Everyone knows smoothies are an easy, convenient breakfast option. You throw a bunch of ingredients into a blender, blitz it all up, pour it into a to-go cup and carry on knowing you’ve started your day on the right foot.
The thing is, most people assume smoothies are inherently healthy, which isn’t always the case. If you’re not careful, you can end up with a smoothie that’s much higher in calories than you realize — which isn’t inherently bad, since calories are what give us energy, but might get in the way of your weight-loss or weight-maintenance goals if you make a daily habit of it. On the flip side, it’s also possible to make a smoothie that isn’t filling enough and leaves you feeling hungry long before it’s time for lunch. It’s a fine balance.
To help steer you clear of these smoothie faux pas, we asked three registered dietitians to weigh in on how to make the healthiest, most delicious smoothie. “A smoothie is a great, healthy meal option if done correctly. What you add plays a big role in creating a well-balanced smoothie that can serve as a meal equivalent,” says Nazima Qureshi, RDN.
Here are 10 simple, healthy tips for the perfect smoothie:
Most important, make sure you include protein, healthy fats and healthy carbs. “One of my favorite things about making smoothies is the amount of variety you can use with ingredients and flavors,” says Maxine Yeung, MS, RD. “The key ingredients I always make sure to include are protein, healthy fats and fiber [in the form of healthy carbs].” All three are essential to a healthy diet, and the combination helps ensure your smoothie is filling enough to hold you over until lunch.
Everyone’s protein needs are different, depending on factors like age, gender and activity level (more on that here), but most people should be eating at least 15 grams of protein with every meal. If you’re a fan of thick smoothies, nonfat Greek yogurt blends seamlessly with other ingredients and adds only a hint of tang, and a 6-ounce serving packs about 17 grams of protein and 100 calories. Cottage cheese also adds great texture (no worries if you’re not a fan of the curds, since they’ll get blended right up!) and a cheesecake-y flavor that pairs well with berries, or stone fruits like peaches. Similar to Greek yogurt, nonfat cottage cheese has about 20 grams of protein and 120 calories per 6 ounces.
If you want to add extra flavor to your blend, protein powder might be your best bet. If you’re new to protein powder and overwhelmed by the options available (who can blame you!?), here’s everything you need to know.
Carbs are the body’s main source of energy, so complex carbs should play a starring role in your smoothie. Everyone’s carb needs vary, but 1 or 2 servings at breakfast is a good target. Registered dietitian Elizabeth Hurley likes to add rolled oats (1/2 cup is one serving) to her smoothies — it’s a great source of complex carbs, which provide a steady stream of energy and fiber, which is important to digestive health and fullness. Bonus: Oats can make a blend taste a bit like muffin batter.
Kale or spinach leaves are Qureshi’s favorite way to sneak veggies into a smoothie, because they’re packed with vitamins and fiber but don’t add any unwanted vegetable flavor. A cup of either one counts as a full serving of vegetables.
“Greens are a necessity in my smoothies. They thicken up the smoothie without adding sugar,” says Yeung.
The naturally occurring sugars in fruit are better than added sugars, since they come with lots of good-for-you vitamins, plus fiber that helps keep your blood sugar steady. But, sugar is still sugar, and it’s possible to overdo it on fruit. “Limit your fruit portion to 1 piece or 1 cup of fruit per smoothie,” says Hurley.
On that same note, remember the lactose in dairy products is also a form of naturally occurring sugar. “I also watch out for how much sugar I’m adding through dairy,” says Yeung. 6 ounces of yogurt or cottage cheese, as mentioned above, is a good target.
Adding fruits like banana or mango sweetens a smoothie enough that you won’t have to add sweeteners like sugar, honey or syrup. Also, make sure you’re not accidentally adding extra sugar. “Choose plain Greek yogurt over flavored and read the label on your frozen fruit to make sure it doesn’t contain any added sugars,” says Hurley.
To add additional flavor without sugar, Yeung likes to sprinkle cinnamon into her smoothies for subtle sweetness and a little heat. And when she’s craving chocolate? “I’ll throw in some raw cacao nibs, which also contain phytonutrients, antioxidants and flavonoids. When blended, these nibs add texture resembling tiny chocolate chips and make my smoothie seem like a dessert!“
“For healthy fats, I rotate between hemp hearts, flax seeds and chia seeds,” says Yeung. “Each of these provides a different flavor and texture making each smoothie taste unique. For example, flax seeds add a nice nutty flavor.” Nut butter is another great way to add fat and plenty of flavor, while avocado can add creaminess.
But, Qureshi warns, it’s easy to overdo it on fats, since they’re calorie-dense, so pay attention to portion control. “Try to measure out your ingredients before adding to the blender rather than adding directly,” she suggests. A tablespoon of nut butter, 1–2 tablespoons of whole nuts or seeds and 1/4 of an avocado all count as a serving of healthy fat.
“Our bodies digest fat a little slower than carbs and protein, and this can leave you feeling too full or uncomfortable during your workout,” says Hurley.
There are so many factors that influence how many calories you should be eating every day: your height, weight, age, activity level, gender, goals and genetics all play a role, as well as things like sleep and stress. That said, 400 calories is the sweet spot for most people when it comes to breakfast, Qureshi says. Of course, you’re the expert on your own body, so you can adjust this number as you see fit.