“January got a lot of action; almost every day in fact,” my friend said during Easter brunch. “It was a New Year’s resolution I held on to, especially after spending several hundred dollars for the right one. But by early February, I got so sick of it. My breaking point happened when I found myself chasing down some awful-tasting concoction one morning with a cup of coffee. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
I commended my friend for her effort. Always tweaking and optimizing her diet, she had splurged over Christmas for a super-fancy juicer. You know, the ones that earn nearly five stars on Amazon, cost more than some people spend on groceries for an entire month, and about which some healthcare professionals speak in hushed tones.
One of those juicers.
Nutrition remains a contentious field. Put 10 healthcare experts in a room and we’re likely to concur about very few things. I’ve covered a few topics in past blogs — upon which no wide consensus exists — including soy and meat.
Not every subject evokes such fury. What will probably land in the “obvious” category, however, is that people need to eat more leafy and cruciferous vegetables. We don’t need studies to prove eating vegetables (and to a lesser degree fruit) benefits you in countless ways, but they exist.(1) Nobody’s going to argue organic broccoli wouldn’t be a healthy-diet staple, right?
With juicing, evidence gets murkier. Most studies supporting the intake of veggies and fruits are looking at whole foods. When researchers look at juices, results aren’t so stellar.
One study found whereas women who ate green leafy vegetables and fruit lowered their diabetes risk, fruit juices increased that diabetes risk. (2) Another found apples help optimize cholesterol levels in healthy folks, but apple juice doesn’t provide those same benefits. (3)
Too much sugar and lack of fiber, respectively, likely accounted for those limitations. (More on that in a minute.) From these and similar studies, you might conclude juicing inferior to eating whole vegetables and fruits. As usual, the truth gets a little more complicated…
Juicing is a wide-reaching term, including everything from seven-day cleanses to cold-pressed juice you find at your health food store to whatever latest diet Gwyneth Paltrow endorses.
Let’s define what juicing isn’t. Drinking a glass of orange juice (even fresh-squeezed) doesn’t count, and fruit juice – yes, even those labeled organic, not from concentrate, 100 percent pure juice, or whatever – are decidedly unhealthy thanks to their heavy sugar (particularly fructose) load. Likewise, juicing is not fasting since you consume some calories.
Similarly, smoothies like those mall-chain juice stores often get confused with juicing, though blenders (even high-quality ones that completely macerate fiber) technically don’t juice: They pulverize rather than remove fiber.
In its simplest definition, juicing means creating liquid out of solid produce. Extracting juice from fresh fruits and vegetables removes the seed, pulp, and other solid portions so it goes down nice and smoothly. When you strip away fiber, you also make those wonderful nutrients more available.
Among the ways to juice include:
- Centrifugal juicers – the most common home juicers that operate with a simple spinning device that squeezes fruits and vegetables to extract the juice. High speeds might overheat produce, potentially reducing the juice’s benefit.
- “Cold-press” juicing – often used in higher-end home juicers and commercial-scale juicing. Similar to centrifugal juicers, they squeeze out juice and separate pulp but operate at a lower speed and don’t overheat, better preserving nutrients and yielding more juice, which is expected to remain fresh and nutritious longer than the juice from a centrifuge
Health Benefits of Juicing
When someone says they’re on a “juice cleanse” (or whatever they call it), they likely mean they’re substituting some (or all) solid meals for liquid ones, hopefully achieving weight loss or detoxification or something else in the bargain.
Whether part of a cleanse or stand-alone drink you have with a meal, juicing can be a nutrient powerhouse. “Home juicing gives you all those amazing vitamins, phytochemicals, live enzymes, and all the other good stuff in [whole produce],” writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.
Juicing can also be a convenient way to meet your fruit-and-veggie quota. If eating five to 10 servings of leafy and cruciferous greens daily feels like a herculean challenge, juicing makes an easier alternative.
I do believe that, because some individuals with notable conditions such as certain cancers can have problems with energy and digestion, that juicing (when done well) can provide a simple means to get in plenty of phytonutrients without taxing the gastrointestinal system.
Conversely, juicing can be messy and those machines aren’t always easy to clean. And juicers vary in how much juice they actually yield. If you’ve spent eight bucks for produce that yields a tiny glass of juice, you know what I’m talking about. Plus, do you really need another kitchen appliance hogging up space?
If you’re not up for buying a juicer like my friend, nearly any health food store will whip up a healthy juice that might include loads of leafy and cruciferous greens, maybe a beet or carrot, a little fruit to improve taste, and grasses like chlorophyll, wheatgrass juice, and spirulina.
“Grass is a rich source of nutrients, and ‘green foods’ made from cereal grasses and algae are among the healthiest foods I know of for humans,” writes Bowden. “This unusual category—green foods and drinks—covers a lot of territory, from the perennial health food store favorite wheatgrass juice to the algaes like blue-green algae and spirulina. All have specific nutrient profiles and are used for different (but overlapping) purposes.”
Throw all those fabulous fruits, vegetables, and even grasses into a juicer and bam, you’ve got a potentially perfect nutrient-dense drink when you don’t have time to eat a big spinach-leaf salad or several servings of broccoli.
Juicing Goes Big (with Some Big Health Claims to Match)
Once a staple of Southern California health nuts and arcane health food stores (cue stereotypes), today juicing has become mainstream.
Well aware of its health glow, manufacturers hopped on the juicing trend, developing all sorts of drinks with hyperbolic health claims. Lose 10 pounds by this weekend? Want to detoxify after a long Vegas-weekend bender? Just drink this magic elixir and instantly upgrade your health.
Today the term encompasses a panacea of liquid magic. Juicing, cleansing, liquid “fasts,” and all kinds of other synonymous terms include:
- Fresh-pressed juices – you can make these at home with a juicer or buy them at health food stores.
- Packaged juices – these pretty-plastic-bottle juices often contain different blends of fruits and vegetables depending on their flavor.
- Packaged-juice plans – these run the gamut from inexpensive fruit juices (basically sugar water) to high-end juices designed by experts to provide sufficient nutrients including amino acids and healthy fats like coconut milk. Some combine partial juicing with real food, so you might juice for breakfast and lunch but then eat whole foods for dinner.
- The Master Cleanse and other “cleanses” that yes, involve juice but also dubious concoctions like B-grade maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and lemon.
All Those Wonderful Promises…
You just booked a 10-day Maui resort next month, your liver’s feeling the aftershock of one too many margaritas, and you’re not about to hit the pretty-people beach being 20 pounds overweight. You recall a friend raving about a seven-day “cleanse” that helped her get back into her skinny jeans and (so she claims) got rid of all those toxins…
Google something like “juice cleanses” and you’ll find endless products and plans that promise weight loss and increased vitality. You just enjoy a few every day, possibly have a sensible meal, and you’re well on your way to ditching those nasty toxins and weight — or that’s what manufacturers would like you to believe.
One three-day plan from Jus by Julie ($120) combines juices with soups. “Everything in the cleanse is made with fiber-rich whole vegetables and fruits that are designed to evict the unwanted toxins from your body while fueling you with essential nutrients and vitamins,” their website promises. “Once you complete the cleanse, you’ll notice a restored sense of energy and a decrease in snack attacks. Get ready to feel great!”(4)
If you’ve got deeper pockets, consider Juice Press’s “Original 6 Juices per Day Cleanse” for $66.94 (or almost $200 for three days).(5) Sleuth around and you’ll probably find something even pricier.
Celebrity endorsements, many promises, and triple-digit prices engulf many of these juice fests. And yet, it all sounds so tempting. Could losing weight and feeling better really be this easy?
Will Juicing Help You Lose Weight?
Let’s cut to the chase: Despite its health promises to help you detoxify or whatever, you’re probably considering a semi-starvation juicing plan to lose weight. With a few caveats, any caloric-restricted diet will help you lose weight, at least initially.
However, extremely restricted eating plans (or in this case, drinking plans) carry limitations, sometimes potentially dangerous ones. People who use liquid meal replacements often feel hungrier, even if they consume the same amount of calories as solid foods that keep you full longer.(6)
Short-term, you’re likely to lose a little weight juicing, but whether that overrides potential obstacles like hunger and adverse long-term health effects proves debatable. There are easier ways to lose weight.
Let’s say you’re legitimately juicing to give your liver a helping hand. Sure, you’d love to drop a few pounds, but your liver becomes ground zero for nearly everything and you’d like to support this hardworking organ.
While the term gets thrown around and gets misinterpreted a lot, detoxification occurs when your body removes waste materials. While every cell constantly detoxifies, the heavy lifting occurs in your liver, where particular enzymes neutralize and convert toxins to then excrete in urine, breath, sweat, and feces.
While juicing and other detox diets promise to eliminate toxins and excess weight, no randomized controlled trials show their effectiveness in humans.(7) That doesn’t mean juicing correctly can’t give your liver and waistline a healthy hand.
Liver detoxification occurs in two phases, appropriately called phase 1 and 2 detoxification. During phase 1, your liver converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble substances. Phase 2 excretes these toxins via urine, sweat, and other bodily fluids.
Both phases require optimal nutrients. Without adequate nutrient intake, detoxification can slow down and contribute to oxidative stress, which contributes to inflammation, cell damage, and disease. (8)
Among those nutrients your liver requires to detoxify include:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
- Minerals like selenium, copper, zinc, manganese, magnesium
- Glutathione (a super antioxidant your body creates from vitamin B6 and amino acids)
- Coenzyme Q10
- Amino acids
That last one becomes especially important during phase 2. Many metabolites in phase 1 are free radicals and harmful on their own to your body. If your liver doesn’t have the nutrients it needs in perform phase 2, your body can’t properly excrete those toxins. In other words, you become more toxic.
Phase 2 involves several pathways, including the glycine and taurine pathway that, as their names suggest, demand optimal amounts of amino acids to detoxify. Likewise, the glutathione pathway requires the amino acids glutamate, cysteine, and glycine.
While juicing provides many nutrients, most don’t provide sufficient amino acids to support phase 2 detoxification. In other words, using juices as meal replacements can cause your detoxification goals to backfire.
The Problems with Many Juices
“Experts say juice cleanses are unnecessary, expensive and often packed with sugar,” the headline to Sheila McClear’s New York Daily News post blares.(9) Among its bashings (yes, they mention Paltrow, who seems synonymous with juicing and all things “out there” nutrition-wise), some experts claim juicing contains too much sugar while being completely devoid of fiber.
Your Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have a Juicer to consume fresh juices daily. They ate the whole plant, nutrients and fiber intact. (They also didn’t have the pesticide-sprayed produce we often consume today.)
In other words, despite the nutrients and convenience juicing allows, it isn’t a perfect food. Let’s get the big issue out of the way first: Too much sugar.
Manufacturers also know mostly vegetable juices taste terrible. Wincing when you sip that first taste of a kale-whatever monstrosity and you’re unlikely to buy it again. They remedy this problem by adding more fruit or even sugar and other flavorings to mask the terrible taste.
Yes, whole fruit (and even some vegetables) contain naturally occurring sugar. When you eat an apple, you’re getting about 20 grams of sugar, yet fiber slows absorbing. Stripped of fiber, juices a sugar bomb, carrying as much if not more sugar than a cola — and no fiber to buffer that sugar impact on your body.
The aforementioned Juice Press’s “Original 6 Juices per Day Cleanse” contains 96 grams (that’s over 19 teaspoons) of sugar. Naked Green Machine (read those labels: It’s mostly fruit!) contains a whopping 53 grams of sugar in a 15.2-ounce bottle! (10)
Most of that sugar comes from fructose, arguably the most detrimental sugar that increases your risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD) (11) and all of fructose’s other problems.
That brings up a second problem: Juicing strips the fiber from a fruit or vegetable, making its nutrient load more accessible but at a cost. Among its duties, fiber helps bind and excrete toxins (12) and optimize gut health. (13)
Notably, I have some personal friends who founded a cold-pressed juice brand a few years ago. They’ve been wildly successful, which is a sign of more people jumping on to the juice train, though they have just recently moved into gaspachos: chunky, cold soups which are a product of blended veggies — not juiced. My colleagues have admitted to me that customers are thinking twice about juice because they “don’t want the sugar.” Very interesting!
In any case, not getting dietary fiber shouldn’t completely deter you from juicing. Just make sure you’re getting your fiber quota from whole-food plant foods.
100% Juice Cleanses are Usually a Bad Idea
Those caveats aside, drinking a mostly green juice with a little lemon or lime can be perfectly healthy. Many popular juice cleanses, unfortunately, aren’t green juice. They’re mostly fruit (sugar) masquerading as healthy green drinks.
Please, if you’re considering any sort of juice cleanse, confer with a healthcare professional before undertaking what will probably be a semi-starvation diet. Among the issues with most cleanses include:
1. Amino acids
Among the 20 amino acids protein breaks down to, eight play a direct role in detoxification. Traditionally, juices and cleanses provide low or nonexistent protein, meaning theoretically they don’t provide sufficient amino acids to support detoxification pathways. Because your body does not store amino acids, during a juice cleanse or other semi-fasting lower-protein regimens, your body seeks alternative protein sources including muscle. Beyond caloric deprivation, muscle wasting contributes to most of juicing’s weight loss benefits. Remember, that’s weight loss — not fat loss.
2. Essential fats and fat-soluble nutrients
Juicing provides very little healthy fat to help reduce inflammation, boost immunity, and absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A and E.
Conventional produce contains higher amounts of pesticides and other toxins. The Environmental Working Group or EWG estimates conventional produce contains 178 pesticides! (14). This is why, when I do consume veggie juice, I make sure it is organic.
4. Unpleasant side effects
Your body isn’t always equipped to handle that massive nutrient load, creating problems like diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and crankiness. (I once consumed far more juices in one day than I ever had before. I took my “healthy vacation practices” a bit too far while visiting an exotically-healthy part of the United States. I was a mess for the next two days!)
Juicing can be expensive. I’ve spent upwards of $10 for a store-bought juice. Even DIY juicing can get pricey, especially when you’re using organic produce to yield a tiny cup of juice.
To Juice or Not to Juice…
Fresh juices – especially vegetable-rich juices – make a great way to increase nutrient intake. You’ll probably feel better, notice some improvement to your skin, and maybe lose a few pounds. Just beware of hyperbolic marketing claims that promise you’ll lose 10 pounds by this weekend or magically heal your liver after a 10-day Mexico-cruise bender.
At the same time, juicing is not for everyone. You can be perfectly healthy and never own a juicer.
But if you do want to include juicing into your diet – again, it can be a perfectly healthy way to get nutrients without eating pounds of produce – here are seven ways to do it correctly.
- Get some fat.
Adding a little lemon-flavored fish oil will help slow down that juice’s sugar load while boosting its nutrient absorption.
- Toss in a scoop of protein powder.
Combine some healthy fat with a scoop or two of a plant-based, low-sugar protein powder into your juice and you’ve got a perfect mini-meal to optimize fat loss and detoxification.
- Get fresh.
Besides being sugar bombs, pasteurization and other high heat processing zaps enzymes and denatures nutrients, creating a “limp” juice. If fresh-pressed isn’t available, look for cold-pressed options.
- Focus mostly on veggies.
Yes, throwing a few bananas and some grapes into your juice boosts flavor, but you’re also packing a massive sugar (as fructose) load. Even root veggies like beets and carrots stripped of their fiber create a sugar surge. Focus instead on leafy and cruciferous veggies. Yes, they taste awful. Add some lemon or lime to zing them up.
- Don’t pre-make it.
Because they lack preservatives, bacteria can build up if you make juice and then store it in the fridge. If you juice, drink it immediately.
- Go organic.
Chemicals become a quickly absorbed as nutrients when you juice. Organic is the way to go here, even if it’s a bit pricier. Check out my related blog on what to look for when buying organic produce.
- Consider a powder.
Green drinks pack high amounts of concentrated vegetables and lower-glycemic fruits into an easy-to-blend powder. They’re easier, more cost-effective, with a longer shelf life than fresh juices. Quality matters here: Cheaper powders might contain ingredients grains, legumes, corn, sweeteners, pectin, rice bran, and flax. Look for one that’s mostly organic ingredients with no added sugar. Some powders are sweetened with stevia to help you avoid that sugar surge while still reaping the rewards of getting more phytonutrients into your body.
Have you checked out my 7-Day Cleanse? Instead of basing an entire week’s meal plan on several juices per day, my own cleanse incorporates 1 low-sugar juice per day plus daily raw salads to ensure you’re getting in the fiber you need, and one nightly cooked meal with fish, hemp seeds and other healthy fats to enusre you’re getting everything you need for comprehensive detoxification and for your metabolism. I would love to know your feedback from the 7-Day Cleanse in the comments below or on my Facebook Page.