Juice: It's What's for Dinner, But Is It as Good as an Actual Meal?

As usual, some people think Houston is a little behind the times.

Juice bars -- as in restaurants/cafes/bars that serve only fresh squeezed juice -- have been a mainstay of New York and Los Angeles dining culture for years now. With the recent opening of several new juice bars in Houston, it seems the Bayou City is finally hip to the trend.

"I moved down here from the East Coast, and I feel like everywhere but Houston there are juice bars on every corner," says Becki O'Brien, the owner of Houston's newest juice purveyor, Big & Juicy Juice Bar, located inside Big Yoga Houston. "You go to New York, and there's a juice bar everywhere you go. I moved to Houston, and I was so shocked. Even most of the places we do have aren't organic. It's a huge trend in other cities, and Houston is finally catching on."

Still, one has to wonder if juice is simply a trend or if it really is a healthy meal alternative. What's the benefit of drinking juice over, say, eating a salad or munching on an apple? Is one cup of juice really worth what most juice bars charge? Can you drink juice instead of eating a meal and call it dinner?

We chatted with both juice purveyors and nutritionists to find out the real deal behind the juicing up of Houston.

"Houston's just not very healthy, to be honest," says Gretchen Hawkins, owner of the Juice Girl food truck and new brick-and-mortar juice bar of the same name near Rice University. "Everybody is eating burgers. It's cattle city here. But I think finally people are starting to get into it, into being healthier.

Hawkins has been running the Juice Girl food truck for about three and a half years, but she's been a proponent of juicing, she says, since 1993. She believes that people will be able to notice a difference in the way they feel after drinking just one juice a day for a week or more, because they'll be getting all of the fruits and vegetables their bodies need, perhaps in one serving.

"Everything's cooked, and that's killing vitamins and enzymes and minerals, so getting fresh-pressed juice is better," Hawkins explains. "And how are you going to eat as much fruit and vegetables as you need to get everything? It's a large amount. No one has time to sit around and eat all that. We're just not living in a society where people are doing that."

While nutritionists agree that fruits and vegetables are important parts of our diet, not all are sold on the idea of juicing as the best way to consume the necessary vitamins and minerals.

"There's a lot that you may get by eating a whole fruit," says Shreela Sharma, a registered dietitian and the assistant director of the Dietetic Internship Program at the UT School of Public Health. "Juice is not going to be deficient in vitamins -- in fact, in juice you get a concentrate of the vitamins. You get a push of micronutrients which you wouldn't get if you have to eat the same volume of produce, but I don't think you can replace one with the other."

Other nutritionists, like Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor of nutrition and obesity studies at the University of Houston, note that juice doesn't have the same amount of fiber as whole fruit or vegetables. And we need fiber.

"Drinking juice is a better alternative to not eating," Hernandez says. "It's better to eat something than nothing, but you're still lacking protein and fiber."

Another concern that many nutritionists note (but proper juicers discount) is the added sugar content of many juices you buy at the grocery store or at chains like Jamba Juice. Local juice bar owners such as O'Brien are quick to point out that their products contain no added sugar -- only the sugars that are naturally occurring in the fruits and vegetables. If you're buying juice from the grocery store, be careful to read the ingredients and make sure that sugar hasn't been added to the product. At places like Juice Girl and Big and Juicy Juice Bar, though, you can see the produce going right into the juicer and coming out straight into your cup. Nothing extra added.

Unless, of course, you want that.

"When you do a cleanse, you're not going to get fiber, so we add a couple of smoothies with kale and chia seeds and hemp seeds so you're still getting filling fiber," says Hawkins, and O'Brien also notes that she serves smoothies that contain nuts, fat, protein and fiber from whole fruit.

One of the benefits of eating whole fruit over drinking juice is the fiber, but it's also somewhat psychological, according to Hernandez.

"When you drink your calories, you have a tendency to not be as full, versus when you're eating and crunching and chewing," she says. "It triggers in your mind that you're eating, and you'll end up fuller because it takes your body longer to digest."

To combat the mental need to chew to be full, O'Brien advocates "chewing your juice." No, really.

"It's this funny thing we say in the juicing world," O'Brien explains. "Don't drink it like water. Chew your juice! Swish it around in your mouth a little."

Though juice may not fill you up quite like a meal (or any form of solid food), people are flocking to juice bars because they see them as weight-loss tools. Movie stars gush about how great juice cleanses are for dropping ten pounds before an awards show, and the whole idea of drinking juice only seems like it would help the fat melt right off.

And it does. For a little while.

"No one was doing juice cleanses here, so I did it," says Hawkins, who provides guided juice cleanses for $60 to $75 per day, depending on how many bottles of juice you want.

Hawkins acknowledges that she does juice cleanses herself from time to time, just to reset her body and feel healthier, as does O'Brien. Dietitian Sharma says that cleanses can be a great thing -- depending on their purpose.

"The only thing I don't recommend is using juice as a weight-loss tool," she says. "A lot of people use it as a weight-loss plan, but then you're going to put the weight right back on. It does clean out your system, but you can get the same effect by drinking a glass of juice a couple of days a week. You really don't need to go on a three-day cleansing fast."

Hernandez agrees: "A lot of people are drinking their calories thinking it's a good way to lose weight. But it's just not."

So, should you juice?

Sure, in moderation.

Sharma commends juicing for being an interesting alternative to eating sometimes boring fruits and vegetables, and Hawkins thinks juicing is just the beginning of a healthier revolution in Houston.

"I think there will be more juice bars in Houston in the future," Hawkins says. "In the next five years, people aren't going to be taking a coffee break, they'll be taking a juice break."

Starbucks, you've been warned.

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