My take on: Flax, chia, juice cleanses, green smoothies & juicing
Those of you who follow my blog and listen to my podcasts know that I am not particularly dogmatic about what is “allowed” and “not allowed” on a Paleo/Primal/Real Foods type of diet. My approach is to help you understand how food should work in your body and empower you to choose foods that provide optimal, nutrient-dense fuel for your body.
If you have all your health and fitness goals met and you feel that flax, chia, juice cleanses, green smoothies and/or juicing are adding value to your nutritional approach, I’m not here to tell you they’re going to harm your health – because I don’t believe that they will.
That said, if you are just starting out, have digestive issues, and/or are still tweaking your diet for better results, my short answer is this: leave them out entirely for now.
Flax and Chia
Eating or using flax or chia seeds occasionally if you are not dealing with any digestive issues is probably not any big deal.
I definitely don’t consider them “super foods” or recommend them for regular use as supplements. It can be easy to get caught up in the hype of getting some “anti-inflammatory” Omega-3/alpha linoleic acid (ALA) from flax and chia seeds; however, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited in humans. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA . That means you’d need to consume a ton of plant-based omega-3 rich oils to get the recommended amount of EPA/DHA for humans on a regular basis. To read more about my position on balancing Omega-3/Omega-6 fats, check out this post.
Chia seeds can be fun in things like the a GT’s Kombucha or in an occasional recipe for their gelatinous properties. These seeds can also be called a “pseudo grain” and many people cannot tolerate them without some real digestive upset.
I know that a lot of folks like to use a flax mixture as an egg replacer and, again, I don’t have a problem with that as long as there are no underlying issues you are trying to resolve. Although there are cases where flax is being used therapeutically (under the guidance of a practitioner) for certain conditions, such as estrogen detox (as addressed Charles Poliquin’s post: 10 Ways To Lower Estrogen Toxic Load) that’s not what I am addressing here. As a side note, never heat flax oil. See my free downloadable guide to Fats and Oils for more information.
My overall take:
Flax and chia seeds can be fun in recipes, may be helpful for fiber intake, and useful if you are intolerant to eggs as a binder in some of those recipes. But if you think you’re getting useful omega 3 fatty acids from either of these plant-based sources, think again. They’re more useful for fiber and texture in your food than for any deep nutritional benefits.
Juice Cleanses, Juicing, & Green Smoothies
By now you know how I feel about the fact that we should be chewing and eating food (I also addressed this in FAQ regarding protein powder). That said, although I am NOT a fan of juice cleanses. Green smoothies and juicing really depends on where you are at with your health and body composition goals, how you are consuming them, and what you are putting in them.
Correct or not, the idea behind a “juice cleanse” is to “detoxify” or lose weight. If you are someone that normally eats grains, processed dairy and other refined foods, and you give yourself a break from those, well, you might feel better and lose weight, however, the results are not likely what you think they are. And if you are not fixing your day to day nutrition – the results will be temporary.
You might also feel horrible if you suddenly overburden your detoxification pathways. Charles Poliquin compares the detoxification process to a three-step program to take out the garbage in your house. He states in this article: “The idea is to keep everything balanced. If we want to improve detoxification, the entire process must be supported with adequate nutrient intake. Just as we don’t want the garbage cans overflowing, we also want to be sure all the toxins we’re trying to get rid of are fully removed from our bodies.”
My concern with juice cleanses, is that you unnecessarily deplete yourself of essential nutrients, spike your blood sugar, and due to the calorie deficit – force your body to run on cortisol. Your adrenals take a hit-the last thing you want to do if you are looking to improve your health. Also, amino acids from protein are required in the phase II detoxification pathway, so it makes little sense that a “cleanse” or “detox” could actually do what it is intended without tapping into your muscle tissue.
My overall take:
You don’t need to complete a juice cleanse to detoxify yourself from the ill effects of processed/refined foods – you can do it naturally, 24/7, with the balanced approach of nutrient dense whole food, optimizing digestion, moving, stress reduction, and by reducing the toxins in your environment. If you are seeking a guided program for starting Paleo or maybe you are looking for a reset after over-indulged during a holiday, long-term travel or stress, you can check out my 21-Day Sugar Detox. The program offers a balanced approach to naturally detoxing with real food. You get e-mails, recipes, an extensive, customizable program guide, and lots of other bonus materials.
Green Smoothies & Juicing
Green smoothies and “juicing” are NOT on my list of superfoods and my take on them, like many grey-area foods is: it depends.
The term “Green Smoothie” is confusing.
What makes a smoothie “green”? Does it mean all greens, some greens, and what exactly goes with the greens?
What does “juicing” mean? You will likely get different interpretations depending on who you ask. Does it contain fiber? Fruit? How much?
If you are making them yourself, based on what you put in them – including how many actual green vegetables go into them – I think they are fine for an occasional snack or addition to your regular diet – especially if you are someone that has a hard time getting in enough calories.
I don’t think they should be consumed in place of a real meal, or even as a “supplement” in place of whole vegetables.
Some people believe they help their digestion, others find a green smoothie or a “juicing” drink can be a digestive nightmare. Too many raw greens can be a punch in the gut if your digestion is compromised (including leaky gut, candida, or have other fungal challenges), especially if you have an oxalate sensitivity as Chris Kresser addresses in this podcast. Additionally concerning, is the connection of kidney stones to high oxalate containing foods such as raw spinach, also addressed in Chris’s podcast.
Of course if you are not careful, any smoothie or juice drink, depending on what you are putting in it, can contribute to a big insulin spike, proceeded by a crash – definitely not what you’re looking for when you are trying to optimize your health.
There are also folks who find that the nutrient-punch from green juices (heavy on the vegetables, light on or with almost no fruit) aide in detoxification by supplying the liver with extra sulfur compounds and phytonutrients to carry out detoxification functions. That’s a perfectly legitimate and valid reason to enjoy green juice.
My overall take:
If you are struggling with weight issues, I’d avoid smoothies until you have reached your goal. Assuming your digestion is all good, and you don’t throw too many greens (as in 1-2 handfuls-not 5 servings!) or too much fruit into the blender, you can make some decent smoothies that are green. Don’t forget the FAT – vegetables are better assimilated when ingested with good fats (Chris Kresser does an excellent job pointing a handful of studies that show why fat with veggies is a good idea.)
Green juices should be viewed as supplemental in the “in addition to” way with regards to your over all diet, not an “instead of” way as some folks may attempt to avoid whole vegetables.
Some ingredients that are great to combine for a “modified” green smoothie” or “juicing” drink include:
- organic coconut milk
- coconut water (no sugar added)
- fresh or frozen fruit – bananas, berries, mango, pineapple, lemon
- egg yolks – from organic pastured eggs only (for calories and fat, not ideal for athletes post-workout refueling but may be helpful for pre-workout or adding calories for adding mass)
- organic almond butter or other nut butter (for calories and fat, not ideal for athletes post-workout refueling but may be helpful for pre-workout or adding calories for adding mass)
- handful or 2 of greens
For green juice, my favorite ingredients are:
- kale, spinach, or other dark green leafy vegetables like collards (for nutrient-density)
- cucumber (for the water content and great, fresh flavor)
- celery (for the water content and fresh flavor)
- green apple (for sweetness, just about 1/4 of an apple per serving is plenty – or even less)
- lemon juice (I absolutely love the flavor and tartness, but sour foods are are also supportive of the liver)
- beets (in small amounts, they add sweetness and great nutrient density)
- carrots (in small amounts, they add sweetness and great nutrient density)
Here’s a Green Monster Smoothie recipe developed by Our Full Plate and a yummy looking Creamy Green Apple Smoothie recipe by PaleOMG – both of which are 21-Day Sugar Detox compliant – enjoy (sporadically)!
And, check out another great take from Grass Fed Girl, Nutrition Consultant Caitlin Weeks, on why juicing may not be so healthy.
Sources:  Kresser, Chris. “Why Fish Stomps Flax as a Source of Omega-3.” Chris Kresser RSS. Chris Kresser, 5 May 2010. Web. 30 June 2013.