Are you a fan of healthy smoothies? They have come under some fire recently. Some plant-based experts are all for them, while some warn against them. This causes a lot of confusion in the plant-based community as to whether they should be a part of your healthy diet or not. Today I’m here to cut through the confusion for you. Done right, a smoothie can provide a huge dose of vital nutrients. To keep you on the right path, I’m going to show you how to make healthy smoothies that are tasty and nutrient-dense.
Are Smoothies Healthy?
Well, the answer to this really depends on the ingredients. It’s all about what you put in them. We’ll get to suggested content later. For now, let’s start by going over some of the concerns posed by those who warn against smoothie consumption. Then we can go over some ways you can avoid these issues when building your own healthy smoothie.
One of the main concerns with smoothies is that they can quickly become very calorie-dense, depending on what you add to them. The more you add, the more calories your beverage will contain, making it easy to consume more than you planned. Adding things like nut butter, avocado and protein powder can increase the calorie and fat content drastically.
This is fine if you’re smoothie is meant to replace a meal, but if you’re building a high-calorie smoothie to have between meals, you may be inadvertently causing weight gain. We’ll cover healthy add-in options later in this post.
Similar to the previous point, if you aren’t careful, your smoothie can end up containing a lot more sugar than you realize. To keep the sugar content in check, I would suggest avoiding smoothies made from retail chains. These are made with taste in mind rather than health. As a result, they tend to be very high in sugar.
How do you keep the sugar content down in the homemade version? Avoid using fruit juice or sweetened plant milk as the base liquid. These tend to be very high in sugar. Stick to unsweetened bases so the only sugar present in your smoothie comes directly from the fruit you add.
You’ve probably done this on occasion: Your morning gets hectic and suddenly you have to get going. To save time, you down your smoothie quickly so you can get out the door and on your way. This can be a problem, especially with high-calorie smoothies.
Liquid calories can be consumed a lot faster than we can register them. It takes a while for your stomach to catch up, realize how much you’ve consumed and send the message to your brain that you’re full. To avoid this concern, take your time with your smoothie. Sip it slowly over 20-30 minutes instead of gulping it down quickly. This will give your body time to keep up and let you know when it’s had enough.
Sipping vs Chewing
The act of chewing green leafy vegetables causes them to mix with enzymes in your saliva and produce nitric oxide, which helps dilate and relax the arteries. Now, nitric oxide is also produced through digestion, but it is thought that you miss out on some of it if you don’t thoroughly chew your greens.
The good news is, your body is pretty smart. When you consume nitrates, your body actually pumps some of them back into the salivary glands. This allows them to be mixed with the enzymes in your saliva that break them down and produce nitric oxide.
If you are fighting high blood pressure or heart disease, you may want to chew your greens, to get the most nitric oxide bang for your buck. That being said, most people don’t typically sit down to a big leafy salad for breakfast. So, if drinking a smoothie for breakfast means that you’ll be consuming dark leafy greens at a meal that you wouldn’t normally, then have at it! Just make sure you’re chewing some of those bad boys at some point in your day.
Benefits of Healthy Smoothies
Now that we’ve covered some of the concerns, let’s talk about some of the benefits of smoothies.
Let’s be real here, life gets busy. We’re often rushing around from one task to the next. This can lead people to rely on the drive-thru window for their meals. We all know that this is a less-than-stellar option.
The great thing about healthy smoothies is that you can whip them up in just a few minutes. Dump your ingredients in a blender and its ready in a minute or two. This allows us to have a quick meal that is also bursting with health-promoting nutrients. That’s a huge win.
You can even meal prep your smoothies in advance if you like. Prep your desired ingredients and add them (except the liquid) to a sealable bag or container and store in the fridge or freezer until you’re ready for it. Then, dump the contents of the container and some liquid into the blender and your meal is ready in 1-2 minutes.
You’ll Consume More Fruits and Vegetables
Another great benefit to healthy smoothies is that they allow us to add more fruits and vegetables to our day. For good health, it’s recommended we consume at least 5+ servings of fruit and vegetables in a day. If you have trouble hitting this goal consistently, smoothies can be a huge help.
Depending on the size and contents, a smoothie can easily provide 3 or more servings of fruit and vegetables and all of their accompanying nutrients and antioxidants. They are also an easy way to sneak some extra nutrients into the picky eaters in your family.
Another great benefit of healthy smoothies is that they maximize nutrient absorption. The act of blending fruit and vegetables helps to break down their cell walls. This makes the nutrients they contain more readily absorbed in the body. We know it’s important to eat nutrient-rich foods, but what’s most important is actually absorbing those nutrients so we can reap the benefits.
Smoothies Maintain Fibre
Unlike juices, smoothies actually maintain the fibre of the ingredients you add. This has a few benefits.
- Fibre slows the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. This helps you can avoid that big spike in blood sugar and the inevitable crash afterward.
- Fibre is food for our good gut bacteria. Feed those beneficial gut bugs to keep the bad guys at bay.
- Some phytonutrients (beneficial compounds found in plants) bind to fibre, so when you keep the fibre, you get more phytonutrients as well.
- Fibre also helps with weight maintenance and bowel regularity.
How to Make Healthy Smoothies
Now that we’ve covered some of the benefits and concerns that have been raised about smoothies, let’s go over how to build a great, nutrient-dense powerhouse of a smoothie.
First things first. Let’s consider the portion size. Is this smoothie meant to replace a meal? Or are you just having it as a snack? Decide on this and build accordingly.
If it’s meant as a snack, skip the more filling components, as you’re not going to need them. This way, you won’t end up consuming more calories than you need.
If your healthy smoothie is going to replace a meal, you’ll want to ensure that it is filling enough to satisfy you for a few hours. You can boost a smoothie’s staying power by adding things like rolled oats, silken tofu, beans, avocado or nut butter to your blend.
Choose Your Base
As I mentioned earlier, try to avoid using fruit juice as your base liquid. It’s high in calories and will add a lot of sugar, in a form that will send your blood sugar on a sharp spike. To keep your smoothie from becoming a sugar bomb, opt for unsweetened non-dairy milk, water, or coconut water as your base. If you’re feeling fancy you can even use green or herbal tea as your base. Just be sure to let it cool first.
You can also use a combination of these. I typically use a half and half mixture of water and plant milk so I end up with a nice and creamy smoothie.
Add Some Veggies
If you’re aiming for a healthy smoothie, you should think of it as a salad in a glass. Add some vegetables to increase the nutrient content. Try powering up your smoothie with a big dose of leafy greens. You can choose whichever greens you like. Baby greens and spinach are mildly flavoured, so they make a great place to start. As you get used to adding greens to your smoothies, you can increase the quantity and swap in different types like kale, collards, dandelion greens and more.
You can also add other veggies to your smoothie for some extra nutrition. The sky is the limit here, but some common veggies to add are:
- Sweet potato
- Celery etc.
I recommend aiming for at least one cruciferous vegetable. Cruciferous vegetables contain powerful cancer-fighting compounds. So, whether you’re choosing a cruciferous green leafy like kale, or adding it in the form of cauliflower or cabbage, get them in! Your body will thank you.
Sweeten with Fruit
You don’t need to load it up with refined sugars just to make it drinkable. Instead, choose fruit to add flavour and sweetness to your healthy smoothies. Overripe bananas or dates are very good at adding some sweetness and covering the veggie flavours well. Pineapple or berries are other popular choices to help mask the flavour of the vegetables. You can add just about any fruit to flavour your smoothies the way you like. Whether it’s a tropical vibe you’re going for or a very berry blend, there are tons of options available to you.
It’s important to note that depending on which fruits you add, your smoothie can become rather acidic. If you’re adding citrus fruits, you may want to drink your smoothie through a straw to protect the enamel of your teeth.
Aim to add some antioxidant-rich ingredients to your healthy smoothies. Antioxidants are responsible for neutralizing free radicals in the body. Left unchecked, free radicals cause cell damage that leads to illness and premature aging. Sadly, the standard western diet is sorely lacking in antioxidant content. This is due to the fact that animal products and processed foods contain very little and they make up a large percentage of the calories consumed.
The good news is, the plant kingdom is brimming with these powerful compounds. So, toss some berries, pomegranate seeds, kale, beets or any other antioxidant-rich foods you love into your smoothie and you’ll be boosting the benefits even more.
Tick off Some Boxes
If you’re familiar with Dr. Michael Greger’s work at all, then you’ve probably heard of his Daily Dozen. If you haven’t, the daily dozen is a list of foods to consume daily for optimal health, all backed by scientific research. It’s even laid out in a handy app now, so you can tick off your boxes as you go through your day.
I like to make healthy smoothies that tick off a few of those boxes each day. It’s very easy to toss stuff in the blender that you may have trouble incorporating normally. A few things I always include are ground flax seeds (1 tbsp per person per day), turmeric (1/4 tsp per person per day) and a dash of black pepper to drastically increase the turmeric absorption, by up to 2000%.
Flax meal is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as cancer-fighting lignans. Turmeric contains curcumin, which aside from being a powerful anti-inflammatory, has also been found to have some impressive cancer-fighting benefits.
Now, I’ll warn you here, if you’ve never added turmeric to your smoothie before, it does have a bit of a unique flavour, but you can quickly get used to it. I don’t even notice it in my smoothies anymore.
What About Protein?
If you’re making a smoothie that’s meant to be a full meal, you might be tempted to add some sort of protein powder to it. You can, but I don’t recommend it. Protein powder is a highly processed product. Our bodies are not designed to consume isolated nutrients. They are actually pretty spectacular at breaking down whole food sources and extracting what they need from those instead.
It’s also important to remember that when it comes to nutrition, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, by aiming to isolate key nutrients, you’re missing out on the rest of the beneficial compounds found in the foods they came from.
If you’re looking to add some protein, I suggest you get it from a whole food source instead. You can add things like soft or silken tofu, hemp seeds, nuts or nut butter. You can even toss some beans or rolled oats in there for an added dose of protein and fibre. This will keep you feeling nice and full. Check out this post for more plant-based protein powder alternatives.
Healthy Smoothie Making Tips
Try Frozen – Utilize frozen fruit and vegetables for a budget-friendly smoothie. This will also result in a thicker blend.
Freeze Your Bananas – Frozen banana will give your smoothies a creamy texture, much like a milkshake.
Blend Well – A high powered blender (like a Vitamix or Blendtec) will give the smoothest results. If you don’t have a high-powered blender, you may need to add more liquid and blend longer to get the best results.
Smoothie Bowl – If you’d rather eat your smoothie, use less liquid and more frozen components to get a nice thick blend you can use as a smoothie bowl. You can even freeze liquids in ice cube trays and add a few cubes in place of part of the liquid to help thicken your blend. Think of it as healthy ice cream.
The Bottom Line
Smoothies tend to get a bad rap, but this is really based on some of the sugar-laden versions we tend to see advertised as ‘healthy’. Avoid the fast-food style smoothie and make your own instead. You’re in control so you can make much better decisions as to what you will include.
Adding leafy greens and vegetables can really amp up the nutrients in your healthy smoothie. Avoiding sweetened bases, like fruit juice, can help you keep the sugar level under control. Sweeten your smoothie with whole fruit instead. Now that you know what goes into making a delicious and healthy smoothie, grab your blender and give it a try.
How do you feel about smoothies? Let’s chat in the comments below.
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