How Healthy Is Your Smoothie? by Cari Culp, RD

With warmer days ahead, many people will turn to a smoothie as a nutrient rich, refreshing replacement to a meal. But is it really a good choice? It certainly can be with a little planning but if you are drinking 16 oz of puréed fruit and juice that is not necessarily a good thing. What you have is a cup full of liquid sugar that is easily 400 or more calories, as much as a meal, with no protein to keep you full and prevent the blood sugar roller coaster that causes you to crash a short while after drinking it. Let’s say you add 1/2 cup of vanilla yogurt to that. You have added a little protein but increased the sugar by about 15 grams or more, leaving you with a meal or snack that consists primarily of sugar. Now don’t get me wrong, I will never tell you that eating fruit is a bad thing, but it is all about the amount we eat and it just so happens that the sugar and calories can add up quickly when making a smoothie.
If you opt for a smoothie from one of the typical smoothie chains, these are often made with sugar-sweetened yogurt, juice and even ice cream or sugar-sweetened fruit purées instead of whole fruit. Even the lower calorie smoothies at these shops can provide double the 45-60 grams of carbohydrate most people require at a meal. Even if you opt for non-calorie sweetener or no sweetener added, you can still easily get between 35 and 100 grams of carbohydrate per smoothie. Now for a meal, 35 grams of carbohydrate isn’t so bad but for a snack we need to be aiming for closer to 20 grams.
So to help you build a better smoothie, I’d like to share the following fundamental smoothie principles to follow, which will ensure you get the proper balance of nutrition in a portable meal that will keep you going for hours.
1. Start with veggies: greens, beets, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage… there are so many smoothie combinations! So play with the ingredients to see what works for you or if you want to keep it simple, frozen chopped spinach always does the trick with little to no flavor! Most people find it difficult to get the recommended servings of veggies each day and this is a great way to help!
2. Be mindful of the amount of fruit you use: I like berries because they are lower in sugar and calories so I typically add 1 cup. Then add half a cup of another fruit you like – banana, apples, pears, peaches, mango… anything goes! I like to use frozen fruit because it has a longer shelf life and makes the smoothie icy without having to use ice.
3. Use a liquid that works for you not against you: low fat milk, unsweetened nut milk, water and coconut water (less than 50 calories per cup) are all excellent choices that provide hydration, vitamins, minerals and electrolytes without all the sugar and extra calories in juice.
4. Don’t forget the protein: Nuts, seeds (chia, hemp, flax, sunflower, pumpkin), nut butter, peanut butter powder, low fat plain Greek yogurt or a good quality protein powder are all great options. Whether your smoothie serves as a meal or a snack, it is important to add protein unless you are having some on the side. Adding protein is essential to promote satiety and keep your blood sugar stable to prevent spikes and crashes. Additionally, the healthy fat in most of these protein sources will also work to do the same and help your body absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K from your smoothie.
5. Add more flavor with herbs, spices and extracts: cinnamon, ginger, mint, turmeric, nutmeg, cacao powder and extracts like vanilla and coconut make things interesting and provide beneficial phytonutrients that fight inflammation and chronic disease. Experiment to find the combination that works for you. Certain combinations may not always satisfy your palette but give it some time and you will develop your favorites! There are lots of smoothie recipe websites to help give you ideas like greenblender.com. Use resources like this then tweak the recipes to ensure your smoothie is made up of these basic principles and you will have a winner!
So here’s to another way to get those fruits and veggies and cool off on hot days! Until next time…     -Cari

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