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Are Smoothies Good for Diabetics?

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Are Smoothies Good for Diabetics?

If you’re like many people, you might enjoy a smoothie now and then — or even every day. Or, if you haven’t jumped on the smoothie bandwagon yet, you might be curious about smoothies. They look cool and creamy and come an array of colors, so it’s understandable that they can be tempting. But what’s in a smoothie? And if you have diabetes, how will a smoothie affect your blood sugars?

What is a smoothie, anyway?

A smoothie is a blended drink made from fruits and/or vegetables, a liquid such as milk or a plant-based milk, yogurt or juice, and ice. Some smoothie recipes may call for additional protein in the form of a powder. A smoothie’s “thickness” can vary and depends on the ratio of liquid to solid ingredients. If you make your own smoothies, you need a way to blend all of these ingredients until they’re, well, smooth. High-powered blenders, such as Vitamix, NutriBullet, and Ninja are perfect for whipping up a smoothie, but a regular blender or even an immersion blender can work, too.

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If you don’t have a blender or don’t feel up to making your own smoothies, you can purchase them. Specialty cafes and coffee shops typically sell them, and grocery stores sell bottled versions.

Smoothies are different than juices. The website Kitchn distinguishes the two based on fiber: “Smoothies have a lot of it; juices typically have very little.” For the most part, with juices, pulp from fruits and vegetables are filtered out and discarded; smoothies retain the pulp, and that’s a good thing. Not only does the pulp make the drink thick and creamy, it gives you nutrition benefits, as well.

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Why do people drink smoothies?

Smoothies aren’t for everyone, but they can be appealing to people who may not like eating a meal or who don’t have the time or desire to prepare one. They’re also commonly consumed in-between meals.

Smoothies are a popular option for those who can’t stomach eating breakfast or who are racing to get out the door to get to school or work. It’s a way to get a decent dose of nutrients, especially vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Other people drink smoothies tohelp them achieve a particular health goal, such as losing (or gaining) weight, managing blood sugar levels, or improving overall health.

Is drinking a smoothie a smart idea for people with diabetes?

The answer is: It depends. On the one hand, smoothies can be a great way to boost your nutrition. In general, these popular beverages provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. People who fall short of recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables can make up for that deficit by “drinking” them in the form of a smoothie. And, when used in the right way, smoothies can be part of a weight-loss plan, too.

How smoothies can make diabetes management more difficult

On the other hand, smoothies can work against you and make it harder to manage your diabetes. Here’s why:

Carbohydrate

Carbs aren’t bad, but too much doesn’t do your blood sugars any favors. Depending on the type and amount of smoothie that you’re drinking, you can easily exceed your carb goals , especially if your portion is large. That’s because smoothies may contain a lot of added sugar, particularly if you’re buying one at the grocery store or at a shop.

Calories

As you happily throw ingredients into your blender for a “healthy” treat, don’t lose sight of the calories. Fruit, whole milk or whole-milk yogurt, nuts and nut butters, and even protein powders (all typical ingredients found in smoothies) can pack a calorie wallop, making it a challenge if you’re trying to shed a few – or a lot – of pounds.

Here’s an example of how the carbs and added sugars can run amuck if you purchase a 20-ounce Peanut Power Plus Strawberry smoothie at Smoothie King (a franchise found in the mid-west). Note that this contains bananas, strawberries, peanut butter, dates, nonfat milk, turbinado (brown sugar), and protein blend.

Smoothie King: Peanut Power Plus Strawberry
  • Calories: 680
  • Carbs: 109 g
  • Added sugar: 49 g
  • Fiber: 11 g
  • Protein 14 g
  • Fat 22 g

This smoothie is off the charts in terms of calories and carbs (and can send your blood sugars and weight off the charts, too!). Of note, the American Heart Association recommends an added sugar limit of no more than 24 grams per day for women, and no more than 36 grams per day for men.

To be fair, Smoothie King does offer smoothies with a more reasonable nutrition profile. Here’s their Slim-N-Trim Veggie smoothie, made with kale, spinach, ginger, mangoes, bananas, protein, fiber enhancer, and apple-pineapple juice blend.

Smoothie King: Slim-N-Trim Veggie 
  • Calories: 240
  • Carbs: 46 g
  • Added sugar: 0 g
  • Fiber: 13 g
  • Protein: 17 g
  • Fat: 1.5 g

Calorie- and carb-wise, this is a better option than the Power Plus smoothie listed above and could be an option as a small meal. But as a snack, even this smoothie may not be a great choice, depending on your specific goals.

Store-bought smoothies can also widely vary in terms of their nutrition profile. Here’s an example of one such smoothie, Bolthouse Farms Mocha Cappuccino, 15.2 ounces. Ingredients include reduced-fat milk, coffee, cane sugar, whey protein concentrate, vanilla extract, acacia gum, gellan gum, cocoa, and carrageenan.

Bolthouse Farms: Mocha Cappuccino
  • Calories: 320
  • Carbs: 56 g
  • Added sugar: 40 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Protein: 13 g
  • Fat: 4.5 g

This particular smoothie seems more like a milkshake; the added sugar exceeds total sugar goals for the entire day, and there are 0 grams of fiber.

A more reasonable Bolthouse Farms smoothie to try (from a calorie and carb perspective) is the Protein Keto Coffee smoothie, 15.2 ounces.

Bolthouse Farms: Protein Keto Coffee
  • Calories: 280
  • Carbs: 15 g
  • Added sugar: 0 g
  • Fiber: 1 g
  • Protein: 15 g
  • Fat: 22 g (including 9 g saturated fat)

Downsides with the keto version are the glaring lack of fiber, and the high amount of fat (from MCT oil) and saturated fat (from coconut milk).

Obviously, not all smoothies contain fruits and vegetables, which means a lower likelihood of squeezing in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

If fitting smoothies into your eating plan piques your interest, either in place of a meal or for a snack, it’s a good idea to first check with your healthcare provider or dietitian. Depending on the ingredients in the smoothie (whether you purchase or make your own) as well as how much you drink, smoothies can be high in both calories and carbohydrate, so read labels carefully and choose your ingredients carefully if you want to make your own.

Not sure how smoothies will impact your blood sugar? Use your meter or CGM (continuous glucose monitor) to guide you. Check before you drink a smoothie and then check again a couple of hours later. Ideally, your blood sugar two hours later should be less than 180.

Making your own smoothie

The beauty of smoothies is that there are endless combinations of ingredients that you can use. To get you started, here are some tips to make “smooth sailing” of smoothies:

Choose your produce

Consider using a combination of fruits and vegetables, since fruits contain more calories and carbs than veggies. Any kind will do, but berries, cherries, kiwi, plums, melon, and clementines are lower in carbs than, say, bananas. Both fresh and frozen will work. Don’t overlook vegetables. You may not care for kale, but mixed in a smoothie, you’ll never know what hit you! Besides kale, carrots, broccoli, spinach, and zucchini are great choices. Also, using more vegetables and less fruit means less carbohydrate. And feel free to make your smoothie with just veggies, too.

Choose your liquid

You can use water, but that can make your smoothie thin in consistency. Juice is an option, but that will add extra carbohydrate. Consider using skim or low-fat milk. Or, if you prefer or need to avoid dairy, use an unsweetened plant-based milk. Ideally, go for one that has a decent amount of protein, such as soy, pea, oat, or flax milk.

Add some protein

Protein helps with stabilizing blood glucose levels and also can help you feel full. Greek-style yogurt adds both thickness and protein. You can add a scoop or two of protein powder. There are many options, including whey protein (shown in some studies to help with blood sugar control) and casein protein. Avoid these proteins if you are allergic to milk. Other options include hemp, soy, brown rice, and pea protein. Don’t go overboard with the protein powder, though; remember that protein contains calories. Too much protein can be dehydrating. And check with your doctor before using protein powder if you have kidney problems.

Add healthy fat

Fat helps keep you feeling full and can also slow carb digestion, resulting in more stable blood sugars. Nuts, seeds, and nut or seed butters give you healthy fat plus protein and fiber. Avocado is another way to add fat and fiber (a good choice if you’re allergic to nuts and seeds). Again, watch the amount you add, since all fats are high in calories.

Add flavor

If you think your smoothie could use a flavor boost or if you’re looking to switch things up a bit, experiment with various flavor enhancers: ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, fresh mint, fresh basil, vanilla or almond extract, or unsweetened cocoa powder. Pumping up the flavor can also help if you think your smoothie isn’t sweet enough.

Congratulations! You’ve made your own smoothie. For more ideas, check out Diabetes Self-Management’s smoothie recipes here.

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating,” “Clean Eating in 10 Easy Steps” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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