By Lauren M Koch, RDN
Are your smoothie bowls as healthy as you think they are?
I hate to break it to you (seriously, I do), but maybe not. This is one of those foods that has been blessed with a “health halo” through the work of vigorous marketing and social media health ‘experts’. But the reality is, smoothies (and all of those related cool treats like smoothie bowls, breakfast bowls, acai bowls etc.) can carry a steep price in calories and sugar content. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you fire up the old blender, so you can get all the goods without the guilt.
Yes, you will often catch me encouraging quality over quantity when it comes to food & nutrition. And, I stick by that sentiment.
But as with anything, there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is when it comes to consuming liquids. The issue with liquids is that they tend to be far less satisfying than their solid counterparts. They are digested and exit the stomach more rapidly. So we feel hungry sooner after liquid meal. But this isn’t even the biggest concern. Speedy digestion can be especially problematic for a person with diabetes, for example. Who would see a quicker (and bigger) jump in their blood glucose after consuming a fruit smoothie, versus the whole fruit itself.
So what to do? A good rule of thumb is to put no more into a smoothie than you would eat in a typical serving of whole foods. So, if you would generally use a tablespoon of nut butter on your toast, only add a tablespoon to your smoothie. If you would ordinarily add 1/3c of berries to your oatmeal, add only 1/3c to your smoothie. And so on. You get it, right?
One area that my clients tend to go overboard is with how much fruit they add. Try and limit the total amount of fruit you include to one serving (roughly 1 cup, or 1 piece of medium fruit- i.e. the size of a baseball). To add multiple types of fruit, simply reduce the amounts of each to keep to one serving total. An entire banana, a cup of berries, plus fruit juice is too much.
Make it Stick
Speaking of speedy digestion. Guess what part of our meals digests the fastest? The carbohydrates. In other words, all that fruit you’re adding.
To help increase how long you feel satisfied, make sure to add foods that stick. Proteins, healthy fats, and fiber to be specific. These add bulk to a meal, and take far longer to be processed in our guts. All in all, leading to greater satisfaction.
Good protein choices are plain greek yogurt (so as not to add any more extra sugar), kefir, powdered peanut, legumes like nut butters or seeds, or traditional powdered protein supplements like collagen or whey.
Good healthy fats to consider are avocado (extra creamy factor here too!), nuts or seeds like flax, chia seeds, or nut butters, or even a bit of coconut.
Nuts and seeds like those mentioned above are excellent fiber sources. Other options to consider adding are dry oatmeal, or other cereal grains like quinoa or wheat germ.
Get Those Greens
It’s difficult some days to get all those servings of vegetables in (or so I’ve heard?). But more matters. So start your day off strong by adding a few to your morning routine.
Vegetables are nutritionally similar to fruits in that they contain tons of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and gut-happy prebiotics. BUT. They don’t contain near the amount of sugar, or calories. So load up, and boost the nutrition in your smoothie without boosting the calories.
This is also a great way to branch out, and get a few extra color families of vegetables into your rotation. Some green vegetables to try include leafy greens like spinach, chard, kale, or dandeloin. Some yellow/orange options include tender cooked winter squash (defrosting frozen chunks works very well!), carrots, or yams. Good red choices include beets (my personal fav!), or red chard.
Keep in mind that you absolutely do not need to use fresh produce in your smoothies. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious (if not more so), and way more convenient. I always have a good assortment of different options at the ready in my freezer, ready to be tossed into meals. Just so you see that I’m not exaggerating, this is an actual photo of my freezer!
I also love that you can find frozen produce that is not in season for a reasonable price. Like right now (November in the northeast US) frozen berries are the way to go. PLUS, you get a lot more time to use it. And any busy, yet well-intentioned fresh produce buyers know the frustration of tossing out spoiled produce.
Keep the Base Healthy
It is important to choose a healthy liquid to blend with. Water, nut milks, or kefir tend to be my favorites. They add a bit of nutrition, without much in the way of calories (with the exception of the kefir). Using something like fruit juice, for example, will contribute unnecessary calories and sugar. I only use a small amount of liquid, just to get things moving, in the blender. All the fluid released from the fruits and vegetables is often enough from there.
And, if you like your smoothies thick and creamy like I do, blend in a few ice cubes once you’ve got the rest of it thoroughly blended. Like a dessert!
Yes, leaning on a smoothie to get some high-value nutrition can definitely be a good idea. But be sure to limit high sugar items like fruit, sweetened beverages, sweetened yogurts, or extras like honey or maple syrup. Be sure to add some high-quality protein, fats, and fiber to keep you satisfied for longer. Boost your daily veggie intake by adding a few colorful servings. And make sure to avoid extra unnecessary sugar and calories by making a wise choice for your liquid.
All photos my own, except:
Almond butter: Photo by Dan Gold
Green Smoothie: Photo by Michał Grosicki