healthy diet, feel great, and lose weight, but food is a necessity.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try it, unlike some of our other posts on food fads. There’s nothing harmful about consuming activated charcoal, within reason. But if you’re looking for something for detoxing, you might want to look elsewhere.

Or better yet, just thank your liver and kidneys.