Are Smoothies Healthy?

Nutrition and Diet, Recipes

I should start this post off by saying I am SUPER into smoothies right now. I often find with the change in season the foods I crave tend to change too. This time of year I’m tucking away my slow cooker and adding more fresh salads and smoothies to my day. I like to eat what’s in season because the food is often fresher (especially in the summer when we have such great local produce in Manitoba), and is less expensive vs. buying out of season. 

So, is it healthy?

A considerable number of the clients I work with tell me they like to make smoothies for breakfast in the morning. They’re quick, convenient, and easy to sip on in the car on the way to work. I’m often asked about whether or not a smoothie is a healthy option. Because depending on what nutrition camp you belong to, smoothies can be a pretty controversial thing.

Depending on who you talk to, smoothies can either be the healthiest thing you could ever put in your body, or sugar-laden calorie bombs that are slowly killing all of us.

But, like most topics when it comes to nutrition the real answer lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Depending on the ingredients we use and the portion we drink we can wind up with a perfectly nutritious choice. Or one that might be not so ideal. Whether we make our smoothies at home or get them from a store may also impact how nutritionally sound it is. Here are some of the things to consider….

Portion size matters

I once had a client who drank a smoothie for breakfast every morning. He included fruit, milk, a few scoops of protein powder, nut butters, and ground flax. Sounds like decent nutritious breakfast. When I totalled it up, that smoothie ended up being over 800 calories! Considerably more calories that this particular client needed just in his breakfast (If you’re a pro athlete this might be perfectly appropriate, it’s all relative). It’s not that the ingredients in the smoothie were bad, it was just overall too much food. A smoothie half that size would have been a much better option.

Myth: Blending up fruits and vegetables destroys fibre

Nope! This is another nutrition myth that floats around some diet forums. They claim that when you puree the fruit or vegetable, the fibres are broken down by the blender and you’re left with a fibre-less smoothie. Not true! All of the fibre in the fruits and vegetables are left perfectly intact when we consume them, and we get all of the benefits of fibre whether we get them in smoothie form or as whole fruits and vegetables.

There is a small difference in the way we might perceive drinking a smoothie vs eating a meal however. You see, our brains process liquid calories differently than solid ones. The physical act of chewing our food gives us a mental sense of satiety from our meals that drinking just doesn’t provide.

Both liquids and solids give us the same caloric value the difference is really just all in our heads, but it can influence our overall calorie intake during the course of a day.

If you sat down at a table and ate an 800-calorie breakfast you’d probably be pretty full and not need to eat again for quite a few hours. But, if you slowly sip on a big smoothie all morning, it can be really easy to consume 800 calories without being aware of it, especially if a lot of those calories are coming from sugar. You may not really feel like you’ve “eaten” anything despite your intake being pretty large.

To avoid overdoing it, stick to a smaller portion size by measuring out your ingredients and using a smaller cup, and avoid extra added sugars (see my recipes at the bottom for some great balanced smoothie ideas!).

Speaking of Sugar…Are smoothies too high in sugar?

They can be, if we add too much sugar to them! I’ve seen smoothie recipes that call for sweetened flavoured yogurt, fruit juice, and sometimes even honey. If our limit for added sugars is 6tsp/day for women, and 9tsp/day for men, we can easily go over this maximum when combining all of those ingredients.

Added sugars in smoothies are sugars from fruit juice, sweetened yogurts, and honey, syrups, or agave nectar. Natural sugars from fruit or milk don’t count toward this total, but it is still important to be aware of our serving sizes because they still do count as calories.

Not all smoothies are created equal

Some smoothies (particularly the ones we find at fast food restaurants) are little more than slurpees. Take Tim Hortons for example: Their fruit smoothies with greek yogurt contain 0 grams of fibre when you look at the nutrition facts. ZERO F****** GRAMS. What does this mean? That there is ZERO real fruit in that product.

Here’s how I know: A small banana contains about 2 grams of fibre (this information is easily found by looking in the Canadian Nutrient File online database). If for example, their Strawberry Banana Smoothie had a serving of banana in it, there should be at least 2 grams of fibre noted on their nutrition facts.

It’s also interesting to note that a large smoothie contains upwards of 60 grams of sugar, which is 15 tsp. Because there is no real fruit actually used in the smoothie, it’s safe to categorize all of this sugar as “added” meaning it’s providing us with almost triple our limit for daily added sugars.

McDonalds smoothies surprisingly do contain a few grams of fibre, so there is a smidgen of real fruit in those bad boys. Trouble is they also come with a HEAP of sugar as well, even more than Tims (and way more than could ever come naturally from the miniscule amount of fruit they use). 73 grams in a large Pomegranate Blueberry Smoothie with Yogurt, a whopping 18 tsp.

My advice?

Avoid the store-bought smoothies and make your own at home. You know exactly what you’re putting into it, and can be guaranteed that there’s no shady stuff going on. Creating your own smoothies allows you to add more veggies, more protein, and minimize the added sugars.

My tips for creating a smoothie that’s also a balanced meal:

  1. First and foremost, be aware of the portion size. Too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing, even if it’s a good thing like fruits. Whether extra calories come from carbohydrates, fats, or protein too much is simply too much. When creating your smoothie, measure out your ingredients so you don’t wind up with a huge portion.
  2. Choose your carbohydrate sources wisely, and avoid going over the top. A large banana on it’s own might be 2-3 servings of fruit (and up to 300 calories in some of those monster ones!) if we add this to our smoothie PLUS a cup or two of other fruits PLUS fruit juice or sweetened yogurt we might be going overboard. I prefer to skip the flavoured yogurts, and get my sweetness from fruits like mango or pineapple, and a splash of fruit juice.
  3. Always include a source of protein. Protein helps to fill us up and slows down how quickly we digest and absorb the carbohydrates we eat. Including a source of protein in our smoothies keeps us from feeling hungry again an hour after drinking it.
  4. Pass on the pricey extras. Health-food store additives (like powdered greens or vitamin and mineral supplements) are just a waste of money, with no real health benefit. All the nutrients you need to get from your smoothie are in the whole foods you use to create it. Keep it simple!

Try my recipes below for some great balanced smoothies!

Steph’s Simple 4-Ingredient Green Smoothie

High in fibre, great for breakfast or a pre-workout snack

  • 1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves, OR 1 frozen spinach cube
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen fruit, or 1 small banana (in the winter months I often buy frozen fruit blends. My grocery store has one that’s a mix of peaches, mango and strawberries and it’s PERFECT for smoothies!)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened Greek Yogurt
  • 1/4 cup fruit juice, milk, or water (just enough to thin it out to blend)

Add all ingredients to blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!

Steph’s High Protein Recovery Smoothie

Perfect for after a workout!

  • 1 small banana, fresh or frozen
  • 1 cup milk, almond milk, or soy milk
  • 1 scoop chocolate protein powder (whey or vegan)
  • 1 tbsp natural peanut butter
  • A few ice cubes (optional)

Add all ingredients to blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!

Read more about why fruits and vegetables are essential in our diet by

clicking here.

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