Food vs. Juice vs. Vitamins: Who Wins?

So there you sit, feeling empty, tired, and weak after a long weekend filled with too little sleep and too much fried food, sugar, and alcohol. Your body is craving some sort of legitimate nutrition. You have three options on the table: an orange, a glass of orange juice, and a vitamin C pill. Which is best for you? What are the relative benefits of each? Is taking a vitamin just as healthy as eating whole fruit? What about juice, is it as good for you as a piece of fruit? Not only are multivitamins and supplements ubiquitous in today’s society, but the whole juicing craze has gone mainstream too. People are now putting every conceivable edible anything into their blenders, pressing “puree,” and drinking whatever concoction results in 30 seconds. And then bragging to you at work, “Dude, my smoothie today, I put 8 bananas, 4 oranges, a bushel of spinach, 37 strawberries, a tub of yogurt, and a whole pineapple. So delicious, bro. And healthy too.” But is it healthy?

Let’s start with vitamin supplements. Certainly there’s nothing wrong or inherently unhealthy about them. After all, they are just vitamins packaged tightly and conveniently into a little pill or capsule. They typically contain no sugar, fat, or protein. The vitamin molecules themselves are usually identical to what you’d find in whole foods. And especially when it comes to water-soluble vitamins (everything except vitamins A, D, and E), you run little risk of toxicity or overexposure. Take too much, and your body will store what it needs and excrete the rest. At worst, your urine will be very yellow, rich in vitamins, and expensive. If one lacks a particular nutrient or set of nutrients in the diet, vitamins and multivitamins are especially effective at delivering proper nutrition. The major drawback would be that you’re only getting the vitamins and not the other nutrients like fiber and phytochemicals, compounds in plants that help fight cancer and heart disease and lead to better overall health.

And what about juice? First, we must make sure it’s 100% juice and not some sort of juice cocktail that contains mostly added sugar. But if we are talking 100% juice, then let’s take the example of orange juice. It will contain vitamin C just like a supplement, but with the juice you’re also getting other vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins and at least some beneficial phytochemicals. When it comes to the juicing of a whole fruit basket, whole foods win the battle here too. Juicing a bunch of whole fruits does allow you to keep the fiber and phytochemicals, but it has its pitfalls too. For one, throwing all that stuff in the blender does a lot of the work for your body. One of your stomach’s main purposes is to act as a blender and churn up everything in it into a more or less homogenous puree. This requires energy in the form of calories. Breaking down all the fiber and plant material in whole fruits not only burns calories, it slows down digestion. This minimizes blood sugar spikes and helps keep you full for longer. Throwing things in a blender does this part of the body’s work for it. And consider this as well: without the help of a blender, would you really be able to eat all those whole fruits and veggies you’re throwing in there at once? Probably not. Consider sugar content as well. A whole orange does contain less sugar than a glass of orange juice, but throwing a random mix of 35 fruits and veggies into a blender will be much higher in sugar than a glass of juice or a piece of fresh fruit. And yeah, it is sugar from fruit, but that much sugar at once is still probably too much. Huge doses of sugar are hard on your body and lead to blood sugar spikes and valleys, something you always want to avoid.

And that brings us to whole foods, the undisputed overall winner of the contest of food vs. juice vs. pills. With a whole fruit, let’s say an orange in this case, you get everything that a vitamin or glass of juice would have, plus so much more. Relative to a vitamin, you still get a good dose of vitamin C, but also all the phytochemicals and fiber that make fresh, whole fruit so incredibly nutritious. Also look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancestors have been consuming whole fruits for tens of thousands of years. That is how we have evolved to get those nutrients into our system. Only in the last 50 or so years have we been able to get those nutrients from vitamins instead. And it’s probably the case that our bodies are able to extract more nutrition from a whole fruit because we’re evolutionarily used to getting our nutrients in the exact cocktail found in a whole fruit, not a manmade pill or a glass of processed juice. And often, fruits and veggies have multiple nutrients that have synergistic effects, meaning they work better and more nutritionally in unison than when taken by themselves.

In conclusion, a good overall rule of thumb when deciding if a food is healthy or not is to consider how far it is from its naturally occurring form. Whole oranges grow on trees right from the ground. You’re not going to find an orchard of candy bar-growing trees or a field of donuts. So know that fresh, whole fruits are going to be your best bet for overall nutrition. Mixed smoothies and fruit juices are good too, but beware of too much sugar and the pitfalls of eating pureed foods. And vitamin supplements are healthy too, particularly if you’re lacking specific nutrients in your diet. To conclude mathematically (> = greater than): WHOLE FRUIT  > JUICE  > PILLS.

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube

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