I took my 3-year-old daughter to the pool recently and witnessed a cluster of high school girls sipping green juices. At first I smiled, thinking how wonderful it was that these girls had chosen vegetable juice over the classic teenage drink, soda. But as the day progressed and I overheard their chatter, I realized they were all on a three-day juice cleanse. My heart sank.
We all know soda is not a health food. There are 39 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coke, and the American Heart Association recommends no more than 12 grams of sugar a day for children. Yet many of the trendy vegetable juices on the market contain more than that in one serving. So is drinking six of those in a day, for days on end, really a healthful choice?
Green juices are full of vitamins and generally do not contain the chemicals found in soda. Largely, the sugars in a green juice come naturally from vegetables and fruit rather than being added at a processing plant, so a green juice isn’t nearly as unhealthful as a Coke. I actually love green juices and would be delighted if my kids would drink more of them.
But when I think about feeding my children three days of nothing but juice, I cringe. I’d be distressed if my kids consumed that much sugar and ate so little protein, fat or fiber. Wouldn’t you? So why is this behavior acceptable for an adult or a teenager? Growing girls (and boys) need protein, fat and fiber for brain development, sustained energy and healthy hormone production. And so do adults. We’re using our brains, expending energy and experiencing hormone changes, too.
When our kids are little, the message hammered home by pediatricians and parenting books is that our kids shouldn’t drink too much juice. We should give them an apple instead of apple juice, as a typical juice box contains 24 grams of sugar. This message is the same when it comes to the presently popular vegetable and fruit juices.
Imagine sitting down to a heaping salad made up of six cups of fresh spinach, five carrots and three beets, roughly two pounds of vegetables. Eating all of this produce would take time because it requires chewing and digestion. The fiber in these vegetables would slow the absorption of the meal, so the carbohydrates and sugars wouldn’t surge into your bloodstream. And you would feel full at a certain point. Juicing these same vegetables has an entirely different effect, as there is little or no fiber to slow the sugars and no chewing to slow the consumption process.
Think of juice as a supplement
It strikes me that our juice craze is uniquely American. As with so much in our country, we need to go big or go home. Instead of adding eight ounces of vegetable juice to our day, we feel the need to chug 48 ounces, day after day.
As I mentioned, I love a cold, fresh green juice. I believe that drinking vegetables is better than popping a bunch of vitamins and supplements. And this is how I think we should look at the concept of juicing: as a supplement. Vegetable juices offer supplemental nutrition but should not be our main food source, even for just a few days.
Kicking off the day with a green juice is a splendid choice. Drinking a green juice instead of a latte when the afternoon slump hits deserves a high five. A teenager gulping down a green juice instead of a Coke is a home run.
I am also unquestionably a proponent of resetting our eating habits through some sort of healthful cleanse. Many of us, myself included, fall into bad habits of eating mindlessly, out of boredom or in response to stress. One of the great benefits of a cleanse is the opportunity to reset bad habits and rethink the way we make food choices.
Is there a more sensible way to reboot than the high-sugar juice fast?
Absolutely. Start by eliminating such things as gluten, dairy, soy, red meat and corn to give your digestive tract a rest. But continue to eat basic whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, spices and olive oil, and a serving or two of green juice. This will allow the digestive system a break while also giving you a chance to pay attention to your habits and how food makes you feel. A few days of eating this way is just as beneficial as a juice fast, and much kinder to your blood sugar.
For those who value the pre-made cleanse programs, I investigated many juice brands on the market and found two winners: Urban Remedy (full disclosure, Urban Remedy sent me some products to sample as I was writing this piece) and the local Hawthorne Organic Juice Bar. Both offer packages that include juices and actual meals, all raw and anti-inflammatory, providing protein and fiber. Urban Remedy’s juices are low in sugar and many include healthful herbs and chia seeds. Ask for Hawthorne Organic’s partial cleanse, which includes juices and raw meals, such as the Raw Collard Wrap.
So go ahead, reset your eating habits, feel the surge of energy when you eat nutritiously and cleanly for a few days, but do so without sacrificing fiber and protein, and without confusing blood sugar levels for days on end. Enjoy that green juice as a supplement, not for every meal.
This type of cleanse will also empower you to model healthful eating for your children instead of demonstrating that three days of nothing but juice is a healthy choice. Our kids are watching like hawks — especially those teenage girls.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.