I know what you mean … it seems juice fasts or cleanses are everywhere. And at least where I’ve looked, there’s plenty of misinformation about this latest fad in dieting. To be honest, the science behind it is a little shaky – but no surprises there.
So what are these juice cleanses all about anyway? The Master Cleanse (that’s what they call that lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup diet) has been around since the 1940’s. Yes, it seems even our grandmothers experienced lapses in common sense from time to time. Its revival was recently popularized by Beyoncè, Demi Moore, and (your favorite) Yolanda Foster of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame. While I haven’t met anyone who has completed this cleanse, it wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be yours either.
On the less extreme end of the juicing spectrum are dietician-designed juice cleanses that are pre-packaged, making life easy for the dieter. There are a multitude of options in this department (like this list you forwarded me from Well+Good). Most are fresh juices that can be shipped to your door nationwide … for a price. And like many conveniences, juice fasting this way isn’t cheap. In full disclosure, to say that pre-packaged juice cleanses are “less extreme” is also controversial. Gwyneth Paltrow, who used to tout the virtues of juicing, just recently spoke out against it in favor of a more sensible approach to eating. And I would venture your doctor probably agrees with her.
I am not afraid of a little experiment now and then. So, I decided to jump on the juicing bandwagon myself. Specifically, this bandwagon:
After exploring my juice cleanse options, I realized I wanted to stay true to myself and eat (drink?) locally. Okay, mainly I was trying to save a few bucks on shipping charges, so “free local delivery” was music to my ears. Enter Jill (a registered dietician) from Vibrant Earth Juices.
I first saw her truck parked in “Food Truck Row” at my office, and the deal was sealed. I wondered if this juice cleanse thing would give me more energy and make me feel refreshed. Or would I be holding my nose while choking down disgusting green concoctions six times a day? Only one way to find out.
If you do ever want to try a juice fast, check out the actual ingredients (another example of Mindful Label Reading). One reassuring thing about the Vibrant Earth juices is that Jill adds flax oil to almost all of her juice varieties. This does two important things. First, it slows down the rate at which your body absorbs the sugars in the juices (decreasing blood sugar spikes). And second, since flax oil is a fat, it helps your body absorb the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Yes indeed, this is not your grandma’s “master cleanse”.
Vibrant Earth’s Clean Program
While the website suggested a three to five day fast, I opted for a single day for this experiment – mainly for practical reasons. As you could imagine, you shouldn’t perform rigorous exercise while consuming only juice (it even says so on Jill’s website). So with my current half-marathon training, a one day fast seemed like enough to begin to appreciate the effects while not passing out during a work-out à la D.J. Tanner (p.s. aren’t you glad we don’t wear leotards to the gym anymore?).
So on a random Wednesday, this little package was delivered to my doorstep before 6 a.m.:
Gotta love cool Denver mornings that allow for doorstep delivery of milk, juices and other goodies.
I spent the day sipping on these delicious juices and had a few major revelations:
- Some tasted better than others. My favorite was Lunchtime (juice #3) – a mixture of sprouted almonds, filtered water, dates, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. It’s milky, delicious, and satiating.
- To answer your question, I didn’t feel shaky or weak, but I wanted to eat something. Like that fun size Milky Way haunting me from my coworker’s desk. Or the warm, gooey spaghetti I made the kids for dinner. It seemed like I was drinking something at all hours of the day, but I did not feel full. I couldn’t disagree with Kate Moss more – plenty of things taste better than skinny feels. But I digress.
- I have never peed so much in a day. Even though I think I usually drink enough water, I probably don’t.
So what science has been published on juice cleanses? As I alluded to before, there’s not much. As you know, most medical research focuses on the effects of certain medications, supplements or diets over relatively long periods of time – months or even years. Since juice fasting isn’t easily maintained over a long period of time, it’s tough to study. I would go out on a limb and guess it’s not going to be studied anytime soon, because randomizing a group of healthy volunteers to a juice cleanse for anything longer than a few days would actually put their health at risk.
Why? Well, vegetable and fruit juices contain vitamins and antioxidants which can certainly be healthy in moderation. However, juice itself provides only carbs – no protein or fat – which makes it a poor choice for long-term dieting. It’s just common sense – you wouldn’t feed your child only juice for weeks on end. And as Emily has witnessed, protein malnutrition can land you in the ICU.
What could be a sensible way to incorporate juicing? Well, intermittent fasting (IF) has become a popular and better-studied dieting method over the last decade. The most typical form of IF involves severe restriction (<500 calories) on one or two days per week while consuming a reduced calorie diet the rest of the time. Not only does IF facilitate weight loss, but it has been shown to reduce certain heart disease risk factors¹.
This is where juice fasting may have the most benefit. When combined with an IF program – for example, drinking a few juices on the fasting day(s) – again, good quality juices with good ingredients -would no doubt safely aid in weight loss.
What else did I dig up? Interestingly, I found a few studies that extolled the virtues of specific kinds of juice. So, for example, drinking unripe grape juice (verjuice) has been shown to raise HDL (the good cholesterol)². And blood orange juice has been shown to decrease certain inflammatory markers that are correlated with an increased risk of heart disease³. Pomegranate juice might help lower blood sugar in diabetics⁴.
What all these studies cannot answer are the bigger questions – do regular juice fasts keep you from having a heart attack? Do juices make you live longer (and is that what you really want anyway – but that’s another story)?
And just as I was pondering those questions, I came across this article in the newest issue of JAMA:
This meta-analysis (a combined statistical analysis of multiple distinct research studies) looked at antioxidant supplementation⁵. They found no reduction in mortality with antioxidant supplements and noted that beta carotene, vitamin E and high doses of vitamin A supplements may actually increase all-cause mortality. As juices are high in antioxidants, it could be inferred they won’t likely extend your lifespan. This also illustrates a central tenet of medical humility – medical knowledge is rapidly evolving and changing. Ideas we accept as common knowledge are disproven all the time, so it’s wise to cautiously approach anything trendy in dieting or medicine in general.
It’s safe to say that tried and true diet rules are tried and true for a reason. Eating a healthy, balanced, portion-controlled diet while exercising five times a week will always be a recipe for maintaining a healthy body weight and feeling good. And it’s most likely cheaper.
I don’t think frequent juice fasting is for me. I just get too darn hungry. But the next time I see Jill’s truck parked outside my office, I’ll definitely say hi and probably buy one of her juices. Not because I expect juice to do something magical for me, but because it’s delicious and refreshing.
P.S. I (unfortunately) did not receive any payment or perks from Vibrant Earth for doing this juice cleanse.
Mary is a regular guest contributor to Good Not Perfect. Mary grew up in Kansas City – raised by two science lovers – and met Laura and Emily during her stint as a Hoosier in college. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two daughters and works as a physician in internal medicine. She aspires to be one of those women still running 10Ks in their 70s, and her bucket list includes visiting all 59 U.S. National Parks.