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Juicing: Is Sipping Greens Just as Good as Chewing Them?

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on September 25th, 2013 Categories: Uncategorized

Juicing is sweeping the nation like cupcakes did a few years ago. Cupcakes may be cuter than juice, but they’re packed with sugar and other less-than-healthy ingredients. Juicing offers a quick and easy way to get your daily servings of vegetables. Green juices may contain kale, celery, Swiss chard, spinach, or parsley, as well as carrots, fruit, and/or fruit juice. So-called “natural Gatorade” mixes cucumber and celery with a squeeze of lemon and lime. Even jalapeños, beets, garlic, turmeric, and cayenne can be juiced. A mix that makes you say, “Hmmm,” at first glance often tastes delicious.

Fresh juice cafes have popped up around my area, serving colorful blends that look almost too pretty to drink. Even the green ones that look a bit swampy are fresh, energizing, and tasty. But you don’t have to leave the house to get a good glass of juice. You can make your own with a basic juicing machine and a well-stocked refrigerator. Even a regular blender works with some vegetables.

Still, you may be wondering if drinking juice is just as healthy as eating whole fruits and vegetables. And what about juice cleanses? Are there any risks to drinking only juice for nourishment? Not only have I asked these questions, but so have many of my patients. We all want to know the things we can do to possibly improve our chances of living a long and healthy life.

Let’s talk about these questions.

Is juice really as healthy as whole fruits and vegetables?

Juicing has quite a few benefits. If you’re drinking juice, you’re likely to consume more fruits and vegetables than you normally would if you had to eat them all. A glass of juice contains several servings. If you don’t have time to prepare vegetables or just don’t like to eat them, juicing can make them easier to fit in your diet. Vegetables are less noticeable when they’re mixed with fruit and juiced.

Juice still has most of the healthy minerals and vitamins in the whole fruits and vegetables used to make it. Juice also contains most of the phytochemicals (compounds in plants), including antioxidants that help strengthen the immune system and may help protect against certain types of cancers, including breast cancer. Some fruits such as cherries and berries may be able to help reduce inflammation and pain, speed recovery of muscle damage, and improve joint motion, whether eaten whole or juiced.

Fresh, and if possible, organic, ingredients give your juice the most nutrients. If you can’t buy all organic, at least do so for produce on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, including strawberries, blueberries, kale, and spinach. Raw produce often provides more nutrients — but some micronutrients (like carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants, and B vitamins) can be enhanced by cooking. Juice advocates also claim that it’s important to drink the juice as soon as it’s made, since many of the healthy compounds in juice can break down quickly.

But there are some downsides to juicing. Unlike most grocery store juice, most fresh juice isn’t pasteurized or otherwise treated to kill bacteria and preserve shelf life. So any harmful pathogens on the ingredients or juicing equipment can taint the juice. Pathogens are any microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, or viruses that can make you sick. The risk is real: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has linked outbreaks of Escherichia coli (E. coli), Listeria, and Salmonella infections to fresh fruit and vegetables in recent years.

Contaminated juice can make you sick, especially if your immune system is weak. In most cases, a healthy person’s immune system can fight off the effects of food-borne illness. People whose immune systems have been weakened by chemotherapy or other illnesses have a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill from drinking tainted raw juice. If you’re making your own juice, make sure to thoroughly wash all the ingredients as well as the juicing equipment. If you’re getting chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, it’s a good idea to avoid raw juice until you’re through with treatment. Then check with your doctor to see when you might be able to start drinking raw juice. If you’re getting another treatment for breast cancer, it’s also a good idea to check with your doctor to see if your immune system can handle raw juice.

Juicing also removes quite a bit of the pulp from whole fruits and vegetables. This is a downside because the pulp is the part of the produce that contains the fiber. Some people believe that removing the fiber-filled pulp makes juice healthier because it allows your body to absorb the nutrients faster. But while fiber can sometimes affect how your body processes nutrients, no studies have shown that the nutrients in juice are absorbed faster than the nutrients in whole fruits and vegetables.

Because they don’t have fiber, fruit juices are also much more likely than whole fruit to cause spikes in blood sugar. That’s because the fiber/pulp can slow down the release of sugar from the fruit. High blood sugar levels can throw off your metabolism. Repeated sugar spikes over a long time may increase the risk of diabetes. Also, a quick rise in blood sugar is almost always followed by a quick drop, too. So you might feel tired and hungry for a sugary snack fairly soon after a glass of fruit juice. To avoid these sugar highs, stick to juices made from non-starchy vegetables, such as carrots, chard, celery, and tomatoes, and little, if any, fruit juice.

People who drink a lot of juice also need to make sure there’s plenty of fiber in the rest of their diet. Someone who eats about 1,700 calories per day needs about 25 grams of fiber. Eating enough fiber can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease, and relieve constipation. It may also help improve your breast health. One way to add more fiber to your diet is to use the leftover pulp from juiced vegetables and fruits in sauces or stews.

Finally, don’t forget about the calories in juice. Just because juice is a healthy food doesn’t mean it’s low-calorie. All-fruit or mostly-fruit juices tend to have more calories than juice made from vegetables. Add-ins such as yogurt, soymilk, avocado, peanut butter, protein powder, or other ingredients that turn juice into a smoothie also increase the calorie count. You don’t have to avoid smoothies. Just be aware that they may be high calorie bombs.

What about juice cleanses?

Juice-only diets have become popular as a way to “cleanse” the body or lose weight. These diets typically last 1 or 2 weeks — the only food you’re allowed is juice made from fruits and vegetables.

Most dieticians warn against juice-only diets, especially any that last for more than a couple days. You may lose a few pounds, but these diets tend to be low in fiber, protein, and healthy fats. This can slow your digestive system and leave you feeling tired and worn out. You also may feel hungry all the time, since fiber, protein, and fats help you feel full after a meal.

As for the cleansing claim, your liver and kidneys already naturally and efficiently detoxify your body every day. No studies have shown that juice helps this process along. Juice diets can cause diarrhea; some people claim this is the toxins leaving the body. But it’s really a result of drinking too much juice. Apples, strawberries, peaches, and many other fruits are full of sorbitol, a natural sugar that the body has a hard time digesting. If you eat a lot of these fruits, either whole or in juice form, you’re likely to have diarrhea.

Still, many dieticians see no harm in a short 1- or 2-day juice fast. A short juice diet also may boost your mood if it makes you feel like you’re doing something good for your body.

Can juicing cure cancer?

Drinking certain types of juice may be healthier than eating cookies and candy, but it’s important to keep perspective about what it can — and can’t — do for your health. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with a lower risk of cancer. But no special diet can cure cancer, including diets that emphasize juicing.

Sometimes my patients ask about Gerson therapy, a vegetarian diet that includes drinking raw juice up to 13 times a day. Gerson therapy claims to activate the body’s ability to heal itself, but there’s very limited evidence for both its effectiveness and safety. Recent studies of people with metastatic cancer who used Gerson therapy found that the regimen provided some physical and psychological support. Still, many people who follow Gerson therapy and other similar diets also have received standard treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Right now, there’s no scientific evidence that Gerson therapy effectively treats breast cancer or improves breast cancer survival.

Tips for home juicing

If you’d like to add more fresh juice to your diet but don’t have a juice bar nearby, here’s what you need to know about juicing at home:

  • There are two main types of juice machines.
    • Centrifugal juice extractors have a metal blade that spins against a mesh filter, separating the juice from the flesh of the vegetable or fruit. The spinning blade gets hot, which may destroy some of the nutrients.
    • Cold press juicers, also called masticating juicers, extract juice by crushing and then pressing fruit and vegetables. Cold-press juicers don’t produce heat, so they may keep more of the nutrients intact. Plus, they extract more juice. Cold press juicers are better for juicing tough, fibrous vegetables such as kale and celery and can even make “milk” from cashews or almonds. But they cost significantly more than centrifugal juicers.
  • Keeping the equipment clean is a lot of work, but VERY important. Bacteria can grow on a juicer if it’s cleaned or stored improperly. Your equipment should be washed and dried carefully, part by part, to remove pulp from every nook and cranny. Keep this in mind before purchasing the juicer. Being easy to clean is high on my priority list!
  • Wash your hands well before handling produce and use clean and organic produce when possible. Just as nutrients can be concentrated by juicing, so can contaminants. Keep your produce separate from other foods, especially raw meat or poultry, wash it thoroughly, and remove waxed peels; see It’s Wise to Wash Your Produce for more information. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas where bacteria are more likely to grow.
  • It’s not clear how long raw juices can be refrigerated or frozen before bacteria may start to grow. It’s best to drink them as soon as possible. Try to avoid juice that’s more than 8 hours old.
  • Be creative! For inspiration, try some of the juice recipes available online or buy a juicing book. Many juicers come with cookbooks. It may take some time before you come up with blends of vegetables and fruits that suit your tastes exactly.

Whether you’re someone who prefers to eat your fruits and vegetables whole or juiced, the important thing is to eat them. Most Americans don’t come close to eating the recommended daily amount (about 8 to 10 half-cup servings). I try to up my daily servings by including fruit in my morning cereal, eating a big vegetable salad for lunch, and having two vegetable sides with dinner. I always pack extra fruit and raw cut up vegetables for snacks throughout the day. I’m someone who has had great difficulty adapting to small portion sizes. I’m a big and frequent eater. So the only way I can manage my weight is by eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, mostly cooked or raw. But to mix it up and increase my fluid intake, I try to drink a veggie-fruit juice combo when I get home from work. Plus, as I continue to work hard to reduce my alcohol intake, juicing gives me something new and interesting to drink as a reward for a long day’s work. Juice is also something colorful to fill my glass while I’m at a party.

I recently heard about a place that combines kale, pineapple, cilantro, and lime into a drink called C’est La Vie. Now that sounds like a delicious, refreshing way to enjoy my daily fruits and vegetables! Do you have any favorite juice combinations?

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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