I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with smoothies. The love component is obviously rooted in the flavor, as these sweet blended treats are thought to be better-for-you alternatives to decadent desserts like shakes and ice cream. The hate factor, however, is rooted in the aforementioned “healthy” label that is not only deceptive, but also not always accurate. That said, I recently rediscovered the whipped drinks in an effort to understand why so many still swear by drinking smoothies for a host of benefits. Are they actually the nutritious snacks or meal replacements many say they are or are they merely sugar-filled desserts in a healthier-looking outfit?
"Smoothies help you incorporate more fruits and veggies into your day, which the majority of people (90%, according to the CDC!) are lacking," explains Chelsea Gloeckner, a registered dietitian with a master's in nutrition. "The fiber from fruits and veggies can help keep you full and satisfied, feed the healthy bacteria in your gut to support a healthy immune system, provide antioxidants to reduce inflammation in the body, and help keep you hydrated to provide that much-needed energy boost."
All the reasons listed above just happened to be the exact ones that brought me to this month-long experiment — as well as a fateful meeting with Catherine McCord in January 2020. The former model and founder of wellness blog Weelicious was promoting her new book, Smoothie Project. Not only did she whip up a yummy green concoction on the spot, but she also gave me a crash course on healthy smoothies. She filled me in on where so many individuals and brands can go wrong in the process (mainly the inclusion of unhealthy ingredients and added sugars like sherbet and ice cream).
I left our meeting intrigued and promised myself I’d peruse the book and try a recipe a day to see if I reaped any benefits. While I gave a couple energy-boosting and gut-friendly smoothies a whirl, time constraints and scheduling got in the way of me putting any real effort into my smoothie experiment. Then, COVID-19 reared its ugly head and suddenly time was on my side. This season indoors has freed me up to not only whip up a smoothie regularly, but also mindfully observe how my body and brain react to the slight change in my morning routine (which initially consisted of a sugary pastry, quick bowl of cereal, or just coffee).
Rules For Making A Healthy Smoothie
To be clear, this experiment was not centered on weight loss or fitness. I’ve admittedly always struggled to work fruits and veggies into my pasta-loving diet, and I wanted to use my quarantine time to build some good eating habits. This meant, to truly keep these smoothies on the nutritious side of the road, I had to follow some key rules — and avoid some common mistakes.
My experiment, luckily, was led by a book (McCord's Smoothie Project) that had balanced, good-for-you recipes laid out for me. However, for those flying free, Gloeckner says it's important to keep a few things in mind. "When making a smoothie, make sure there is a balance of fiber, healthy fats, and protein so that you stay full, satisfied, and energized," she says. "Smoothies made with too much fruit and fruit juice can lead to blood sugar crashes and energy dips. Add oats for fiber and protein, and nuts and seeds, like walnuts, almonds, or chia seeds to provide balance."
You can also, as I did, include supplement powders like protein and collagen peptides to up the health and beautifying ante in your concoctions. Many come in flavors like vanilla or chocolate to complement your smoothie taste profile and make it more appetizing. (I found Tone It Up's Vegan Plant-Based Vanilla Powder a great addition, and would add it to about 75% of my morning mixtures as it gave my smoothies a creamy texture.)
In fact, if all the aforementioned pieces of the puzzle are in place, a smoothie can certainly serve as a meal if you're in a rush or simply want to switch up your breakfast or lunch routine — that was definitely the case for me. "A common misconception, is that people think they'll still be hungry after a smoothie," says McCord to The Zoe Report. "If you laid out all the ingredients you're getting, you'd be shocked just how good it is for you and how filling it is." Indeed, I found my 8 a.m. smoothies — the Blueberry Chia, Chocolate Peanut Butter, and Immunity Boosting Very Berry to name a few — kept me satisfied until lunchtime, and also gave me a great charge to jump-start my morning.
Another wrong turn people take is substituting sugary juices for the real deal. "Use whole fruits instead of fruit juice," says Gloeckner. "Fruit, whether frozen or fresh, provides you with fiber to keep your blood sugar stable and your energy steady. Fruit juices, which have the fiber removed, add a lot of sugar and no fiber." I went the frozen route out of sheer convenience. Fresh fruit has a way of going bad in my fridge, and the freezable kind can be stored for months.
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Benefits Of A Healthy Smoothie: Improved Energy
While I occasionally switched up the time of day when I consumed my smoothie, I found the mornings were ideal. Honestly, they gave me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction before the day even started. "The best time of day to drink a smoothie is in the morning, especially if it’s balanced with veggies (spinach, frozen cauliflower, and frozen zucchini), whole fruit (frozen berries and bananas), fiber (oats), and healthy fats (chia seeds, walnuts, or almonds)," says Gloeckner. "When you start your day strong with a filling smoothie, you are less likely to snack and be tempted by cravings throughout the day. Win the morning, win the day, as they say."
I'm typically a morning person for the most part — that is, after a cup of coffee or two. In fact, my cup (or cups) of joe have become a crutch of sorts in recent years, instilling in me the belief that I need them to properly start my days and get my mind working. I don't know if it was the alarm-like whirring of the blender, protein-packed formulas, or just-right dose of natural sugar that caused a shift in my body. Whatever it was, it worked. The filling morning smoothies delivered a dose of energy that perked me up more than three cups of my favorite latte could.
Now, to be fair, some of my favorite smoothies in the experiment — here's looking at you Mocha Almond and Pumpkin Spice Latte — actually contained cold-brew coffee. However, the servings of coffee (typically a cup or so) were significantly less than the bowl-like mugs I filled to the brim every morning and, often, throughout the day.
Benefits Of A Healthy Smoothie: Skin, Hair, And Nails
One of the most pleasant surprises with this experiment was the number these fibrous and vitamin-packed smoothies did on my skin, hair, and nails. The latter in particular caught me off guard. I've always struggled with short, brittle nails that broke easily. In a matter of weeks (maybe less), I noticed my nails at a length they hadn't been in months, maybe years. The white tips were visible and thicker than usual and the beds had a nice sheen to them.
My hair and skin weren't too shabby either. My skin, which is prone to patchy dryness and sensitivity, had a glow that I'd only seen when I went on the Whole30 diet some three years ago. While, I've always had pretty healthy, shiny hair, it felt softer and began growing out of its bob length at a rapid pace.
Benefits Of A Healthy Smoothie: Mood
One of the most surprising benefits of this whole experiment was the improvement in my mood. I really believe the combination of natural ingredients and nutrients, the absence of processed sugars that caused me to crash midday, plus the confidence boost that comes from starting your day on the right foot really worked some magic on me — and I'm not alone.
"There's something to be said of the happiness that comes from a healthy smoothie," says McCord. "Being proud of yourself — that's a big one for me. When I have my smoothie, I feel better about myself. There's definitely a happiness factor."