What's the Juice on Juice?

Does juice make your kids healthy, or just heavy? One expert explains.

February 9, 2009, 6:28 PM

May 16, 2007 — -- What's more American or wholesome than a glass of juice for breakfast? It's the way millions of people start their day. It's also the way many parents introduce fruit to their children. That may be a problem — or is it?

The issue of juice and kids occasionally rears its naturally sweet head because our kids are getting fatter and fatter, and sweet drinks of all kinds, even the natural ones, are getting attention as possible contributors.

Well, maybe. But before you start tossing fruit juice out the window, let's be clear about this: Obesity is about excess calories -- no matter where they come from.

The body's fat cells don't discriminate. Whether they are coming from deep-fried pork rinds or spinach, eat too much of anything and your body will store it as fat, and that goes for juice as well.

To be sure, juice can be nutritious for us all. Indeed, it can be a major source of several nutrients, including vitamin C, potassium, even vitamin A.

A few are also superb sources of antioxidants. Cranberry, pomegranate and grape juices are all great sources of anti-cancer, heart-healthy antioxidants.

However, as good as some juices are, you can definitely get too much of a good thing.

Since fruit juice is nutritious and considered as "fruit," it tends not to be limited. Parents often think, "It's natural sugar, and it's better than soda."

From a calorie standpoint, juice has about as many calories as most soda, sometimes more. Eight ounces of most fruit juices have about 110-120 calories. The same amount of cola has about 90-110 calories.

Many parents also figure that juice is a good way for children to get the fruit they need. Fruit juices taste good to children, and there is often little resistance to juice from even the fussiest eaters. As a result, it's easy to overconsume juice.

Adding to this equation is the fact that juice is sweet, and we're born with a fondness for sweetness that stays with us for life.

There is actually nothing in juice that you couldn't get from eating the whole fruit. There may even be less in juice than eating the fruit can give you.

Fiber is one example. Most juices have none. Fiber has to include the cell wall that holds in the fruits' liquid, so you can only get the juice when you squeeze the blazes out of the fruit so that the cell wall breaks and releases its juice.

Many people think that making their own juice from fresh fruit is better than the store-bought stuff, or even fresh fruit. They even mix-and-match various fruits to create some kind of super juice combo…orange-mango-grape, anyone?

Well, they can certainly make many more combinations than are out on the market, but more nutritious than fresh fruit? Not really. You see, your gastrointestinal tract is a juicer. It just works more slowly. Those orange segments aren't coming out of you whole, after all.

Often after the juicing process, the remaining fruit pulp just gets thrown out. That's what people are missing from their diets, and it's what they need more of, not the juice.

Another benefit of whole fruit is that it takes longer to eat, and the fiber and bulk help you feel full for longer. It's what turns fresh fruit into a nice snack for kids and adults alike -- and it's also more convenient than having to wash the juicer and all its parts.

If children are picky eaters, limiting sweet drinks is especially wise. Sweets tend to kill an appetite dead. Ask any parent who is feeding a young child: As soon as you offer juice during the meal, it's over.

Overconsumption of juice has even been linked to being underweight and failure-to-thrive in some studies, although other studies have not shown this.

The best advice, however, is to evaluate your child. Any child who is over- or underweight should have a dietary evaluation and the consumption of all sweet beverages should be part of the workup.

Big research studies often look at large populations, but specific cases should be addressed individually. It is sometimes worthwhile to place some healthy limits on all sweetened beverages.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says juice can be a good way for kids to get some of the fruit they need -- but only about half of it. They really set some limits on the amount of juice kids should be drinking:

One thing that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck is seeing kids take juice from a bottle. Not a good idea, especially when kids are old enough to be transitioning off a bottle and onto drinking from a cup.

Bottles are easy for kids to carry around with them, allowing their teeth constant exposure to naturally sweet, acidic liquid throughout the day. This kind of parenting could make a dentist rich. The (AAP) discourages this, and its advice is spot on.

As a final note, most kids aren't overconsuming juice, but there are plenty who are. Parents would do well to remember that no child needs more than the above amount of juice but most kids do need to eat more fresh fruit. If you drink juice, eat an equal amount of whole fruits -- and have a glass of water if you're thirsty.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

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