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Is Eating Charcoal Healthy?

author image Janet Renee, MS, RD
Janet Renee is a clinical dietitian with a special interest in weight management, sports dietetics, medical nutrition therapy and diet trends. She earned her Master of Science in nutrition from the University of Chicago and has contributed to health and wellness magazines, including Prevention, Self, Shape and Cooking Light.
Is Eating Charcoal Healthy?
Activated charcoal is available at health food stores. Photo Credit: Tanya Constantine/Blend Images/Getty Images

Activated charcoal is sold as a dietary supplement and marketed for all-purpose "detoxification" as well as claimed digestive and cholesterol-lowering benefits. This is different from charcoal briquettes used in barbecuing, which are not safe to eat. Activated charcoal is created through a process that adds oxygen to carbon, which results in a very porous dust and is used in medical emergency situations to treat certain cases of poisoning and drug overdoses. Data has shown it may help relieve gas. However, no current research supports other claimed health benefits. Talk to your doctor before taking dietary supplements. Activated charcoal may cause unwanted side effects.

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No Support for Charcoal Detox Diet

When it comes to whether it's a good idea to add charcoal to your diet to detox, the verdict is no, according to an October 2014 article published in the U.S. News and World Report. The truth is, the idea that products or diet help you detox is a myth, according to a 2009 report released by the Voice of Young Science, a network of early-career scientists.

The group of researchers evaluated 15 purported detox products and diets and found no evidence to support claims of detoxification. They concluded that the term "detox," as it's used in product marketing, is a myth. Your liver, kidneys, lymphatic system and even skin keep you healthy by filtering out toxins and impurities.

Outdated Evidence for Lowering Cholesterol

There is no current evidence to support the use of activated charcoal for lowering cholesterol. While it appears to have the ability to bind to bile acids in your intestines and prevent cholesterol absorption, according to the University of Michigan Health System, evidence of potential cholesterol-lowering health benefits is outdated. A handful of short-term studies from the 1980s suggest that activated charcoal helps lower cholesterol, according to UMHS. However, no follow-up studies have been published to evaluate the efficacy and safety of using activated charcoal for this purpose.

May Relieve Intestinal Gas

Activated charcoal is able to bind to various substances, including gases, and evidence indicates taking it may help relieve intestinal gas caused by certain foods, according to the UMHS. Anti-gas products long available on the market typically contain natural enzymes that help break down the type of complex carbs in foods like beans that cause gas. Therefore, it's unnecessary to take activated charcoal to relieve gas.

Reported Side Effects

Taking activated charcoal may cause gastrointestinal side effects like constipation, diarrhea, darkening of the stool or vomiting. Serious complications such as bowel obstruction have been reported. It may also cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Side effects like higher than normal magnesium and abnormally high sodium have also been reported. Your body aims to keep electrolytes tightly regulated; electrolyte imbalance negatively affects muscle action and other bodily processes.

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