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Fitness in a glass: What makes a healthy beverage

I’ve always preferred chewing my calories rather than drinking them. That said, a few years back, in my health food daze, I became a part-time juicing junkie. Was it worth it?

Every Monday I drank my way through the day. Having slapped down $289 (the money I no longer spent on real food) for a Champion commercial juicer, I juiced up a storm and bottled my own delicious, healthy fruit and vegetable blends from recipes with names like “ginger jolt” and “Popeye’s pop.”

Woman using juicer

There were some practical downsides — the monster of a machine dominated my countertop, and cleaning the contraption was practically a full-time job. Fresh juice has a short shelf life, so I had to drink up quickly. Nevertheless, on Mondays I filled six 16-ounce juice bottles with healthy vegetable and fruit combinations, dropped them into a cooler and headed to the office.

That lasted two months, tops. My idea had been that this regimen was a balanced approached to a regular juice cleanse. I wasn’t juice-fasting every day, just enough to boost my mental clarity, regulate my digestion and improve my health by removing toxins — the claims made for juice and vegetable fasting. In the end I gave it up because I felt spacey, tired, hungry and headachy every Monday evening.

But maybe it’s worth the headache. Is a break from solid food advisable for reducing toxins and ensuring optimum health and a mental advantage?

Upsides and downsides

We all encounter chemicals in our foods (colorants and preservatives), water (chlorine) and air (carbon monoxide). These toxins build up in the body and cause inflammation and a weakened immune system, making us easy prey for colds, headaches, arthritis and serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease. The theory behind juice cleanses is that when the body is free of the burden of digestion it can better expel the toxins we take in.

But some experts, myself included, believe we cleanse all the time if we eat and live properly. Cut back on booze and processed, sugary junk foods and give up cigarettes. Make sure you get enough sleep and exercise, and eat a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean proteins and whole grains.

Juices are a great way to get your greens without eating fistfuls of kale and spinach. But be wary of unreasonable claims like increased mental function from juice intake. Intensified amounts of vitamins and minerals are great, but they do not make up for the brain nutrition provided by the healthy lean protein and fat in whole foods. Juices also lack fiber, which acts like a scrub brush for the digestive tract.

5 Reasons you need to eat more fiber >>

Go for a balanced approach

The bottom line: Elaborate juicing is not required to reap the benefits of whole foods. These days I drink juice as one component of a healthy diet. Occasionally, I dust off the Champion and mix up some delicious homemade juices. One of my favorite cocktails is a cranberry spritzer — a splash of sugar-free cranberry juice concentrate, crushed ice, sparkling water and a twist of lime. Cranberries, well-known for fighting off urinary tract infections and periodontal disease, are a great source of antioxidants and other plant chemicals that help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The French Twist: 12 Secrets to Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Managemen

More often, though, I grab prepared juices that are full of vitamins and nutrients and available in health food stores and supermarkets. Brands I like include Drink Chia, Naked Juice and Odwalla Fruit Smoothies. Look for 100 percent juice with no added sugar, sodium or artificial ingredients, and aim for drinks sweetened with the stevia plant rather than artificial sweeteners.

Read more in my book, The French Twist: 12 Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management.

More on healthy beverages

Drink your way to a better brain
Drink more water to stay healthy
5 Healthiest drinks for your diet

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