Healthy Ingredients for Shakes and Smoothies

March 25th, 2009

Ask VinI’m looking for some healthy energy shakes. I’ve got flax oil, organic frozen berries and organic whole milk. What could I use (besides bananas) to give the shakes some texture? Is there any other ingredient you would recommend always including?

Also, any links to recipes for healthy, organic shakes would be much appreciated! Shakes are convenient for after work-outs and for quick breakfasts when on the go.

With our fast paced culture and a trendy fitness industry, protein shakes have become quite popular. They go by many names and are also referred to as smoothies, energy shakes, workout shakes or recovery shakes. They’ve become so popular that there are even shops and franchises dedicated to selling them.

What are Protein Shakes and Smoothies?

For those that don’t know, shakes and smoothies are somewhat like a milkshake, but are intended to be more like a meal or a snack than a dessert. Instead of ice cream, they’re usually made with a mix of protein powder, fruit and a variety of other ingredients, and are typically liquefied with a blender.

Because they’re easy to prepare, shakes and smoothies are a popular choice for people who are busy. They’re also popular with fitness enthusiasts because of the recovery benefits that they can provide. Above all else, the most probable reason for their popularity is that they taste great!

Are Shakes and Smoothies a Healthy Choice?

In my opinion, nothing beats a meal that consists of natural whole foods that are closest to the form in which they come from the earth. Whether it be by chemical or mechanical processing, or simply by cooking, any food that’s been altered from it’s original form is very likely to contain significantly less nutrition. This decline in nutrition is generally worsens as the amount of alteration increases.

Protein powder is highly processed and is very unlikely to be even remotely as nutritious as meat or even the dairy sources that it’s derived from. While some protein powders are far more healthy and nutritious than others, the better ones are typically quite expensive, and in my opinion, not worth the money unless you absolutely insist on using powders. If you do decide to use protein powder, avoid soy based powders and make sure that dairy based powders are organic, and if possible, from grass fed cows.

Shakes and smoothies can serve as a health snack or meal, but this is highly dependent on the quality of their ingredients. While protein powder may not be a great source of nutrition, there are some excellent whole food alternatives that I’ll discuss later in the article.

The Danger of Repetition

One of the biggest problems with protein shakes is that people tend to have them every day with the same ingredients. Repetitive eating habits like this can undermine your health by causing food sensitivities. For about ten years, I had nearly the same protein shake every day for breakfast, and again after a workout. The primary ingredients were whey protein powder, milk, a banana, and a few other items. I eventually developed food sensitivities to all three of the main ingredients.

The Misunderstanding of Workout Recovery

Healthy BodybuildingThere is a brief window following exercise where your body will be more receptive to sugar so that it can replenish the glycogen you used. Many people believe that a liquid meal, such as a shake or smoothie, is advantageous after a workout because it’s easier to digest and will allow more nutrients to be assimilated during the precious post workout window. There’s also evidence that consuming sugar with protein after exercise will facilitate your body’s ability to assimilate the protein.

I think people place too much importance on these concepts and end up missing what’s most important. No matter how well you time and optimize your post workout nutrition, quality always matters most. The food you eat after a workout is what your cells are going to be repaired and rebuilt with. Would you rather rebuild your body with processed powders containing damaged protein molecules and chemical additives or the natural and nutritious foods that we evolved on? As shown by the picture above, humans were perfectly capable of becoming fit, muscular and athletic long before whey protein powder ever existed.

Healthy Shake and Smoothie Ingredients

Even though I firmly believe that a well balanced meal consisting of natural whole foods is superior to a shake or smoothie, there are ingredients you can use to make one that has similar nutritional quality to that of a good meal.

First and foremost, all the ingredients of your shakes and smoothies, as well as your regular meals, should be organic.

Eggs: This will probably sound crazy if you don’t read a lot about natural health. Raw eggs are extremely nutritious and are one of the best sources of protein and other valuable nutrients for a shake or smoothie. Using the eggs raw is important because they contain delicate nutrients that are easily destroyed through heating. Even worse, cooking an egg oxidizes the cholesterol of the yoke and makes it unhealthy.

Despite their excellent nutrition, eggs have developed a bad reputation because of their cholesterol. If you want to enjoy excellent health, you must realize that cholesterol is essential for the integrity and function of your cell membranes which are vitally important to your health. Cholesterol is also required for the the synthesis of several important hormones. If you have a hard time believing this, I highly suggest that you read The Cholesterol Myths by Uffe Ravnskov to learn why cholesterol doesn’t deserve it’s bad reputation.

If you don’t fear eggs because of cholesterol, you probably think that eating eggs raw is a significant risk for salmonella. You’d actually have to eat about 30,000 eggs to come across one that’s contaminated. Furthermore, organic free range eggs are much less likely to be contaminated, and if you’re following a healthy lifestyle, your immune system should be strong and be able to easily handle a rare salmonella infection.

If you use a blender to make your shakes, first blend the shake without the eggs, and then blend it again for just a few seconds after adding the eggs. This will help keep the delicate nutrients of the egg intact. An even better alternative would be to mix the shake with a stirrer.

Milk: Because nearly all milk available in supermarkets is pasteurized, most of it’s valuable nutrients are destroyed. What’s left is basically sugar water. As such, I don’t recommend using pasteurized milk on a regular basis, especially if it’s not whole milk. In contrast, raw milk is an excellent source of nutrition that would be a great addition to your shakes and smoothies. However, depending on where you live, it can be difficult to find. You’ll most likely have to buy it directly from a farm. For more information about the benefits of raw milk and where to get it, visit Raw milk is also an excellent source of healthy fat and will give your shake a thicker consistency than water or juice.

Many people who have difficulty digesting pasteurized dairy have no trouble at all with raw milk. If you do, some alternatives include coconut milk or almond milk. I’m purposely excluding soy milk from this list because soy is far from the health food that it’s marketed to be and I don’t recommend it’s use.

Water: Although water won’t do much for the taste of a shake or smoothie, it’s useful if you want to keep the consistency lighter. If you do use water, make sure it’s filtered.

Juice: Like milk, most of the juice available in supermarkets is of poor quality and is especially high in sugar. As such, I recommend that you avoid juice as often as possible. If there’s a particular type of juice that you enjoy, include it as part of your 20 percent, and if possible, opt for juices that are freshly squeezed and avoid those that are made from concentrate.

Fruit: While fruit is a nutritious and healthy choice to add great flavor and substance to a shake, don’t forget that it’s also high in sugar. Some people are more sensitive to sugar than others, but too much sugar isn’t good for anyone, even after a workout. Although I don’t have protein shakes much anymore, when I was having them regularly, bananas, strawberries and blueberries were some of my favorite fruits to use.

Fats and Fatty Acids: Most people are aware of the need for the omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Because our body can’t produce them, they must come from our diet. While the intake of these fatty acids should be roughly in balance, most people consume far too much omega-6 and not nearly enough omega-3. However, because fish are the best source of omega-3, but also commonly polluted, high quality fish oil is an excellent addition to a protein shake. The brand I prefer to use is Carlson Laboratories. Flax seed oil is a good source of omega-3 as well.

Coconut oil is also an excellent source of high quality fat to include in your shakes and smoothies. It adds taste, is an instant source of energy, and is also a natural antimicrobial that supports the immune system. If you decide to use coconut oil, make sure it’s organic, unrefined, and cold pressed. I save a lot of money by buying coconut oil in 1 gallon containers from Mountain Rose Herbs.

Gelatin: This is one of the few exceptions I tend to make in regard to using powders. While gelatin won’t do much for the taste of your shakes and smoothies, it will add texture and provide nutrients that are beneficial to your joints, and more importantly, the lining of your intestines. The gelatin I use is made by Great Lakes. While bone broth is a more natural source of gelatin, most people won’t bother with the hassle of preparing it and it’s not a very appetizing ingredient for a smoothie.

Shakes, Smoothies and Metabolic Typing

Last, but certainly not least, it’s crucially important to consider Metabolic Typing when preparing shakes and smoothies. Metabolic Typing is the science of identifying an individuals unique nutritional needs and is an essential component of a healthy diet. Eating too much carbohydrate, protein or fat for your individual needs will compromise your health, and as such, this is just as important to consider for your shakes and smoothies as it is for regular meals.

Based on my Metabolic Type, I need to eat a lot of protein and fat. During all the years I was having protein shakes for breakfast, they had far too much carbohydrate for my individual needs and not nearly enough protein and fat. Within just an hour of consuming a 30 oz shake, I’d be starving for another meal and would experience a variety of other annoying symptoms. This is what happens when you don’t eat according to your individual needs, and if you do it frequently enough, it can have a significant impact on your health.

Shake and Smoothie Recipes

One of the most enjoyable aspects of including shakes and smoothies in your diet is that it’s easy to experiment with new ingredients. Nobody knows your preferences and dislikes better than you, so don’t be afraid to try different things. You just might surprise yourself with what you come up with.

The difficulty with most of the recipes that you’ll find in books and on the internet is that they recommend questionable ingredients, and because of this, it’s not easy to find recipes that are based on solid nutritional principles. The Healthy Urban Kitchen Cookbook by Antonio Valladares is one of the few resources I know of that includes healthy shake and smoothie recipies. In addition, it also includes many great recipes for regular meals and plenty of valuable information on nutrition in general.

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