Today’s the day, right? You plan on getting your diet back on track after a couple weeks of holiday-fueled overindulging. A properly-constructed breakfast is the most logical place to start. After all, what you choose to start the day sets the tone for how you’ll eat the entire rest of the day. Most Americans do breakfast wrong. We eat dessert for breakfast – pastries, muffins, doughnuts. However convenient, these “foods” are completely devoid of any nutritional value. Worse, however, is that the resulting insulin spike will leave you craving sugar and refined carbs for hours. There are better options. Aside from eggs, nothing beats a smoothie in providing a satiating, energy-boosting jumpstart to your day and in under 10 minutes.
So, you’ve got your almond milk (unsweetened, of course!), leafy greens (spinach and kale are best!), protein powder (grass-fed whey preferably!), a handful of berries (organic, if possible!) and perhaps an avocado lined up on the kitchen counter and you’re ready to concoct your morning smoothie. Great base but if you’re downing this liquid breakfast for the health and weight management benefits, consider one of these under-the-radar add-ins to take things to the next level.
Chlorella is an algae native to Japan and Taiwan and is considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. It’s loaded with protein, vitamin A, zinc and iron. Like spinach, parsley and watercress, chlorella is rich in chlorophyll, the pigment that gives these plants their green color. Though chlorophyll has been used for decades as an “internal” deodorant, as a treatment for slow-healing wounds and as a weapon against Candida, scientists have recently discovered more impressive health benefits in the areas of weight management and even cancer prevention.
A 2013 study in the journal Appetite showed that chlorophyll supplements lead to reduced hunger after meals and more stable blood sugar levels in overweight women. The researchers also noted suppressed food intake and less weight gain among participants. Additional research has demonstrated that this category of nutritional supplement “induces weight loss, improves obesity-related risk-factors, and reduces the urge for palatable food.”
Research also supports the use of chlorophyll to fight cancer via several pathways, including its ability to bind to and remove environmental pollutants, heavy metals and other carcinogens. In this manner, chlorophyll seems to activate the body’s detoxification system. Also on the cancer front, chlorophyll can boost the action of our immune system’s T cells in fighting off abnormal cell growth. Researchers at Yonsei University in Seoul Korea determined that chlorella increases “natural killer” cell activity, a process in which immune system cells attach themselves to and kill tumor cells and virus-infected cells.
Chlorophyll can also make some of the bad food you eat less bad. One of the things that makes fried foods so harmful is that the cooking method results in the formation of compounds that damage the DNA of our cells. Research has shown that chlorophyll can offer protection against that damage, reducing the oxidative stress that can occur from a poor diet.
How to use it: Though chlorella is available in tablet form, you’d have to take several of them to get a beneficial dose. A powder is much more practical and the other ingredients in your smoothie will mask the strong taste. Look for “broken cell wall” chlorella, which is more absorbable. The NOW Foods and Starwest Botanicals brands are reputable choices.
No, I’m not referring to the jiggly blob of chemical-laden neon that sadly still enjoys a place on far too many school lunch trays.
Real gelatin has long provided a host of benefits for the natural health crowd, most notably with regard to gut function. Gelatin can help heal the gut and improve digestion by restoring the lining of the stomach, increasing acid production (a good thing, despite what mainstream medicine has you believe!) and keeping fluid in the stomach to move things along. When the cells that line the intestinal wall are able to function as they should, you limit the risk of food intolerances, allergies, inflammation and autoimmune disease that result from having a “leaky gut.”
Gelatin has also demonstrated anti-inflammatory benefits that have been shown to reduce joint pain in both athletes and osteoporosis patients. One of its major amino acid constituents – glycine – is known to improve sleep, possibly by acting as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, decreasing anxiety and promoting calmness. And gelatin also provides the building blocks for the production of collagen, the main structural element that keeps skin smooth and healthy looking.
How to use it: There are two types of gelatin. Regular, whole protein gelatin turns into a gel when added to liquids. That’s great for making a healthier version of Jell-O or gummies but for smoothies you want hydrolyzed gelatin, which has been broken down into individual amino acids. I like Great Lakes brand, which is derived from grass-fed animals.
Avoid vegan attempts at gelatin. Real gelatin is an animal product. Vegan “gelatin” offers none of the health benefits and almost always contains added sugar, various gums and the questionable additive carrageenan.
Cacao is the raw, unprocessed form of chocolate. Cacao beans are grown in Mexico and South America and are roasted and ground to produce chocolate. When dried at very low temperatures, however, they are considered raw and are sometimes broken into small pieces called nibs and then ground into a nutrient-packed powder that makes a perfect smoothie add-in.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re familiar with antioxidants and their ability to quell the disease-causing free radicals that our cells are exposed to each day. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry determined that the antioxidant capacity of cacao is higher than that of red wine and green tea. One way to calculate the antioxidant power of a food is by its ORAC value. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity and by this measure, raw cacao far outperforms blueberries, kale and broccoli. Cacao is loaded with a special group of antioxidants collectively referred to as flavonoids and cacao has been found to contain more flavonoids than any other food on the planet.
Cacao is a potent source of the minerals copper and magnesium, which may partly explain its ability to decrease the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and help prevent the formation of plaque in the arteries. Research has demonstrated additional mechanisms through which cacao may lower heart disease risk, namely by lowering blood pressure, improving vascular function and fighting inflammation.
In the area of cancer prevention, a 2002 study found that the antioxidants in cacao lowered the incidence of both pancreatic and breast cancer. Other health benefits of cacao include increased blood flow to the brain and a corresponding improvements in performance on tests of mental acuity and memory.
Among its more immediate and noticeable effects, cacao contains several “feel good” chemicals that boost levels of endorphins, as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Together, these produce a sense of wellbeing and can have mild anti-depressant effects.
How to use it: Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, cacao is the raw, unprocessed form of chocolate. Pure, raw cacao powder is either sun-dried or cold-pressed using very low heat, preserving all those flavonoids and other nutrients. Cacao has a very strong flavor and is not at all sweet but you’re also not consuming it the way you would a chocolate bar. As part of a smoothie, any bitterness will be masked by the sweetness of berries and other fruit or a few drops of liquid stevia. My pick is Navitas Naturals Organic Cacao Powder.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors consumed about 100 grams of fiber per day in the form of various roots, berries and other plant foods – and experienced little to none of the chronic diseases of aging that we’ve come to accept as inevitable. Today, the average American takes in a mere 8 grams of fiber per day, despite its documented benefits in the areas of weight loss, intestinal health and blood sugar and cholesterol balance. Smoothies provide the perfect “vehicle” for sneaking some extra fiber into your day.
Glucomannan, also known as konjac, is a water-soluble fiber that comes from the elephant yam, a tuber native to Asia. Glucomannan can absorb up to 50 times its weight in water, which promotes a sense of fullness and helps curb appetite. In fact, doses of 2 to 4 grams daily have resulted in significant weight loss in studies involving overweight and obese participants.
Glucomannan also helps with weight loss by slowing the absorption of food from the gut into the bloodstream. This keeps blood sugar under control. It also helps keep hunger in check by sending a signal to the brain that you’ve had enough to eat.
In addition, glucomannan feeds the good bacteria in the gut, which convert it to a short-chain fatty acid known as butyrate. Butyrate has a number of health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity and increased energy expenditure. Additional research has demonstrated its potential use in the inhibition and treatment of intestinal disorders such as colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Other benefits include lower triglyceride, blood sugar and LDL levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
How to use it: Glucomannan is available in capsule form or in a variety of food products, most notably shirataki noodles. For smoothies, you want the powder. Start with a teaspoon. The powder is tasteless and will add a nice thickness to your smoothie. I like NOW brand.
Ginger is a staple in Asian cooking and populations in that part of the world tend to have much lower disease rates than we do. But what are the specific health benefits? You may be familiar with its ability to fight nausea and vomiting, especially the chemo-induced and morning-sickness variety.
Well, as it turns out, ginger brings a lot more to the nutrition table than its stomach-soothing effects. For one, ginger has been shown to reduce inflammation levels in those at risk for colon cancer. Other studies have demonstrated its ability to reduce osteoarthritis-related pain – nearly as well as ibuprofen! Additional research has shown that ginger “has a significant lipid lowering effect,” with one study demonstrating an effect on par with prescription drugs.
And in a study on middle-aged women, ginger enhanced memory and cognitive function. Several other studies have also demonstrated the ability of ginger to protect against age-related memory impairment and to guard against the inflammation and oxidation that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ginger extract has also been used in alternative health circles as a cancer treatment, with the protective effects being attributed to a compound in raw ginger called 6-gingerol. There is evidence that ginger may slow the progression of pancreatic, breast, and ovarian cancer.
How to use it: Always use fresh ginger. Choose organic, if possible, to avoid irradiation. Start with a half-inch piece – a little goes a long way! Peel, mince or grate and toss into your smoothie. I like ginger with chocolate smoothies and/or those that combine other spices, such as cinnamon or vanilla bean.
The great thing about these add-ins is that – in reasonable amounts – they don’t have to dramatically alter the taste of your smoothie or add unnecessary calories, carbs or sugar. They’re clean, natural, minimally processed and their health benefits are supported by abundant scientific research. And remember, there’s no rule that says smoothies can only be enjoyed in the A.M. hours. If logistically possible, preparing one as a meal replacement or snack can help keep metabolism revved up, hunger in check and cravings at bay later in the day – all important goals if you hope to make your weight-related resolutions stick this year.