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Is a breakfast smoothie really the healthiest way to start your day?

July 17th 2016 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru

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A healthy headstart or a sugar-laden trickster in disguise? Here are the pros and cons you need to know before binning your blender for good

When it comes to a quick and easy breakfast options, it’s easy to see why the breakfast smoothie has achieved such a huge following. It makes sense; the thinking behind it matches our to-do list lifestyles and multi-tasking natures perfectly - “Had breakfast?” Tick. “Got a headstart on my 5-a-day?” Tick. Often viewed as a convenient way to get ahead on our healthy eating goals before the clock's even struck 10, are its supposed benefits actually too good to be true?

In order to decide whether breakfast smoothies may be friend or fraud, we asked Dr Zoe Harcombe, obesity researcher and author for her opinion on the subject. From their pros to their cons to how we can make them actually healthy, here’s what you need to know.

The pros

1. They appeal to the veg-phobic

As good as the green stuff is, it isn’t the most appetising. Kale over a croissant? Nope, didn’t think so. However, a blender can often serve as the perfect vehicle for helping up your daily intake. “If you don’t like eating vegetables, then a smoothie can be a good alternative way of getting the nutrients that vegetables offer,” says Dr Harcombe, thereby acting as a stealthy way to bolster your reserves.

2. They provide a serving of real food…

…with a few provisos. If time-short, they can help boost your intake of unprocessed foods. “My first healthy eating principle is to ‘Eat real food’ and smoothies can tick this box – so long as fruit and vegetables are used, not protein powder,” says Dr Harcombe.

3. They can help kick-start a healthier day

Provided they are filled with good quality, healthy ingredients. “A breakfast smoothie might make people think they’ve had a healthy start to the day, which might make them make healthier choices for the rest of the day,” says Dr Harcombe reservedly. Essentially though, it’s what’s inside that counts.

4. They can up your fibre

Fruit ‘n Fibre, Weetabix, All Bran…childhood adverts showcasing cereals as the best way to start your day may go some way to explaining many sceptics’ perceptions that smoothies can’t rival a bowl of Kellogg’s finest in the fibre-stakes. However, the abilities of today’s kitchen appliances now mean you needn't miss out. “The new smoothie gadgets are better at handling the whole fruit or vegetable, so the argument against fibre being lost is lessened,” explains Dr Harcombe, although she thinks that fibre is overrated generally. “The recommended grams per day is a number plucked out of the air, rather than an evidence-based nutritional message,” she says. “The increased consumption of fibre has accompanied an increase in bowel conditions such as IBS, Crohn's, Coeliac's, bloating etc. A number of gastroenterologists are making the removal of fibre the first recommendation they make. For more reading around the subject, check out Fiber Menace by Konstantin Monastyrsky if this piques your interest.”

MORE GLOSS: Should we really be eating more fat?

The cons

1. They can be laced with sugar

While smoothies may seem innocent in their nature, care should be taken to ensure that they don’t conceal hidden nasties, i.e. too much of the (not-so) sweet stuff according to Dr Harcombe and specifically, an excess of fruit or starchy vegetables. “Smoothies are often little more than sugar,” cautions Dr Harcombe. “The only healthy thing to consume in smoothies is green vegetables and I don’t see many smoothie recipes with just green vegetables. Most at least add apple, if not a lot more fruit and starchy veg. A large raw carrot has approximately 7g of carbohydrate; a glass of carrot juice can easily have 3 times this. Fruit is essentially sugar with some nutrients – and nowhere near as many as people think. Any smoothie with fruit or starchy veg, let alone fruit juice, is a sugary drink without the fizz.”

Smoothies are often little more than sugar

2. It is better to eat the whole food

Life’s busy, so it’s no wonder a quick smoothie picked up mid-commute appeals. However, while it may seem that finding faster and easier ways to inject our diets with more fruit and veg is a good thing, Dr Harcombe points out that this too should have its limits - especially in consideration of the above point. “Eating real food strictly means eating food in the form in which it naturally comes. With fruit and vegetables, this means eating the whole fruit or vegetable,” she says. “Yes, the latest smoothie machines keep much of the pulp, but you could still eat way more blitzed fruit/veg than you could eat raw fruit/veg and a lot quicker. Whatever you put into the blender – think how long it would take you to eat it raw, or cooked. In this world of obesity and diet-related illness, making things quicker and easier to eat is not a good thing.”

3. They’re not a complete meal...

...and as a result, you may miss out on vital nutrients that other food sources are better equipped to provide. “The body needs essential fats, complete protein, vitamins and minerals to thrive and survive,” explains Dr Harcombe. “Even if someone has a pure green veg smoothie to start the day, this doesn’t deliver much of the body’s requirements. If this is consumed daily instead of something more nutritious, health can suffer in the long-term.”

4. They may not keep hunger pangs at bay

Will a smoothie keep you full until lunchtime? The likelihood looks slim. “Smoothies are not satiating. Given that fruit or starchy veg smoothies are not a good idea, the green veg options are better to avoid sugar, but are unlikely to get someone through to lunchtime,” says Dr Harcombe. “The easily deliverable carb content may also spike blood glucose levels – not a good idea at breakfast time – as you’ll probably want something else to get blood glucose levels back to normal within a short period of time.”

MORE GLOSS: Amelia Freer’s 9 golden rules for eating clean

What’s best to put into your smoothie?

Is there ever a place for a breakfast smoothie? While not ideal to have every day, it’s clear from the above that the emphasis lies more with quality instead of quantity. “If smoothies work for you and you don’t find yourself craving muffins at 10am, that’s fine. If you get the fat/protein/vitamins and minerals that you need later on in the day, that’s fine too,” says Dr Harcombe. The things to avoid? “Fruit juice is worst; fruit is next worse; and starchy veg is third worst,” she advises. “Green is better than fruit; homemade better than shop-bought. The best smoothie option in my view would be having one with a meal if you don’t like eating vegetables. If you have one for breakfast, then at least have some eggs or yogurt with it. If you have one at lunchtime, have a tin of oily fish at the same time. If you really can’t face eating veg at dinner time, then have veg in a glass with something far more nutritious – like steak!”

What are healthier and better breakfast alternatives?

According to Dr Harcombe, a meal of solids that provides all of your vital nutrients trumps serving them blitzed in a cup. “Choose something that delivers essential fats, complete protein and far more vitamins and minerals,” she recommends. And for those short on time, this thankfully needn’t mean endless hours of prep in the mornings. “Best breakfast options would be: eggs in any form; natural live/bio yogurt (ideally full fat for satiety and fat soluble vitamins) – with optional berries in season; milk (again full fat – which is only 3-4% fat anyway for goodness sake) – a nice frothy cappuccino. And, bacon is fine with eggs – just get quality stuff from the butcher without the sugar/dextrose and additives that so often come in supermarket packets.” Sounds like an appetising way to start the day to us...

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