Dear Lifehacker, I love smoothies and figure they're pretty healthy. After all, they're mostly fruit, sometimes even with some leafy greens and protein. But I have friends who won't touch the stuff, saying smoothies have so much sugar they're basically confectionery. What's the deal? Aren't smoothies healthy? Thanks, Fruit Fan
Dear Fruit Fan,
Smoothies have an overblown reputation as a "healthy" food, but they aren't all bad either. There are ways to improve their nutritional value while cutting some of the sugar, especially if you make them yourself. But for most standard-issue smoothies, I tend to side with your friends: sugar content is often at "no better than a Coke" levels.
Homemade smoothies don't necessarily fare better: the recipes in Prevention's slideshow of "20 Super-Healthy Smoothies" average 28 grams of sugar per serving, and the number would probably be higher if their serving sizes were more realistic.
There are, of course, worse things you can drink. A Coke doesn't have any meaningful amount of vitamins or fibre, and neither do flavoured lattes, which generally have the same amount of sugar as their smoothie counterparts. Smoothies sometimes have a decent amount of protein, which can be another point in their favour. This varies widely, though. If you're hoping for protein, don't guess; check the nutrition information for your favourite brand and flavour. (If you're making your own, of course, check the label rather than assuming one scoop is the perfect amount; some powders have more protein than others.)
Ultimately the decision on whether something is "healthy" comes down to whether it helps you meet the goals you've set for yourself. If you're avoiding sugar (which I would argue helps with many goals, including weight loss and staving off diabetes), you're probably best steering clear of store-bought smoothies, and being more conscious of what you're putting in the ones you make at home.
How To Make Healthier Smoothies
Before we start talking smoothie recipes, a little reality check is in order: If you want fruit in your diet, it's OK to just eat the fruit. You can chow down on a whole pint of strawberries to the tune of 92 calories and 14 grams of sugar, versus 300 calories and 38 grams in a strawberry smoothie -- and the whole fruit has more fibre. Those numbers should also let you in on a little secret: it's not the fruit that makes smoothies so energy-dense, but more often the juices and sweetened ingredients like yogurt.
But if you love smoothies, if you're using them as a post-workout protein delivery system, or if you have a hard time getting any fruit or vegetables in your diet without them, there's good news: with some smart substitutions, you can make smoothies healthier while keeping them just as delicious (or even more so). Here are some strategies:
- Don't use juice as the liquid. It seems like a logical way to make your smoothie fruitier, but juice has a lot of sugar and isn't really necessary for a tasty smoothie. Let fruit provide the fruitiness, and consider other liquids: non-dairy milks (like almond milk) are low calorie, dairy milk contributes more calories but includes a good amount of protein and optionally fat, and there's always plain water as an option.
- Use unsweetened ingredients, and sweeten to taste. You might be surprised how little you need -- for my smoothies, usually a teaspoon of honey (5 grams of sugar) is enough for a whole blender full of unsweetened almond milk, unsweetened whey powder, and fruit.
- Don't feel like you need to fill the blender to the top. For those post-workout shakes especially, just make enough smoothie to do the job. A scoop or two of unflavored whey powder, a ripe banana, and a little bit of milk or water is delicious (especially with a dash of cardamom) and minimalist.
- Include fats and protein. These slow down your absorption of sugar, or in technical terms, they lower your glycemic response. A scoop of protein powder is a natural choice here, and making the smoothie with milk as the liquid helps to up the protein content. You can also add a dollop of peanut butter or almond butter, or even avocado if you're into that sort of thing. Fibre plays a similar role (and most of us don't get enough of it), so you could use oats or chia seeds or even a powdered fibre supplement. A bonus from any of these: the smoothie will keep you full a lot longer, making it more like a meal than a drink.
In the end, whether you should drink a smoothie depends on what kind of smoothie you've chosen and whether it helps you meet your goals -- not what the dude at the gym or the lady next to you at the coffee shop happens to think.
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