Strawberry and banana. Kale, avocado and cucumber. Smoothies come in all flavours and colours and often include yoghurt, ice cream and supplements. But are smoothies healthy? As with many things in nutrition, it depends.
It’s not clear how many people have smoothies on a regular basis, but the popularity has certainly increased with smoothie bars and other outlets popping up in shopping malls and food trucks. Adding to the excitement is the many organizations and people touting smoothies as a great way to get in your fruits and vegetables.
Most smoothie recipes call for 1-2 cups of solid food blended at high-speed. As a result, they’re generally thick drinks, and people commonly add some form of liquid such as water to fruit juices to milk to milk-alternatives. Essentially, this allows you to drink your fruits and vegetables instead of eating them.
Juice: The Early Smoothie?
While very little research has been done on smoothies, a lot has been done on fruit juices. While some may argue juices aren’t smoothies, fruit juices had similar health claims of being a great way to get your fruit. In the past, and for some countries currently, juices have been included in dietary guidelines as equivalent to a serving of fruit.
As we’ve come to realize fruit juices have the same amount of sugar as pop. And without any of the fibre, juice is essentially refined sugar (pulp in juice doesn’t count). In addition, many of the nutrients found in whole fruits are absent in juices. And when it comes to fruit drinks and punches, the sugar content rises.
Refined sugar can affect your health in a number of ways. Without fibre, juices give you a similar amount of calories as a whole fruit but won’t make you feel as full. The sugar is rapidly absorbed in the gut, resulting in a greater release of insulin making you feel hungry soon after. Over time, this may result in modest weight gain and even increase your chances of getting diabetes and early death.
Are Smoothies Healthy?
Of course smoothies aren’t quite the same as juices because you’re taking the whole food and blending it up. As a result, you’re getting the fibre, they’re thicker to drink and they give you a greater feeling of fullness in your stomach than juice. But blending up fruit and vegetables is still affects the beneficial role fibre has in your body.
Besides adding bulk to food and making you feel more physically full, fibre helps with digestion. High fibre diets are also associated with lower risk for certain cancers and improved blood sugar levels. While it’s not clear what the role of blending food on long-term health may have, it seems that the insulin response to smoothies is between that of juice and whole fruit. And if you have diabetes, this can be a concern.
By blending fruits, you’re essentially taking out the step of chewing and digesting. While this may seem like a tedious job, our bodies have evolved to do this over thousands of years. As a result it takes time for our brain to register when we’re full. You can drain a smoothie into your stomach much faster than your brain can tell you to stop because you’re full.
And don’t be fooled by the health halo effect of smoothies either. While they’re packed with nutrients, because they’re not as filling, one may be tempted to eat more. It’s far easier to drink your calories than eat them. For some people, this can lead to taking in extra calories and possible weight gain.
For a simple test, take the ingredients of your favourite smoothie and eat them without blending. Of course it will take more time to eat compared to the smoothie and you’ll most likely feel full with the whole foods. Not surprising, people who ate a whole apple were less hungry afterwards compare to eating apple puree.
Making a Healthy Smoothie
Many people turn to smoothies as a convenient way to get in extra servings of fruits and vegetables. This is obviously better than not having any fruits or vegetables, but that convenience may come at a cost later on.
For the healthiest smoothies, make them at home so you’re in control of what goes in them. Foods we prepare at home are generally healthier than at restaurants, and smoothies are no different. Some smoothie bars add in syrups and flavouring to their drinks. Limit fruit to about one cup (before blended) and add in vegetables if you want more. Also don’t use juice, water is best as it thins the smoothie out without adding calories. Make sure, also to add in healthy fats and protein to slow digestion and help fill you up.
Whether a smoothie is healthy largely depends on what goes in it. But as with any type of food, too much of a good thing isn’t always better. If you feel hungry soon after your smoothie, consider having some whole foods the next time you have a smoothie. Or just eating the ingredients without blending.
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