I am a great fan of smoothies—but not all smoothies are created equal. To understand the difference between smoothies that are beneficial and smoothies which could lead to weight gain, means looking at the nutritional content of a smoothie.
Which smoothies are good for you?
When we consume food (eaten or drunk) our body breaks it down into the nutrients it contains, the chief ones being; carbohydrates, protein and fats. Carbohydrates (which are found in all fruit and vegetables and not just in grains) are the first to be broken down. They are converted into simple sugars, and this is the crucial part of knowing if your smoothie is a good choice or not. As the body converts carbohydrates into sugars, the sugars are quickly absorbed into the blood stream. This can cause blood sugar levels to become too high. If this happens, the body responds by releasing insulin to ‘mop-up’ the excess sugars. Insulin either temporarily stores the sugar in the muscles or liver, or it converts into body fat. As a double-whammy after insulin has done it’s job, blood sugar levels may crash, causing new sugar cravings. It’s so easy to step onto a sugar roller-coaster!
For many people the words ‘blood sugar levels’ and ‘insulin’ instantly bring to mind diabetes. While these are key factors in managing diabetes, your body is always in dynamic flow, constantly adjusting and adapting to stay healthy (this is called homeostasis). Blood sugar levels are constantly rising and falling and being adjusted with insulin. For our health and in particular for weight loss, we need to try to maintain a steady blood sugar level which minimises our insulin response. This is done by slowing down the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugars.
Good smoothies vs bad smoothies
In a nutshell, good smoothies are those that don’t cause blood sugar levels to spike: instead they release their sugars slowly.
How does this work?
Remember I said that carbohydrates are the first to be broken down? Well this process can be slowed down by adding protein and good fats to your smoothies. In this way, a drip-feed of sugar enters into your bloodstream which minimises the risk of a blood sugar spike and the insulin response being triggered.
Most Innocent Smoothies are made solely from fruit. They don’t have any ‘nasties’ in the way of preservatives, but they are pasteurised which makes it easier for the body to absorb the sugars from the fruit. Pasteurisation also destroys vitamin C. The amount of protein and fats is virtually zero—nothing to slow down the sugar absorption. Drinking a 250 ml of any commercially made smoothie, include those promoting themselves as ‘1 of your daily fruit portions’, with between 24—34 grams (6–8.5 teaspoons) of sugar is not beneficial to losing weight.
Making a healthy smoothie
So, a healthy smoothie needs to include protein and good fats. Here then are the essential ingredients of a good smoothie.
Between 100–150g of fruit. Add fruit for natural sweetness and also for the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients they contain. Typically at least 100g of this should be a high fibre fruit such as one of the many berries as their sugar content is relatively low whilst their fibre content is high. Some berries are quite tart, so adding half a banana (approx. 40-50 g) adds sweetness and thickness of a smoothie – but also loads up the sugar without much fibre – so stick to just half. By the way 100 g of raspberries contains 5 g of sugar whilst half a banana adds 7 g. As well as the berries, cherries, apples and pears make great smoothies. Pineapple and mango are great too, but have a higher sugar content—so don’t go overboard on these.
Add vegetables and/or greens powders. These boast the nutritional content of your smoothie. Spinach is one of the easiest vegetables to add to a smoothie in that it breaks down easily, it’s packed full of good nutrients and it doesn’t overpower the fruit in flavour. I’m a great fan of using Udo’s Beyond Greens powders because 1–2 teaspoons provides such a wonderful nutritional boost to your smoothie. Cucumber, celery, young salad leaves, kohlrabi and beetroot also go well. Kale is a super-nutritious vegetable, but you need a powerful blender to ‘smoothie’ it and it has quite a strong flavour.
Add protein. My favourite proteins for smoothies are whey and hemp protein powders. For whey protein, make sure it is ‘isolate’ and not ‘concentrate’. Good options for whey are: Pink Sun, Pulsin and Solgar. There is less difference in hemp powders so, I choose any organic, UK grown hemp according to the best offer! Use one scoop/2 dessert spoons. These can be purchased online from Amazon or from Bodykind who I use for my superfoods and supplements.
Add a little of good fats. These include almond, flaxseed, coconut or avocado oil (or fresh avocado for sumptuous creamy smoothies). Other good seed or nut oils include: walnut, macadamia or pumpkin seed. There is a lot of confusions around the role of fat in weight loss, but good fats (typically from nuts, seeds and oily fish) help lower cholesterol as well as allow the body released stored body fat.
Add liquid. Good choices are: unsweetened (and food additive free) almond, rice (naturally sweeter than almond milk), coconut, oat or hemp milk. Water is also great! Please avoid cows milk, yoghurt or ice-cream due to the saturated fat and sugar content. Soya milk is not recommended for women as soy can mimic oestrogen and may upset women’s hormonal balance. How much liquid you add depend on how ‘thick’ you like your smoothies. Generally between 150–250 ml. Brands I use and recommend are Plenish, Rude Health, Ecomil and for their rice milk only, Rice Dream.
Optionally add superfoods, spices, citrus zest or herbs. Goji berries (add sweetness, but can remain ‘bitty’ in your smoothie), acai berry powder (can help with weight loss – but is slightly bitter), raw cacao powder (gives a great chocolatey flavour) cinnamon (naturally sweet and helps lower blood sugar levels), ginger (adds a zing). A squeeze of lemon or lime can transform a smoothie, as can the addition of fresh mint or basil leaves. Experiment and find out which ones you like the best. Add one or two of the superfoods or spices: don’t go overboard and add them all.