Smoothies gain popularity but aren't for everyone

Smoothies are gaining in popularity, but they aren't for everyone. Discover if drinking your food is right for you.

Juice Smoothie Woman
Smoothies are gaining in popularity, but they aren't for everyone. Discover if drinking your food is right for you.

It’s no secret that Americans aren’t getting enough of their fruits and vegetables. But a growing trend may help turn the tide. Smoothies are taking the country by storm, popping up everywhere from gyms to fast food restaurants. So it begs the question: Is liquid food the food of the future?

In a word, yes and no. Michelle Sala Radtke is a certified holistic health coach in Santa Barbara, Calif. She says smoothies are a great way to make up for lost fruits and veggies, because most people simply fail to get the right number of servings.

"Half of all the vegetables eaten in this country are potatoes, and half of those potatoes are French fries," Radtke says. "So we are all falling short of vegetables and fruits. If you can do one green drink several times a week or three times a week, it can really up your vegetable intake."

People are attracted to drinking their food. They look cool, and it’s easy to consume (think no fork and spoon, and no plate to clean up afterward). Research also says smoothies are great for vitamin, mineral and fiber intake. They can also lower blood pressure, and help us stay hydrated.

Some smoothies aren’t for everyone, Radtke says. People with diabetes need to be careful about their blood sugar, so they need to make sure they have a low-sugar smoothie with lots of protein. People with kidney stone issues need to be careful about consuming too much oxalic acid in greens.


Sure, our body needs sugars, but drinking too many naturally occurring sugars means a bad blend for diabetics—not only because of the high sugar level, but they’re big calorie and carbohydrate bombs, too.

And because of oxalates, naturally occurring substances found in plants, people need to watch how many smoothies they guzzle, too, as it may lead to kidney stones. Some foods, such as spinach, dark leafy greens and rhubarb, contain higher levels of oxalates than others. If your body absorbs high levels and doesn’t process it well, you’ve got a recipe for kidney stones.

But we know smoothies are a growing market. There were more than 6,200 juice and smoothie bars in the United States in 2012, according to the Juice and Smoothie Association. Juice and smoothie bars were projected to be a $3.6 billion industry that year, compared to a $2.1 billion industry in 2005, a 71.4% increase. Burger King, Cold Stone Creamery and Starbucks, among other chains, have jumped on the smoothie trend.

Smoothies are helpful when you are in a rush—they feed into our convenience culture, Radtke says.

"It’s great for convenience, because we live in a busy society," she says. "I definitely think it has a place. You can absorb so many more vegetables and fruits in one serving if you are doing it properly. I don’t see it going away, that’s for sure."

There’s "a smoothie craze going on," says Kindy Peaslee, a registered dietitian and owner of Smoothies On Wheels, based in Greenfield Center, N.Y. And everyone can benefit from more fiber and the vitamins, she says.

Jamba Juice, McDonald’s and even Starbucks have all helped grow the trend, Radtke says, but consumers need to be careful about what they are getting when they buy a smoothie. Radtke started looking into the nutritional information for some of the smoothies being sold at various chains, and what she found shocked her. Some of the drinks were so sugary they could "send a diabetic into a coma," she says.

"People are going to these fast food places and ordering smoothies, thinking they are getting fruit," Radtke says. "But they’re basically having lot of sugar—they’re basically having a milk shake."


People have to do their research when it comes to buying a smoothie, Peaslee says.

"Where the warning is with smoothies is watching some of the fast food establishments and how people are making them, finding out if this is a real fruit, vegetable smoothie or high in sugar or corn syrup," says Peaslee, author of several books, including Simple Seasonal Smoothies, a guide to making nutrient rich smoothies.

"Just because it has the label ‘smoothie,’ you still have to do your homework. People say, ‘Are they really healthy? Are they as much sugar as drinking Coke or Pepsi?’ Sometimes, unfortunately, they are."

The best way to get a healthy smoothie is to make your own, Radtke says.

Smooth losing

Smoothies with healthy ingredients can actually be good for weight loss, says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. But you have to use them strategically to eat fewer calories.

"It would depend on how you use them," she says. "It could be good if you have a big volume—not high calorie—smoothie that perhaps you eat at the start of a meal that helps you eat less. It could backfire on you if you put high-calorie ingredients in. It may not provide as much satisfaction."

How you perceive your food has a big impact on how much you eat, Rolls says. Some people feel the need to crunch their food, or have a protein and a few side dishes.

"If you are using a smoothie as a meal replacement, make sure that’s really what you are doing, that it’s your meal," Rolls says. "It needs to have a good nutritional balance, and it doesn’t leave you feeling hungry later."


Peaslee agrees, adding that smoothies can be great for weight loss, especially for those who usually skip breakfast.

"It promotes not skipping a meal and missing out on nutrients. It starts to train the body to fuel every three to four hours again, and not skip needed calories. Smoothies help keep energy levels stable, and help one to learn to listen to hunger and fullness cues," Peaslee says.

"A lot of studies are showing we need to get breakfast. Most people think they are saving 500 calories, but end up snacking and overeating at lunch and dinner later in the day."

And when it comes to smoothies for weight loss, protein is key, Radtke says.

"They absolutely can be (good for weight loss), especially if you have the right amount of protein in them, and they keep you going for five or six hours," she says. "But if you have one that spikes your blood sugar and you are hungry an hour later, that’s the wrong smoothie for weight loss."

Smoothies aren’t just for weight loss. Depending on your goal, smoothies can be used as meal replacements, snacks, for energy, for sports nutrition and for health reasons. They can also be used to gain weight.

Smoothies are also a good way to get picky children to eat their fruits and vegetables, Rolls says.

"I know it’s controversial, but we’ve done studies with hidden vegetables in preschoolers’ foods and had huge success in getting them to eat veggies," Rolls says, adding that it didn’t decrease the number of vegetable side dishes they ate later in the day. "It could be a real boost. Kids are really not eating enough veggies or fruits, just like adults."


The cost of a smoothie regimen

The green stuff you put into a smoothie doesn’t have to come from your wallet. Radtke says it’s much cheaper to make your own than to buy one.

"The average cost at a smoothie place is $4 to $5, and I’m making mine for about $2 or less," Radtke says.

Smoothies can actually help people save some money, Peaslee says, because you can use up more of what’s in your fridge or garden.

"Smoothies, one thing they help prevent is a lot of food waste in the home," Peaslee says. "You can use up extra food."

But be careful when using high-quality protein powder, she says, because it can increase the cost. But to help offset this, you can always use your own ingredients, such as chia seeds, ground hemp seeds and almond butter. The trick is to make smoothies at home, she says.

"So many people are eating breakfast and lunch on the road and on the go, it’s more cost effective to procure the ingredients and make it yourself," Radtke says. "You know your ingredients are fresher, and you know where they came from."


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