Juice Me

Before I start, THIS IS NOT ABOUT FASTING. I believe in healthy, balanced eating, and in getting all your nutrients from real food whenever possible. And that’s where this post comes from: from a desire to get more nutrients out of real food.

Over the last year or so, I’ve really struggled to reconcile lots of ideas about a healthy eating plan (for myself and my partner) with our schedule. The amount of planning required for prep and cooking healthy food is not trivial; convenience food is convenient. And we’re often in the position of choosing what’s least problematic for a meal that wasn’t properly planned. I’m very distractable, I don’t stick to plans well, and maintaining a balanced diet requires consistency.

The idea for adding in some juices struck while I was in a bit of a cooking rut. Our meals have been remarkably grain-heavy lately, and low on vegetables.  Any ideas for getting more plant sources into our diets without a lot of prep/planning would get my attention right now. Portability would make it even better, and juicing seemed to fit the bill.

So it turns out there’s a whole new movement based on the experience of one guy who hit rock bottom with his health and decided to try to turn it around in a very drastic way:  pack a generator and a juicer into the back of a car, travel around the states, and live on juiced fruits and vegetables for 60 days.  And film it all, of course. Gimmicky and drastic, his juice fast nevertheless gave him the break he needed from many bad habits, and kick-started a long-term, healthier lifestyle for him. But after it’s over, and he’s back home thinking about cutting what must have been a very boring little film, he gets a call from this trucker he had met in Iowa, asking for his help in turning his health around. The second half of the movie is dedicated to following him as he turns his health around in a more dramatic and story-worthy way, also inspiring others in his town to eat drink more plants. Though it’s also a tale of juicing-evangelism, neither seem to advocate it as a lifelong way of eating (the movie is somewhat unclear on what either of their diets look like post-fast, though Joe is on Twitter and has a blog where he continues to report and engage on the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables).

At this point in my life, I’m firmly anti-diet (in the “going on a diet” sense, but also in the “I’m strictly paleo” sense). I’d rather think about my diet as a way of eating instead (WOE, in the vernacular).  I’ve done restrictive, I’ve done quirky, I’ve done drastic/fasting, I’ve done obsessive, and the long-term effects of those have always been far more negative than positive. Loss of focus, loss of other healthy habits, loss of decisionmaking and responsibility if nothing else. And as “diets” with a concentrated focus on quick/er weight loss, they’re problematic. I couldn’t get 100% on board with Weight Watchers, or Atkins, or Vegan or even Vegetarian diets, either; there’s always something that chafes in the mandate of an all-knowing system. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for experimentation, adding and subtracting elements of different ideas about eating, and seeing how it goes. Any plan that emphasizes whole, real foods gets my attention. So I approached this juice reboot phenomenon with all of that in mind (and with the recognition that juicing eliminates something substantial from whole foods).

My goals were to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet; return to building more meals around fresh produce, drink more water, reduce salt, dump processed food as much as possible, and focus on nutrient-density over calorie-density. Kick-start some weight loss? Making that a primary goal nearly ALWAYS fucks with my head, and I can’t risk that right now. But yes, I know from past experience that knocking off some pounds right now will translate into greater agility on the track, so that’s not far off. Anyway.

We own a juicer already, so that part was easy. My partner and I talked about options, and we decided to create our own plan: 3 days on a combination of fruit and vegetable juices, fresh fruits and vegetables (and nuts), and some legume/grain additions for dinner and maybe lunch.  If we felt at any time like our bodies weren’t getting what we needed, WE’D EAT SOMETHING ELSE. No judgment, no rules about sticking with it, other than to be mindful of our goals, and listen to our bodies. Still, we purposely chose to squeeze this in at a time when we didn’t have particularly high energy demands; I definitely wouldn’t try this much of a change to my diet if I had a bout coming up, or even an important meeting or writing deadline, in case it affected my ability to focus. It was designed to be a short-term experiment, not a new long-term plan.

We used some of the recipes on the reboot’s “plus dinner” plan, and expanded from there. Here’s a rough summary of what we had:

Day 1 (Sunday): Carrot-apple-ginger juice for breakfast, cucumber-celery-apple-kale juice mid-morning, tomato-cucumber juice at lunch, green juice in the afternoon with a couple handfuls of nuts, and lentils & brown rice w/ steamed broccoli for dinner.

Day 2 (Monday): fruit/veg juice for breakfast, lentil-rice leftovers and some carrot/beet/cucumber juice for lunch, and beans & rice for dinner. I also had a 2% iced latte in the late afternoon, mostly for the caffeine before I had to teach, but also because I was a little nervous about whether I was getting enough protein.

Day 3 (Tuesday): fruit (ALL fruit) juice for breakfast (big mistake!), rice noodle salad (also a bit of a mistake!) w/ tofu for lunch, green juice mid-afternoon, and stir-fried tofu & shredded carrots w/ brown rice for dinner.

Each juice was around a pint or a pint and a half, depending on the recipe. I’d add water or coconut water to stretch mine, and put them in a quart mason jar to drink slowly (e.g., on the road), but my partner mostly just drank ’em all at once. They were nearly all tasty, and only the fruit juice caused any stomach upset (I think I just drank it too fast — that’s a LOT of sugar hitting the stomach that quickly). Nothing gave us any other digestive problems, surprisingly. I did abandon the precise recipes from the site after the first day, though; I wanted to customize based on what I had left on hand, and what sounded appetizing to us.  One “gazpacho” juice called for bell peppers and onions, which sounded awful… and I’d heard less than positive reviews about that one.

How were our energy levels over the three days? Strangely level. No spikes, no crashes, but the end of the first day (before dinner) we were exhausted, without having exerted that much energy during the day. We tried to get some work done in the garden, and both of us pooped out within an hour or so. I was cranky and wanted to go to bed by 7pm. Dinner helped, but only a little. On the morning of Day 2, both of us were saying that we felt much better overall, and I had plenty of energy to do a fitness class in the evening. By the morning of Day 3 I was definitely feeling more energetic and focused — a clearer, more awake morning than I normally have, for sure. But that huge morning burst of sugar in the fruit juice, plus the rice noodles at lunch made for an hour or so of low energy in the afternoon. Far from the worst 3pm-sleepies that I’ve had, but it did make work more challenging.

Maybe 3 days isn’t enough to really judge, but I’d say the changes were moderately positive.  I also didn’t closely document what we were getting in the way of nutrients, which means that I don’t know whether the juices were providing us with sufficient calories — it’s likely that they weren’t, as the amount of produce required to make double these recipes is sort of shocking. So I screwed up on that one. Next time (if there is a next time), more tracking.

cc-licensed image courtesy of pinprick.

The benefit of juicing vegetables and fruits lies in its concentration of a high volume of fresh, raw produce – – much more than you’d be able to eat without feeling ill from all that fiber. Which is a danger of juicing, of course; the juice of fresh produce is about as nutrient-dense as it gets, but it’s also calorie-dense in that form.  It’s very easy to consume more sugar and calories in a short amount of time in juice than you intend to. The body just doesn’t send the same “full” signals that it does w/ the insoluble fiber. And if you’re treating the juice as a “free” veggie, without compensating for the added calories in the rest of your diet, you could definitely gain weight by juicing.

On the flip side, it was surprising to me how many macronutrients you can get out of vegetables and fruits alone. Nibbling on salad all day won’t feed your body enough, but juicing 10x as much and drinking it throughout the day just might. (and did, I suppose, for the folks in the film). According to the site, the “V28” juice (beets, carrots, celery, tomatoes, parsley, jalapeno and radishes) has 17g of protein, 47g carbs, 540mg sodium and 340 cal. Not bad for a pile of vegetables (though the sodium level is a bit shocking, if it’s accurate).

Can you get the same benefits from blending, rather than juicing? In a larger volume, yes. You miss out on the concentration of nutrients, but retain all the fiber — which is something you want to have in some abundance in your diet. A juicer is necessary  if the concentration of nutrients is what you want. There are definitely some tensions out there between the juice and smoothie camps.

What’s next? I can imagine a number of ways to work juicing into a regular WOE, particularly as we head into summer. In the heat of summer, we often don’t want a heavy meal, and I can see adding in some vegetable juices, particularly at lunch on the weekends. Or when we’re feeling under the weather and want to boost our nutrients. But I think more than anything, juicing just reminded me how well plants can feed us, whether whole or juiced, and that our bodies don’t need so much of the other things we put in them. Increasing fruits and vegetables is still a goal for us, and this gives us a new option for adding more into our diets.  Not to mention going through the mountains of kale our garden produces in the summer.

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