I always drink a fresh fruit smoothie for breakfast, either homemade or, if I'm rushed, from a juice bar. I think I'm making a healthy choice but am I fooling myself? Would I get more nutritional benefits if I ate the same foods, whole?
A smoothie made with whole fruit, some milk or a milk alternative (e.g. soy or almond milk), perhaps even a little protein powder is certainly a nutritious way to start your day. When made right, smoothies provide fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants – and water – nutrients that a toasted bagel, even a whole-grain one, can't deliver.
But there are potential downsides to sipping a smoothie for breakfast. Doing so could rev up your appetite – and possibly your calorie intake – at lunch. And if you buy your smoothie from the grocery store or a juice shop, you could be getting ingredients you didn't bargain for, or need.
Blending your own smoothie is one of the easiest ways to add fruit to your diet, be it berries, cherries, mango, peaches, melon, banana, kiwi, even pear and oranges. That's a good thing for people who don't think to add fresh fruit to breakfast or snacks.
Many studies have linked a diet that includes whole fruit to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. Fruit is a good source of many cardio-protective nutrients, such as fibre, vitamin C, folate and potassium.
There's also evidence that fruit packed with flavonoids – apples, oranges, grapefruit and blueberries – may guard against ovarian cancer.
There's more to smoothies than fruit, though. They're also a vehicle for vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, carrots), calcium (e.g. milk, yogurt, fortified plant-based beverages), omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. flax, chia and hemp seeds) and protein (milk, yogurt, protein powder).
Even so, there are drawbacks to smoothies. Pulverizing whole fruit in a blender (or a Vitamix) changes the structure of the fibre which can diminish its filling factor.
A 2009 study published in the journal Appetite found that eating an apple before lunch did a better job of increasing satiety and reducing calorie consumption at mealtime than did eating applesauce (e.g. puréed fruit) or drinking apple juice before the meal.
Drinking a fruit smoothie doesn't fill you up the same way that eating whole fruit does. Liquid meals empty from the stomach more quickly than solid foods, which can leave you feeling hungry sooner. Not to mention reduce your concentration and energy level by mid-morning.
Also, you can drink a smoothie more rapidly than the time it takes to eat, say, Greek yogurt and a cup of berries sprinkled with a tablespoon of chia seeds. Certainly quicker than the 20 minutes it takes your brain to register satiety and signal it's time to stop eating.
If your go-to breakfast is a smoothie, you may need to add a mid-morning snack to prevent feeling too hungry before lunchtime – or caving in to the pastry tray served at the office morning meeting.
Even so, at least you're getting heart-healthy fibre from smoothies made with whole fruit. That's not the case if you make your smoothie with fruit juice.
Fruit juice smoothies pack in more calories and (natural) sugars than those made with whole fruit. Blending one medium orange into a smoothie adds 62 calories and 12 grams of sugar; swap the orange with one cup of orange juice and you'll add 110 calories and twice as much sugar to your drink.
A recent large study from Harvard University, published in the British Medical Journal, found that eating more whole fruits – versus drinking fruit juice – was tied to a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Don't assume store-bought smoothies are made from whole fruit. Bolthouse Farms Berry Boost smoothie lists apple purée concentrate and apple juice as its first two ingredients (a far cry from berries), followed by a medley of berry purées and banana purée. Read the nutrition label and you'll see there isn't a stitch of fibre to be found.
Ditto for Tim Hortons Fruit Smoothie, which is blended with real fruit purées and juices. If you order the large (684 ml), however, you will get one gram of fibre. Big whoop.
Depending on what you order at the smoothie bar, you could also be getting refined sugars. Booster Juice's Ripped Berry smoothie, for instance, is made with sugary frozen vanilla yogurt and honey.
Large portion sizes of juice bar smoothies can contribute excess calories too. A 24-ounce Booster Juice Funky Monkey smoothie (banana, chocolate almond milk, vanilla frozen yogurt) serves up 488 calories. Okay for a meal, but pretty hefty if your smoothie is a between-meal snack.
Even if you blend your smoothie from scratch, you could be unknowingly piling on calories. A tablespoon each of flax, chia and hemp seeds and agave syrup (or honey) adds a solid 200 calories. Factor in the fruit, milk and protein powder and your healthy shake can cost you upward of 600 calories, roughly the same as a McDonald's Big Mac.
Okay, clearly a homemade smoothie is more nutritious than an all-dressed burger. My point is, though, that smoothies have a health halo that can blind people to the extra calories – or sugar – they deliver.
Bottom line: A smoothie made with whole fruit – and other healthy ingredients in measured amounts – is a healthy way to start the day. Just be sure to pack a mid-morning snack to avert hunger pangs.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietician, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.