To your health: Smoothies without extras a good option

By Leia Kedem

This past weekend, I traveled to Arizona for a family wedding as my mom's "plus one."

We took a day trip to Sedona for a hike, and our guide shared with us his favorite smoothie recipe. It was an exceedingly long list of ingredients but included frozen fruit, coconut milk, agave nectar, spirulina, local bee pollen and wheat grass, among other things.

My first thought was, wow. That smoothie must take a long time to put together. For me, smoothies are a quick drink you blend up when time is short: a portable, drinkable meal with basic components like juice, yogurt and fruit.

But based on my experience with our trail guide and others, it seems that the humble smoothie has taken on a new identity: a vehicle for health itself.

Local smoothie chains offer powders, boosts and extras to "juice up" your drink, so to speak. At home, you can customize your smoothie using ingredients found at the health food store or even your neighborhood supermarket.

But are all of those other ingredients necessary? In short, probably not.

Not only can these ingredients be expensive, but many of the things our travel guide named have not been scientifically tested. Plus, most results from studies of ingredients that have been researched cannot be applied to the general population because of methodological problems. That's why you won't find many physicians recommending bee pollen to their patients.

Certainly, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence ("It worked for me!"). If you are willing to give these a try, keep in mind that results are not guaranteed, and any changes you feel may simply be due to the placebo effect. The mind is a powerful thing; sometimes just the act of taking a pill can make us feel better because we believe it's working.

No doubt, a smoothie can be a great way to squeeze in breakfast when you're on the go. Typical ingredients also are usually quite healthy. Fruits provide fiber, vitamins and important minerals like potassium.

Dairy add-ins like milk and yogurt are a good source of protein, calcium and vitamin D. If such healthy ingredients are already used as the base, those "boosts" might be expensive overkill.

When you're already overdosing on vitamin C from whole fruits and juices added to your smoothie, an "immunity boost" won't do you much more good. Addingmore protein might help keep you fuller for longer, but it doesn't need to be with protein powders. Using Greek yogurt or even cottage cheese can achieve a similar effect.

So smoothies can indeed be a convenient option, but there are a few other things to keep in mind. Chain shops often add sweeteners like sugar syrups or honey that can add significant calories. They also may use frozen yogurt or ice cream, making it more like a milkshake.Even small sizes can run upwards of hundreds of calories, so a small basic smoothie should serve as a light meal, not a snack.

Let's be honest, though: Many of us indulge in the larger smoothies and write it off because it's "healthy." In such large portions, those health benefits pale in comparison to the calorie overload. Interestingly enough, even large smoothies may not keep you full for long.

It takes more time to digest solid food, which helps keep you full and satisfied. That smoothie requires little to no breakdown in the stomach and is free to move on from the stomach not long after it arrived. Indeed, I usually feel hungry again within an hour or two.

Like anything else, smoothies can absolutely be part of a healthy eating pattern. Try this basic recipe from the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Program for days that you're on the go, but don't forget to bring a snack to tide you over.

Basic Fruit Smoothie

1 banana (large)

1 cup fresh peaches or strawberries

1 carton vanilla yogurt (8 ounces)

1/2 cup fruit juice

Put all ingredients in a blender. Blend on high until smooth. Pour into two glasses and serve right away.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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