Though I’m “That Salad Lady” I’m a huge fan of smoothies too. Whether you’re constantly on the go or just looking to get more whole foods in your diet, a good healthy smoothie can be a lifesaver. But how do you make healthy smoothies? They certainly aren’t all created equal. When it comes to homemade smoothies, many make the mistake of using only fruits and vegetables, which can actually lead to unhealthy blood sugar spikes.
Then there are those commercially prepared and store-bought smoothies that often veer into dessert territory, as many contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners and other random ingredients to make them more appealing and palatable.
When it comes to making healthy smoothies, just as with salads, it all boils down to the ingredients or “layers” you choose. Choosing the ‘right’ layers alone can sometimes be a challenge. Obviously, you want to choose the highest-quality ingredients to maximize the overall nutritional value of your smoothies. Question is, how do you choose high-quality layers without compromising on taste and texture?
Believe it or not, it is possible to create an all-around great smoothie with good taste, texture and nutrition. To help you out, I’ve crafted this simple and straightforward guide to making perfectly healthy smoothies that are both filling and pleasing to the palate.
Start with Protein and Go from There
Let me start by saying that protein is for everyone, not just athletes, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. The body needs adequate amounts to build and maintain strong bones, muscles and joints. Protein also helps slow down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which’ll prevent spikes and keep you feeling full. Unfortunately, when it comes to smoothie making, a lot of people fall short on protein, oftentimes because it’s misunderstood.
For instance, many add plant-based milks like almond, oat and rice milks believing they are protein equivalents to dairy milk. Not only do they lack sufficient protein, but even when unsweetened, these types of milk can transform otherwise healthy smoothies into sugar bombs. You can, however, get a good amount of protein from adding plant-based varieties like pea and soy milks – almost just as much as you would get from using dairy milk.
Adding yogurt to smoothies is another great option. I’m a bit biased to strained (Greek-style) yogurts, as they’re generally much higher in protein and way lower in sugar when compared to unstrained or “regular” yogurts. Strained yogurts supply hefty doses of calcium and gut-friendly probiotics too.
If you choose to go the plant-based route with yogurts, know that, as with milks, most don’t contain protein. And, whether dairy or plant-based, yogurts aren’t all created equal either, as many house lots of sugar and artificial ingredients. So don’t take any yogurt at face value – not even dairy-free brands! Always read the ingredient list and avoid yogurts containing added sugars.
Now, milks and yogurts aren’t the only quality protein sources that fare well in smoothies. There are many others like kefir (a thicker, fermented milk), silken tofu, quinoa, hemp seeds and chia seeds. Protein powders are another possible and popular option. I’ll talk more about those in a bit.
Throw in Plenty of Fresh Veggies
Just like salads, smoothies are a great way to load up on fresh vegetables. Whether you follow a low-carb, vegan or all-inclusive diet, non-starchy veggies are among the best to use. Besides being high in fiber, micronutrients and disease-fighting antioxidants, with only a few exceptions, these veggies tend to be very low in calories and sugar and have little to no impact on blood sugar levels (study up in our Nutrition Glossary to learn more).
Of all non-starchy veggies, leafy greens are wildly popular since they’re practically sugar-free, relatively cheap and easy to come by. Kale, beet greens, microgreens, spinach and Swiss chard all make excellent choices, especially if you don’t like leafy greens. You’ll appreciate that their flavors aren’t overpowering – bet you won’t taste them at all. To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, add 1-2 cups or handfuls of these veggies to any smoothie.
Some other veggies that can bring unique flavor and texture to smoothies include carrot, beet, squash, zucchini and peppers. Let me advise that when it comes to naturally sweet veggies like carrot and beet, definitely watch your portions as they house a bit more sugar than others. Just treat them as you would treat fruits and you’ll be fine (see next section).
Reap the Benefits of Fruits in Moderation
Chock-full of micronutrients and antioxidants, fruits are definite must haves for healthy smoothies. While some like banana and avocado add great texture, others like berries, melons and pineapple introduce good tang and craveable sweetness. Now, while fruits are incredibly nutritious and undoubtedly necessary for good health, you might not want to go adding handfuls and cupfuls of different fruits to your smoothies.
With the exception of savory varieties like avocado and olives, fruits are naturally high in sugar. Though it’s fructose, which is a “natural” form of sugar, as is the case with other forms sugars, consuming too much can cause blood sugar spikes. This impact is even more pronounced when fruits are consumed in liquid form. This is why I always caution against basing smoothies with fruit juices of any sort – whether they’re bottled or freshly expressed from a juicer.
When it comes to smoothie making, it’s important to know and always remember that you’re likely getting natural sugars in other layers too – not just fruits and their juices.
So, to ensure your smoothies don’t become sugar bombs, always be mindful of your fruit portions. Err on the side of about 1-2 servings of fruit for any given smoothie. This equates to one small banana, a half-cup portion of berries or a cup of cubed melon. Another good practice is to use a fruit-to-vegetable ratio of at least 1:2 or even 1:3. In other words, for every serving of fruit, add 2-3 servings of vegetables.
Don’t Forget Those Flavorful, Filling Fats
Smoothies are not healthy smoothies without some good fat. Besides the fact that fat is incredibly filling and makes everything taste better, your body actually needs it to function properly. Really, it does. As a vital macronutrient, fat helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), naturally housed in a wide range of whole foods. Collectively, the fat-soluble vitamins support healthy growth, immune function and even reproduction.
Needless to say, a fat-restricted diet can cause deficiencies in these vitamins and, thereby, impair the vital functions they support. Luckily, a little fat in a smoothie can go a very long way.
For unique flavor and texture, add a 1/4-cup serving of your favorite nuts or a couple tablespoons of seeds to your smoothies. Some of my personal favorites include almonds, walnuts and pecans in addition to chia seeds, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds. If you like nut and seed butters, know that they’re just as nutritious as their whole counterparts. Just 1-2 tablespoons of quality butter will make your smoothies even ‘smoother’ and thicker.
Besides nuts, seeds and their butters, avocado is another great way to boost the fat content of your smoothies. Though technically a fruit, avocado is grouped with fats, due to its rich composition of health-promoting monounsaturated fats. For carb watchers, it’s a great alternative to the commonly used banana, as a whole avocado houses less than half a gram of sugar. I don’t, however, recommend using a whole fruit. Just half or even a quarter is plenty
Though not a preference of mine, you can add pure oils to smoothies too. Some possible options include extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, flax oil, coconut oil and omega-3 fish oil. Again, not my preference, but it’s all about building a smoothie that works for you.
Make Space for Nutrient ‘Boosters’
As every single bowl is an opportunity to build layers and layers of whole food nutrition for whole life wellness, so is every single cup. That’s why I’m all for including any other layers that can add a good “boost” of nutrition to your smoothies. For instance, add-ins like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pure cocoa and matcha powder aren’t just great flavor enhancers, but they also house powerful nutrients that support weight management and overall wellness.
If you’re trying to up your intake of probiotics, you might consider adding fermented beverages like kombucha or kefir to your blends, the latter of which I’ve already mentioned as a protein option.
Now, while I’m all for eating real foods in whole form, I also acknowledge that supplements can sometimes be of benefit too, particularly if your diet lacks certain nutrients. These include quality fibers, some whole food powder brands and, of course, protein powders. There are way too many to discuss here. I will, however, talk a little bit about protein powder since it’s among the most popular supplements and smoothie add-ins.
Generally speaking, when it comes to protein powder, there are many different types from which you can choose including whey, casein, egg, soy and other plant-based proteins. I personally don’t use these powders often but when I do, I typically go with whey or plant-based varieties.
Regardless of the type of protein you choose, ensure it contains at least 15 grams of protein and less than 5% of total calories comprised of sugar. Many are also fortified with key vitamins and minerals, which’ll give you more nutritional bang for your buck. As always, be sure to read the ingredient list on any powder you choose and avoid those containing artificial sweeteners, added colors, preservatives and other unnecessary additives.
Tying It All Together
All and all, when the right layers are chosen, smoothies can provide you with huge doses of good, quality nutrients. This is why I generally “break my fast” with a smoothie on most days of the week. In addition to choosing the right ingredients, the order in which you add them to your blender pitcher really sets the stage for great texture. Ultimately, it’ll also increase the overall longevity of your blender by protecting the integrity of your pitcher blades
From bottom to top, I recommend first adding your liquids to the base of your pitcher followed by any small seeds, powders or boosters you choose to use. If you’re not using milk or another beverage, just add a little water to coat the blender. From there you can pile in soft ingredients like leafy green veggies, yogurt and/or butter, followed by firmer veggies, fruits and any other hard ingredients (see the video below for more details and my favorite smoothie recipe).
If you prefer the taste of a cold smoothie or if you’d like to increase the overall thickness of your smoothie, add about 5 or 6 cubes of ice to your picture. Another option is to pre-freeze your fruits and vegetables prior to blending them. Such add-ins would be considered ‘hard’ ingredients so top off your blender pitcher with these.
And there you have it – A simple and straightforward to making perfectly healthy smoothies bursting with flavor and good nutrition. All that’s left to say is cheers!