How to make a healthy smoothie, not a calorie-packed milkshake

As the dog days of summer set in, so does the desire to consume cold beverages throughout the day.

For many people, smoothies are a go-to option for breakfast in the summer. They are quick, portable and just the right temperature as we continue to tally up the 100 degree days here in Austin.

But are they a healthy option? It depends.

Smoothies can quickly become a sugar trap with the caloric equivalent of a milkshake, but when done right, they can be convenient vehicle for getting a variety of fruits and vegetables into your day.

When planning any meal, it is important to include carbohydrates, protein and fat. The same mentality should be applied to smoothies. Carbohydrates provide us with glucose, our body’s main fuel source. Protein helps us build muscles and repair cells, but it also helps us feel full longer. Fat not only takes longer to digest (causing you to feel full longer, as well), but it also helps our bodies absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, C and K) we are getting from the fruits and vegetables we consume.

Using these tips on building a healthier smoothie can make smoothies a great option for a breakfast or snack on the go. If digestion is a problem or you have problems chewing, smoothies can also provide a valuable source of nutrition. And a green smoothie can easily be turned into an “Incredible Hulk” smoothie, which can draw children into loving their greens.

Try these simple ideas the next time you pull out the blender:

Choose fruit that has lower sugar content.

Fruit is the main carbohydrate source in smoothies, providing fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Most berries, such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, are low in sugar. So are grapefruit, guava and avocado. (Yep, avocado is a fruit!)

Bananas are often used in smoothies to make them thicker, but one medium banana provides 14 grams of sugar. Try using half a frozen banana and filling the rest with fruit with lower sugar content.

One way to save money on frozen fruit is to freeze it yourself. When I see a sale on fruit such as strawberries, I buy extra, rinse them, freeze them on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan, and then throw them all on a freezer bag. Freezing the fruit before putting it in a freezer bag will help you avoid that dreaded ball of frozen fruit that is impossible to separate.

You can do this with bananas that have become just a little too ripe for eating by themselves, but remember to cut them in half before freezing so you can cut down on the total amount of bananas — and sugar — in your breakfast.

Include protein and fats.

Protein and fat slow down digestion and thus help you stay fuller longer. Digesting food slower can also help prevent blood sugar spikes. Using a liquid base with protein, such as milk or soy milk, is a great way to make sure you are getting protein in your smoothie, as well as calcium.

An important piece of info about protein in drinks: Other liquids used in smoothies such as almond milk and coconut milk generally do not contain protein. If you use those, make sure you are getting protein from another source such as plain yogurt or nut butters.

One of my favorite ways to get healthy fats in a smoothie is by using avocado. A little will go a long way, too. Avocados contain fiber and are high in vitamins and minerals such as B-vitamins, vitamin K, potassium, copper, vitamin E and vitamin C. Next time you want to add creaminess to your smoothie, try adding 1/3 of a medium avocado. You will not regret it!

Don’t forget your greens.

A few handfuls of spinach, kale or Swiss chard will up the nutrient profile of your smoothie without negatively impacting the taste. Plus, you are getting the benefits of less sugar and lots of antioxidants, fiber and other essential nutrients.

Why stop with green vegetables? Try adding shredded carrots like in our carrot cake smoothie recipe, or even pumpkin or butternut squash puree.

Sweeten wisely.

It does not make much sense to choose low-sugar fruits and then dump and spoonful of honey or sugar into your smoothie. Try adding spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, or a dash of vanilla extract.

One whole foods approach to sweetening your smoothie is by adding dates. Three dates (the amount in our carrot cake smoothie recipe) provide about 11 percent of your daily needs for potassium (a nutrient lacking in many Americans’ diets), about 11 percent of the recommended daily amount of iron and about 15 percent of your daily fiber needs. Dates are also high in sugar and calories, so enjoy them in moderation.

Green Avocado

1 banana

1/2 cup frozen mango

1/2 avocado

1 cup spinach

1 1/4 cup liquid, such as soy milk

1/2 tsp. vanilla

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add more liquid, if needed, to thin. Serve immediately.

— Mary Agnew

Spinach Smoothie

1 banana

1 cup frozen mixed berries

1 Tbsp. flaxseed meal

1 Tbsp. peanut butter

1/2 cup liquid, such as coconut water

2 cups spinach

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add more liquid, if needed, to thin. Serve immediately.

— Mary Agnew

Strawberry Banana Oatmeal

1/2 cup oats

1 1/4 cup liquid

1/2 cup frozen strawberries

1 frozen banana

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup orange juice

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add more liquid, if needed, to thin. Serve immediately.

— Mary Agnew

Carrot Cake Smoothie

3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk

1/4 cup nonfat Greek yogurt

3 dates

3 carrots, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/2 frozen banana

1/4 cup walnuts

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of nutmeg

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add more almond milk as needed to thin. Serve immediately.

— Adapted from a recipe by Taste, Love and Nourish

Ask a Dietitian: Why don’t I stay full after drinking a smoothie?

I must admit: I rarely consume smoothies. Not because I think they are unhealthy, but I find that I am rarely satisfied replacing a meal with a smoothie, and no one wants to get hungry within an hour or two of breakfast.

This seemed puzzling to me, since I knew that smoothies, unlike juice, contain the whole fruit or vegetable and thus the fiber, and fiber is supposed to keep you fuller longer. There are a couple of explanations for this.

There is evidence that chewing food promotes satiety by influencing appetite, intake and hormone release. This might be linked to the role of cephalic phase responses to food. Cephalic, by definition, relates to the head, or in the case of digestion, the brain. Seeing, smelling or tasting food stimulates the brain to tell the stomach to start preparing for digestion by releasing various digestion enzymes.

Liquid foods such as smoothies and foods that can be eaten quickly can undermine our body’s capacity to regulate food intake at healthy levels. They provide insufficient sensory signaling to inform the brain and the gastro-intestinal tract about the inflow of nutrients. Therefore, they have a low satiating capacity, which in turn may lead to excess energy intake.

There is also evidence that blending up fruits and vegetables disrupts the fiber of the food, which in turn can impact the satiety value of that food. Disrupting the fiber exposes more of the surface area of the food, and that allows the body to absorb it more quickly.

When a food is whole, or even chopped, we have to invest more in the process of eating by chewing, an important part of the digestive and satiety process. One study compared the calorie intake at a meal following the consumption of either nothing, an apple, applesauce, apple juice (with fiber added) or apple juice (no fiber added).

Though the apple, applesauce and apple juice with fiber all had the same amount of fiber, there was a clear (and significant) difference in the effect of these three forms of apple on satiety and caloric intake.

  • The whole apple decreased calorie intake by 15 percent in the meal that followed
  • The apple sauce decreased caloric intake by 6 percent in the meal that followed
  • The apple juice with fiber decreased calorie intake by 1 percent in the meal that followed.
  • The plain apple juice actually increased total caloric intake by 3 percent.

The takeaway is that there is a clear difference between satiety delivered by whole fruit and foods in contrast to the same foods blended, where the fiber is disrupted. This might explain why a smoothie for breakfast doesn’t stay with me nearly as long as my go-to overnight oats with strawberries on top.

Does this mean that you should never have a smoothie, or that they are “bad” for you? No. I believe that foods you love can be incorporated into a healthy diet, even cheeseburgers.

By choosing your fruits wisely, skipping the fruit juice and adding protein, plant milks and good fats, you can make healthy smoothies that are just as tasty and satisfying as the sugary, high-calorie ones.

— Mary Agnew, Central Texas Food Bank

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