Whey protein. Bee pollen. Agave syrup. Trying to order a healthy smoothie is like trying to put together a LEGO set from a bucket of random pieces: All the parts are bright and shiny, but half of them are just junk.
In fact, the selections at most smoothie shops include plenty of “healthy” add-ons that mostly just add on to your waistline. And with more chains opening every day—Smoothie King aims to have 1,000 locations ready by 2017, with Tropical Smoothie on its heels—you’ll have more chances to make a mistake. To decode the menu and start melting your belly for real, take a look at these 7 worst ingredients to add to your smoothie.
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1. Fat-Free Flavored Yogurt
High in protein with a delicious creamy texture, yogurt is the ideal backbone for a smoothie—unless it’s flavored or fat-free. Yogurts with fruit on the bottom or mix-ins like honey can contain up to 29 grams of sugar (that’s the amount in even a “healthy” brand like Fage Honey Greek Yogurt). Stick to full-fat, plain yogurt. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the more high-fat dairy products people ate, the lower their risk of diabetes; those who ate a lot of low-fat dairy products had the highest incidence. The researchers speculated that while calcium, protein, vitamin D and other nutrients in dairy are indeed good for us, we need the fat that goes along with them in order to get their protective effects. Skipping the fat may cost you lean muscle: “People with low vitamin D levels have been shown to have decreased strength and greater muscle wasting,” says Ilyse Schapiro, R.D.
Eat This, Not That! solution: To make your shopping easy, stick to plain yogurts that pack more protein than sugar. Those two simple guidelines will steer you in the right direction.
2. Fruit Juice
You glance at the blender, worried there’s not enough liquid. Don’t be tempted to add some leftover OJ or that can of frozen apple concentrate lurking in the freezer: Fruit juices lack the satiating fiber of fresh fruit, and even half a cup of orange juice adds 13 grams of carbs. It’s even worse at the smoothie chains: The Berry Carrot Dream at Smoothie King, for example, uses orange and apple juices and packs 68 grams of carbs and 58 grams of sugar into a small serving. That’s the sugar equivalent of drinking three Snickers bars!
Eat This, Not That! solution: Use green tea!
3. Ice Cream or Sherbet
Note to self: Smoothies that include ice cream, frozen yogurt or sherbet are not fitness drinks. They are desserts. For example: At Smoothie King, a small (20 oz) Berry Punch sounds like something healthy. But because it contains raspberry sherbet, it packs 84 grams of sugar. That’s nearly twice as much as a McDonald’s Hot Fudge Sundae.
Eat This, Not That! solution: A large scoop of unflavored Greek yogurt and handful of frozen fruit will give you exactly the same flavor and consistency—without several nights’ worth of dessert.
4. Whey Protein
Don’t be swayed by the sheer size of the whey-protein section at nutrition stores. Because whey is a dairy derivative—and commercial preparations tend to contain all manner of funky chemicals—protein powders that use this source as a base can lead to bloat. Look instead for a blended vegan protein powder; in a 2015 study in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation, researchers discovered that patients who ingested higher amounts of vegetable protein were far less susceptible to metabolic syndrome (a combination of high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and obesity). A second study in Nutrition Journal found that “plant protein intakes may play a role in preventing obesity.”
Eat This, Not That! solution: Choose plant-based protein powders that side step the stomach-expanding side effects of whey and casein. And if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, pick up a blended powder to make sure your shake is delivering complete protein, which packs all nine essential amino acids.
5. Too Much of a Good Thing
Avocado and nut butter are some of your best allies in the pursuit of a flat stomach, but too much of their good fats can backfire. Be mindful of the portions suggested by recipes. Nutritionists consider one fifth of an avocado to be one serving. Likewise, one serving of nut butter is just two tablespoons, and more than enough for a savory smoothie.
Eat This, Not That! solution: Use almond butter—but to repeat, just two tablespoons. “Ounce for ounce, almonds are one of the most nutritious nuts,” Stephanie Middleberg, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. says. They’re a great source of riboflavin, magnesium and manganese (which, she explains, is great for the prevention of osteoporosis as well as a healthy metabolism), and also provide an impressive amount of vitamin E per serving. You’ll also get flavonoids, compounds that are extremely useful in fighting heart disease and cancer.
6. Added Sweeteners
You wouldn’t dare add straight granulated sugar to your smoothies (right?), but other healthy-sounding additives don’t act so sweet, either. A tablespoon of all-natural honey will add 17 grams of sugar to your drink, while a similar serving of virtuous-sounding agave nectar will add an unnecessary five grams. And while a serving of coconut oil is an excellent add-in — its good saturated fats are burned as energy, not stored as fat — other variations on that tropical theme are trouble. Coconut nectar, increasingly common at smoothie bars, will add 13 grams of sugar and carbs per tablespoon, and sweetened coconut flakes have an eye-popping 24 grams of fat and 36 grams of sugars per cup.
Eat This, Not That! solution: For sweetness, rely on whole fruit and sugar-free almond milks.
7. Canned Fruit
Canned fruit might seem like an easy shortcut, but it’s just a quick route to belly fat. It’s packed with syrup — upwards of 20 grams of sugars a can! — and nasty additives such as artificial flavorings. Even unsweetened fruit in its own juice is a nutritional miss: Peeled fruit is missing crucial fiber, and vitamin content can degrade in the canning process.
Eat This, Not That! solution: If having fresh fruit around the house for your smoothies is impractical, go for frozen—they add a frosty texture, and freezing preserves more nutrients than canning does, because “the frozen ones are picked then immediately (or soon after) frozen,” according to Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. “Just read the labels on frozen packages to make sure there is no added sodium, sugar, or chemicals.” Dole, which sells the most frozen fruit in America, says that 60% of its frozen fruit ends up in smoothies, with sales on the rise.
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