Smoothies can be a great way to add healthful calories to your diet. But there are a few pitfalls to be wary of, and a number of simple ways you can boost your smoothie nutrition. Let me share with you some uncommon smoothie sense.
For any of you that follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I am a huge fan of smoothies. I find them incredibly useful for adding additional calories and sources of food that I would otherwise struggle to include in my diet. All that said, first I’m going to make a statement that I hope isn’t too controversial for any of you:
FOOD > SMOOTHIES > JUICES
That’s right. Eating your food is better than blending your food, which is better than juicing … your food. The why of eating whole food is mostly common sense, but it largely comes down to digestion and how the structures in food are changed by the blending process.
Take apples for example. One such study in the ’70s sought to evaluate the differences between consuming apples whole, blended and juiced, and showed a number of interesting things on blood sugar and our insulin response:
- Eating whole apples
- spiked blood sugar at 30 minutes, but returned to normal levels at 60 minutes
- Insulin levels also spiked but returned to normal levels
- Eating pureed or juiced apples
- spiked blood sugar to the same level as eating whole apples, but returned to below fasting levels for at least a couple of hours [hypoglycemia]
- Insulin levels also spiked considerably more (double in some cases) after consuming either the pureed or juiced apples, regardless of how quickly or slowly the puree or juice was consumed
This infers that removing the fiber from the apple, or even just breaking up the physical structure of the fiber, contributes significantly to disrupting the body’s normal mechanisms that help regulate blood sugar and insulin after drinking it, as compared to eating the fruit whole.
Not all fruits are created equal
Not all fruits are created equal in this regard. For example, some fruits can have a positive effect on our blood sugars, regardless of whether they are consumed whole or in smoothie form. And bananas show a pretty consistent effect on blood sugar and insulin response (whether they are consumed whole or in pureed form), and may actually improve blood sugars over time.
Berries have been shown to contain unique phytonutrients that actually help regulate blood sugars, reducing and even eliminating the post-consumption hypoglycemic “dip”. Just six weeks of blueberry smoothie intake has been shown to improve whole-body insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant men and women.
Even mangos can purportedly slow sugar absorption through the intestinal wall, likely due to a phytonutrient called mangiferin.
But should your smoothie be all fruit?
In short, no.
A smoothie that is all fruit–regardless of how nutritious that fruit may be–is still a lot of simple sugar. And too much sugar in a single meal is far short of ideal. So how do we make a balanced smoothie? What else should we be putting in there?
Beyond the fruit, a great smoothie has the following characteristics:
- A protein source
- A fat source
- Vegetables as the foundation
- Health-promoting foods
A protein source
Protein is important for repairing the muscle damage that occurs from our training. It’s also muscle-sparring when training and recovering in a hypocaloric state, and provides a relatively large thermic effect (TEF) that may aid in reducing body fat. I’ve also noticed that many of my clients struggle to get adequate protein in their diets.
This is why smoothies represent an excellent opportunity to get more protein into our diets, all while further blunting the spike in blood sugars from all the fruit.
As a vegan, I like to use a plant-based protein powder, adding 1-2 scoops (25-50g) depending on whether I am consuming it alone or sharing with my wife.
My protein of choice for the last few years has been the pea protein isolate from True Nutrition. It’s a high quality, no-frills protein powder, and the French Vanilla flavor is the absolute bomb. At 25g of protein per scoop, it has only 1g fat, and 1g of carbs – all of which are fiber. Oh, and did you know that pea protein isolate has an excellent PDCAAS score of 0.89! Use my discount code “USPN” to get 5% off your order if you fancy giving it a try.
A fat source
There’s a number of reasons we want to add a fat source to our smoothies, including improved appetite control through increased in satiety. But the main reason we want fats in our smoothie is to increase our absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients.
Nuts and seeds (or nut/seed butters) are a great source of healthy fat and an added punch of extra protein. They can also give your smoothie a nice, creamy texture and help reduce the separation of the fiber and pulp. My personal favorite fat source for smoothies is flax seeds or hemp hearts. And as an added bonus, just one spoon of flax a day can lower cholesterol by 12-15%!
One other point of note: If you’re going to use flax in your smoothie, unless you have a Vitamix that will pulverize the whole seeds, you’ll want to use ground flaxseed meal. And if you’re grinding your own flax seeds, be sure to keep the ground product refrigerated.
Vegetables as the foundation
In reality, just about anything goes here. But in most cases, you’ll want to start with one of the leafy greens like kale, spinach, beet greens or arugula (rocket).
- Kale supplies your body with beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium and fiber. It’s also full of phytonutrients and antioxidants.
- Spinach lowers blood pressure, fights cancer, improves vision and heart health, boosts immunity and energy, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. It’s also rich in potassium, protein, calcium, iron, niacin and vitamins A, C, B, C and B-12.
- Beet greens are rich in vitamin A, C and K, and support healthy skin, blood, and bones. They also promote heart and eye health and contain the essential minerals calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, and manganese.
- Arugula is peppery to the taste, rich in the cancer-fighting antioxidant chlorophyll and contains vitamins A, C and K, B vitamins and calcium. It also boosts your immune system and brain function.
But you really can blend just about anything, customizing your smoothie vegetables to meet your nutritional goals. Carrots add delicate sweetness and are loaded with beta-carotene, which our body converts into vitamin A. Celery is another great one to add to your smoothies, containing beneficial antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. Beets are very high in dietary nitrates, which can enhance athletic performance and increase blood flow.
It seems kinda silly calling out health promoting foods when fruits and vegetables are clearly so healthy! But I specifically wanted to call-out a couple of additions.
The first is fresh turmeric root.
Turmeric has long been used for its digestive, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Studies are ongoing, but the list of purported benefits include easing of indigestion and heartburn, preventing heart problems and strokes, cancer prevention and management and regulating blood sugar in people with diabetes.
The second is fresh ginger root.
Fresh ginger root is spicy and peppery in flavor, with lots of medicinal properties, and is used all over the world in culinary and clinical applications. In addition to stimulating digestion, fresh ginger can lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar and positively impact cholesterol levels.
The uncommon sense super smoothie
So let’s bring this all together and tell you how to make the Uncommon Sense Super Smoothie! I generally have one every day, usually after my morning workout.
It’s loosely based on the Mayo Clinic’s whole food green smoothie, with some added protein, flax, tumeric and ginger root. I also replace the lemon juice with a wedge of lemon, including the rind, as there are a number of additional phytonutrients that can only be found in the peel and seeds of some fruits.
I’ve listed the ingredients below in the order that you’ll want to add them to your blender. Also note that I use a Vitamix, so you may have to adjust your quantities and/or ingredient selection to take account of your blenders capabilities.
- 1 cup (250ml) cold water
- 1 scoop protein
- 1 heaping tablespoon of flax seeds (or ground flax)
- 1 large handful (~2 cups) of kale or spinach
- 1 banana
- 1 wedge of lemon
- 1/2 cup frozen strawberries
- 1/2 cup frozen mixed blackberries or blueberries
- 1 nub* fresh turmeric root
- 1 nub* fresh ginger root
- 6 turns of fresh ground black pepper
- Ice to suit
*approximately the size of the end of your little finger
I blend my smoothie using the Vitamix smoothie setting. It starts the blender off slowly to progressively pull the food down into the blades. The frozen fruit and/or ice comes down last, just as the blades are nearing maximum speed. Overall, the blending lasts for around 60 seconds.
Protect that smile
Did you know that smoothies can soften your tooth enamel? I think I read somewhere that a tooth dropped in a fruit smoothie softens at about the same rate as a tooth dropped in full-sugar Coke!
But fear not, here’s three tips to keep you smiling after ingesting all those gains:
- Drink your smoothie through a large-diameter, reusable straw! This helps the acids to bypass your teeth significantly.
- Rinse your mouth with clear water during and after drinking your smoothie. The water can reduce the acidity in your mouth by as much as 40%.
- Wait at least one hour before brushing your teeth after drinking your smoothie. The enamel is soft and brushing can erode the enamel before it’s had chance to re-harden.