“Healthy smoothies” sold by retail chain stores tend to be a large marketing scheme. They make you think you’re being healthy because you’re consuming fresh vegetables and fruits, as opposed to “fast food.” Yes, most smoothies are indeed healthier than a Chick-fil-A meal, but is that really a fair comparison? What these smoothie chain stores don’t advertise is that their concoctions may not contain many nutrients or fiber since the fruits and vegetables have been so pulverized. Their drinks may also be filled with sugars, both natural and added, which not only makes them less healthy for you, but also a poor choice if you’re trying to lose weight. Making the smoothie yourself is the best way to ensure that it’s healthy, nutritious and won’t sabotage your weight-loss goals. Plus, you can add ingredients in your weight loss smoothie that might aid you in your weight management efforts.
How do you achieve weight loss?
The fundamental principle behind weight loss is the consumption of fewer calories “in” than calories “out.” In other words, in order to shed some pounds, the number of calories you consume should be less than the number of calories you burn off throughout the day. Thus, calorie control with increased physical activity remains the best approach for weight management or weight loss.
Without completely changing your diet overnight, you can achieve calorie control with a few simple habits:
- Reduce your meal portions. Smaller meals are an easy way to reduce the total calories you consume.
- Select lower-calorie options for your favorite calorie-dense foods. If you love having ice cream at the end of the day, try looking for an ice cream option with lower calories.
- The last habit — and the one that might be hardest to adopt — is to say no to foods with high calories and minimal nutrition. It’s safe to say that most fast foods belong in this category. The lack of nutrition in these kinds of food will have you reaching for more food, more frequently, and the calories you consume throughout the day can accumulate and skyrocket. Aim for low-calorie foods that are nevertheless nutrient-dense: a well-made smoothie fits that bill.
How do you make a healthy smoothie for weight loss?
To make a healthy smoothie that could be a part of an overall weight management program, follow these guidelines. (For further details, see our Addendum: Common weight loss ingredients to use in weight-loss smoothies, at the end of this report.)
1. Include protein, healthy fats and fiber
Highly nutritious foods have one or a combination of the following: protein, healthy fats and fiber. These essential nutrients provide your body with quality fuel for energy and keep you full and satisfied for longer. For those on a weight loss journey, incorporating foods rich in these essential “macronutrients” helps you reduce the amount of food you eat, and in turn the total calories you consume, without feeling like you’re starving.
Dietary pulses (defined as the edible seeds from legume plants; examples are beans, lentils and peas) are good sources of protein and fiber, so they keep you full on less food. A 2016 meta-analysis of studies exploring the role of dietary pulses in weight loss suggests that incorporating beans into your diet “leads to a modest weight-loss effect even when diets are not intended to be calorically restricted.” The high fiber and protein in beans satiated the hunger of study participants, leading them to eat less food and consume fewer calories, which in turn helped them to lose weight without following a calorie-deficit diet. So beans are a great addition to your weight loss smoothie for added protein and fiber — but do be wary of using canned beans, which have a lot of sodium in them.
Certain grains (like barley, wheat), vegetables (spinach, collard greens) and fruits (strawberries, avocados) pack quite the punch in terms of fiber. These plant foods also tend to contain butyrates, which are short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs) that play an important role in gut health and functioning, and also help to regulate blood sugar levels. A diet rich in foods with butyrates encourages the survival of butyrate-producing bacteria in the gut and increases the body’s level of butyrate production. This process has been associated with the simultaneous release of certain hormones such as GLP-1, known to suppress appetite and promote the breakdown of fats. Most plants with fiber-rich profiles and digestion-resistant starches contain butyrates, and thus make for great additions to your weight loss smoothie.
2. Use low-sugar fruits and avoid added sugars
Whole fruits and vegetables are healthy, but does that mean that all smoothies are healthy? Not necessarily. You may think so because smoothies contain so many servings of healthy fruits and vegetables. However, while fruits in moderation are very healthy, an excessive amounts of fruits represents a ton of sugars — in the form of natural molecules (sucrose, fructose and glucose), yes — but the amount of those sugars in a smoothie can rival the amount of sucrose (the fructose/glucose dissacharide molecule) in a cup of table sugar. Whether sugars are natural or added, they all break down to glucose, eventually, as you digest them: learn more in Confused About Carbohydrates?
To make matters worse, smoothies from your local Jamba Juice tend to have large amounts of added sugar, thanks to apple juice-based smoothies. Yep, that’s the secret to your delicious-tasting smoothie: the bottled kind of apple juice that contains loads of fructose, glucose and preservatives.
If they’ve added flavored (or sweetened) protein powder and nut milk to the mix, the sugar content in a smoothie climbs even more. For those on a weight loss journey, you probably know that added sugar is not your friend. It contains empty calories and has been linked to weight gain, obesity and diabetes. These filled-to-the-brim sugary smoothies become unhealthy for the average individual, and even more so for those with or at risk of developing diabetes, as some of these drinks can cause dramatic blood sugar spikes akin to drinking any sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB).
3. Aim for low calories
Healthy smoothies for weight loss should contain low-calorie ingredients with high-quality essential nutrients (protein, healthy fats and fiber). Some examples:
- Pumpkin: This food is low-calorie while rich in fiber, which helps slow down digestion and keeps you full for longer. Research has also found that pumpkin can lower blood glucose levels and improve insulin production. A 2019 study found that injecting mice (that had type 2 diabetes) with pumpkin polysaccharides and puerarin helped to lessen the severity of their disorders. On their own, pumpkin polysaccharides and puerarin each had a hypoglycemic effect on this metabolic condition; however, injection of both the polysaccharides and the puerarin produced a synergistic hypoglycemic effect.
- Pistachios: As one of the lowest-calorie nuts, pistachios also contain lots of healthy fats, protein and fiber. A recent 2019 study found that “regular consumption of pistachios was associated with a comparable degree of weight loss, and similar reductions in BMI and waist circumference, in overweight/obese men and women” compared to the group of study participants who underwent only behavioral weight loss intervention (no pistachios).
4. Boost your weight loss smoothie with caffeine
Water, milk and apple juice are popular bases for smoothies. But, if you want to take your weight-loss smoothie to the next level, try adding matcha green tea or coffee.
Green tea and coffee both contain caffeine, a stimulant whose effect on athletic performance has been studied extensively. In one study that explored the effects of caffeine on performance and the perception of effort during high-intensity cycling, results found that caffeine improved the participants’ time to exhaustion by 12%, boosting participants’ endurance levels. Look: we’re not all high-intensity cyclists, but the point is that caffeine in your weight-loss smoothie might provide you with an added boost of energy that helps you work out just a bit harder than you would otherwise.
Besides caffeine, green tea also contains green tea catechins — specifically ECGC or epigallocatechin-3-gallate — that may have weight-loss benefits. ECGC helps maintain healthy norepinephrine levels (a fat-burning hormone) by blocking the enzyme that would normally break it down. With more ECGC in the body, more fat gets broken down for energy.
5. Incorporate vitamin C
Vitamin C is another great addition to your weight loss smoothie. This vitamin helps your body to produce carnitine, a compound that plays a critical role in energy production and fat oxidation. An earlier study found that “individuals with adequate vitamin C status oxidize 30% more fat during a moderate exercise bout than individuals with low vitamin C status.” So boosting your levels of vitamin C could improve the effectiveness and results of your physical activity sessions.
Parsley, for example, is a great source of vitamin C. One cup of fresh parsley contains about 80 mg of vitamin C, meeting almost the entire daily recommended amount (90 mg for adult men; 75 mg for adult women) of this vitamin.
6. Spice it up with cayenne
The kick that you get from hot cayenne peppers or other kinds of chili peppers comes from capsaicin, a compound that may aid in speeding up metabolism, suppressing appetite and burning more calories. One study explored the sustained release of capsaicinoids throughout the day in healthy overweight participants over 28 days. Participants who took the pepper extract supplement had a significant decrease in body weight (2.1%), w/h [weight/height] ratio (4%) and body mass index (BMI) (2.2%) compared to the placebo group. So cayenne pepper could be a beneficial addition to your weight-loss smoothie if you can handle the heat and you are not taking theophylline or medication for high blood pressure.
7. Go for dairy or plant-based
Cutting out dairy foods and drinks might result in weight loss for some individuals, but not for others — and side-stepping an entire food group is a rather drastic step. And, in fact, consuming dairy has been shown to help individuals better manage their weight. A meta-analysis of 37 compiled and randomized trials on dairy and weight loss found that dairy consumption led to a reduction in fat mass (0.23 kg or 0.5 lbs) and an increase in lean body mass (0.37 kg or 0.82 lbs). Why? Because incorporating fuller-fat dairy products could help keep you full and sustained for longer, reducing your desire and need to eat more and leading to eventual weight loss. Learn more in Dairy and Diabetes: What You Need To Know.
If you are sensitive to dairy or you choose not to consume dairy products, plant-based products are valid substitutes. Just make sure to avoid the added sugars in flavored or sweetened protein powders and nut milks.
8. Use veggies as a base, then top with fruits
The last tip for making healthy weight-loss smoothies is to focus on the ratio of vegetables and fruits. Earlier, we mentioned that fruits contain sugar, and certain fruits contain more sugar than others. Natural sugar as it may be, elevated sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, which is the opposite of your health goals. So, use fruits in your smoothie more sparingly, and use fruits that are lower in sugar; you can check out how various fruits rate on the Glycemic Index (GI), a useful tool for understanding which fruits have more or less of a tendency to spike your blood sugar. (Learn more about the GI.)
To replace the fruits you are not putting in, add in healthy servings of vegetables, which are prebiotics. Vegetables and other prebiotics (like whole grains) tend to be rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals that nourish your body and keep you full for longer. However, when you chop the vegetables up in a blender, their insoluble fiber gets chopped and reduced as well. Make up for that loss of fiber by adding more greens and fiber-rich seeds like chia seeds. In fact, use greens as the base for your smoothie and then top with low-sugar fruits.
The key to a healthy weight-loss smoothie lies in low-calorie, low-sugar and nutritious ingredients. You can find many healthy smoothie recipes online: pick and choose your favorite, abiding by our ingredient guidelines, and adding in any extra ingredients (such as green tea or cayenne) having properties that may aid in achieving weight loss. But as delicious and nutritious as a well-made smoothie can be, dietary considerations are only one part of the weight-loss equation. The other half requires mental and lifestyle changes, such as increased physical activity (on a consistent basis) and better sleep hygiene (on a consistent basis) that, when combined, can lead not only to losing (and keeping off) a few pounds, but also to overall improved metabolic health.
Disclaimer: The tips we’ve compiled here can help you make smoothies that may aid in weight loss. However, be wary of replacing your meals entirely with weight-loss smoothies, as they may not provide all the macro- and micronutrients most beneficial to your body. Before making radical changes in your diet, be sure to consult with a registered dietitian or your family doctor for a personalized weight loss nutrition plan.
Addendum: Common healthy smoothie ingredients to use in weight loss smoothies
Banana, strawberries, raspberries, mixed berries, peaches, apple, cherries, avocados, lemon, lime
Vegetables and Herbs
Spinach, kale, baby spinach, carrots, celery, pumpkin (canned or puree), sweet potato (cooked, with skin off), parsley, mint, basil, watercress
Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas
Seeds, Nuts, and Grains
Chia seeds, hemp seeds, ground flax seeds (better for digestion), pecan, walnuts, pistachios, oats
Unsweetened almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, regular dairy milk
Whey concentrate, whey isolate, plant-based protein powder (from peas, brown rice, soy, hemp)
Spreads, Butters, and Oil
Cashew butter, almond butter, peanut butter, flaxseed oil
Powders, Spices, and Other
Raw cocoa powder, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla extract, ginger, dark chocolate