Of course diets are sexy and very marketable and someone always has something to sell. Diets are marketable because humans love the shortcut, we love the secret, the magic. And yet the multibillion dollar diet industry with all the latest fads (paleo, ketogenic, butter coffee, wheat belly I’m looking at you) is failing to address the growing obesity epidemic. Our society is getting fatter and diet related disease is a booming industry.
I won’t let plant based diets off the hook. As a vegan I can’t help but occasionally point my finger at my own tribe. The secret to living healthfully (and as a slim person) isn’t a diet, but simply eating an abundance of whole natural foods. Notice I didn’t say plant foods. You can of course be reasonably healthy including a modest amount of animal foods in your diet (though there is good reason not to) but the definition of bad health is “food” that comes in a box or package. The trap vegans fall into is taking a narrow diet (one eschewing animal products) and further focusing it into a tiny fragment of available foods. Raw vegans, fruitarians, the new fad ketogenic vegans (I’m coming for you next) and the juice cleanse vegans are good examples of this trend.
Imagine a shopping cart full of the typical North American foods. Meat, dairy, eggs, veggies, fruits and various boxed foods. Now if you’re vegan you eliminate the first three. Hopefully you eliminate most of the boxed foods as well. That leaves you with vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans etc. You’ve seriously limited your options, but no matter as there is good reason to suggest this is a healthy way to live. But too many people just aren’t satisfied. They won’t leave it there. It’s not good enough to be plant based, they have to be raw vegan, or only juice, or only smoothies, or macrobiotic. They narrow the scope of their diet so much that deficiencies are not only possible, they are likely. Inevitably failure occurs and a return to omnivore diets become a reaction to a false belief that iron, protein, fat and minerals are lacking in a vegan diet. They are suffering because of a restrictive vegan diet as you’ll soon see in the nutrition breakdown of my juice fast.
When my wife and I started our vegetarian experiment to combat my declining health in 2012/2013 we broke the ice with a juice fast. I think it was meant to last a week, but I couldn’t get beyond 2 days. I was still choking back whatever juice she gave me in the morning when she’d proudly present my mid morning juice. To say I had no appetite was an understatement. She was stronger than I and able to pull herself through the fast while I tapped out. No matter, the juice fast was a clear line in the sand and it served its purpose. I can respect, and possibly endorse the notion that juice fasts can be a good way for someone to transition to a more long term plant based diet.
Now, five years later, I wanted to repeat the juice experiment and weigh in on juicing as a lifestyle. I personally know vegans that make juice a regular part of their life. This is usually inspired by the documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” which also inspired me. Often juicing seems to be used as a short term diet to counter bad eating habits. It becomes problematic when it becomes a crutch in lieu of healthful habits. What happens is people juice for a while, return to unhealthful eating and then juice again for a few days. It’s the classic seesaw diet.
You can watch the video in his post for a quick summary of how things went for me, but I thought it would be helpful to break down the actual nutrition of a juice fast in this post. I ended up setting up the following experiment: A 3 day juice fast using juices entirely purchased from a local Juice company on one of their pre-designed cleanses. I chose the beginners cleanse despite being plant based and already eating cleanly as I wanted to experience what someone doing this for the first time would. To be completely honest I also wanted the higher calorie version of the beginners fast as juicing just didn’t appeal to me. I only drank juice, water and tea though I did continue to supplement my diet (B12, D3 and Omega 3). The version of the fast I had gave me one juice blended with cold brew coffee in the morning, so I avoided the caffeine withdrawal of my last diet experiment.
The result? I lost 2 pounds on day one, 1 pound on day two and nothing on the third day. I felt fine the whole time, though by the end of day two I was dreading every juice. I would have preferred to go hungry but drank them anyway. The fast provided 6 juices a day, the first and last with nut milks in them providing some fat and protein. I lost more weight on my water fast, including on days where I ate whole fruit, vegetables and whole grains. I also felt more satisfied and preferred my complete fasting day (just water) to the juice fast. I continued to exercise doing two easy runs and two bike rides in three days.
By day three both my wife and I were mentally exhausted by the juice fast. I was actually dreaming about oatmeal. This was likely because we decided to do this in the Canadian winter which made living off of cold juices extra challenging. My daughter decided to bake a cake in the house which added to the challenge as it smelled fantastic. The cost of this juice fast? $366 Canadian for three days and two people. The cost is staggering adding credence to the unsustainable nature of juicing (unless you’re wealthy) but wasn’t too much more than what we spent juicing at home ourselves 5 years ago. The quantity of produce you need to purchase for juicing is substantial. Most upsetting is that you end up throwing away all the fibre!
Here is the nutritional breakdown (per day) of my juice fast:
- Calories per day: 1244 which is below my basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories I’d burn if I stayed in bed at rest all day) of 1571. This accounts for the weight loss, it’s a starvation diet. I normally eat about double this amount of calories.
- Fat per day: 53g or 477 calories per day. This was helped by me doing a juice fast that included nut milks and is an adequate amount of fat however will be deficient in Omega 3 fats.
- Protein per day: 31g which is well below the 53g minimum I require in a day if I’m sedentary. Anyone that reads this blog knows I’m not a high protein advocate, but juicing is much too deficient for what we need to function properly.
- Fibre per day: 10g as compared to the 38g minimum I require a day. This should be no surprise as we strip out all the fibre of the plants that we juice. Again this is wholly inadequate for a healthful diet though not too far departed from what the average North American consumes in a day.
- Sugar 148g a day which is much higher than the maximum recommended sugar per day of 37.5g. Again, if you read this blog you know I’m not afraid of sugar when it comes in whole foods (like fruit) but in the case of juice we strip out the fibre that blunts the sugar spikes. This can’t be a good idea long term.
- Sodium 600mg. The upper level of recommended sodium per day is 2300mg for an adult so we are well below that on a juice fast and the company I used adds sea salt (probably a good idea for iodine intake) to some of their juices.
It wasn’t all bad. There were things I liked about juicing including the high amount of nutrients you will get from consuming fresh vegetable juices. It is an effective short term weight loss technique if it’s understood that it isn’t a sustainable solution. It’s likely a much cleaner diet than the typical North American diet. Given that you can add things like spirulina, maca or other additions to a juice it can be a good source of additional nutrients that you would otherwise be unlikely to eat. While I can’t find science to back up the notion of juicing giving the body a “digestive rest” it does make a certain amount of sense though enzymes and insulin will need to be produced regardless. The science behind fasting has intrigued me and juice fasts may share some of the benefits of a true fast. Finally juice fasts will be free from saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol which is undoubtably a good thing for the heart health of most people.
What I don’t like about juice fasts are the severe lack of fibre, protein, fats and extreme high levels of sugar. The cost of juicing and its restrictive nature lead it to be unsustainable. I’m very interested in changing approaches to eating that are long term or habit forming. That address our relationship with food without leaving us deficient or feeling like we are lacking in joy or vibrance. A well conceived whole foods plant based diet or an almost entirely (roughly 95%) whole foods plant based diet is one I’ve come to understand as the most healthful and sustainable. Convincing ourselves that heroic effort though restriction is better for us is a fools errand.
So who is a juice fast for? I’d say if you fully understand that this isn’t a long term solution, if you don’t plan to yo-yo back and forth off of juice fasts or stay on them for extended periods of time, then it may be a good way to transition to a more plant-based diet. I’d recommend no more than 3 days. If you are a curious person that likes to try things, and are otherwise healthy (especially not diabetic) then it’s fine. If you like the occasional juice knowing full well that it’s a processed food high in sugar but otherwise eat healthfully then juice is great, especially fresh. But if you are seeking a diet of abundance, that is sustainable and for something that is the “new you” then juicing isn’t for you. Rather it would be better to transition your way to a diet with a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables, fewer animal foods and that severely restricts processed food.