This post features several plant-based smoothie boosters with fascinating health properties that I have discovered over the years. My smoothies started out simple and developed in time. Some of these ingredients are easy add-ins, changing the flavor little. Others are more pronounced. However, our tastes can adjust in just a few weeks (Greger, 2013)!! (Note: This website contains product links. Your purchase of products using these links helps support me and my website. Hope you enjoy!)
Disclaimer: Those that are pregnant, and/ or taking medications and/ or are being treated for specific health conditions need to coordinate with their health care providers to ensure there are no risks or interactions prior to taking supplements or drastically altering their diets!!
My smoothie is massive. You will need to choose portion sizes that work for you and your fitness goals! Use one or all of the ingredients I discuss– or come up with your own combinations! My smoothie base ingredients consist of:
- Black beans (canned/ rinsed): I use 1 cup
- Berries (typically blueberries): I use 1/2 cup
- Carrots (easy add in! Mild flavor in smoothie): I use 1 carrot
- Frozen spinach (easier to add in when frozen in terms of taste, I’m now fine with it fresh or frozen): I use 1/2 cup
- Oatmeal (raw, though can be soaked overnight to improve digestion as noted by Lang, 2019–I haven’t done that, just noting its an option): I use 1 cup
- Water (I don’t use soy milk or other plant-based milks, though you can do as you desire of course. I generally try to minimize heavily processed foods)
Oatmeal and beans load your smoothie with protein!
I will admit that oatmeal was a little hard for me to get used too in my smoothie, but after a week or so I got used to it. Black beans for some reason were easier. Between the two of them, check out the protein content! Plant sources of protein are not so mysterious or hard to come by after all!
- Oatmeal: 1/2 cup raw, uncooked oats has nearly 6 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber (Lang, 2019). I use a cup of raw oats (yes, they are safe), so that’s 12 grams protein and 8 grams of fiber! (I would not recommend this portion size if you are trying to lose weight)
- Black beans (canned–I rinse before using): 1/2 cup: 8 grams of protein and nearly 7.5 grams of fiber. I use a cup (again, this portion size is not recommended if you are trying to lose weight!), so that’s 16 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber.
The veggies and fruit add additional small amounts of protein. But depending on your portion size, using just 1/2 cups of oatmeal and a 1/2 cup of beans you are already at 14 grams of protein (and about 12 grams of fiber) without adding any of the below items I that feature. Using my portions, I get 28 grams of protein just from my base ingredients (and 23 grams of fiber)!!! Great way to start the day!! If I want to trim fat I just reduce my serving portions to a half cups of beans and/ or oatmeal each.
Easy add-ins: Mild or pleasant flavors
If you have not already added flax seed to your smoothie, these are are a no-brainer. Their flavor is mild–like a smooth, delicate nut flavor. Research findings note that flax seed is loaded with a specific plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Note: the omega-3’s in plants such as flax seed do not necessarily replace marine sources of omega-3’s, such as those provided in algae or oily fish. I cover this in an article linked here.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is noted to reduce inflammation in humans (Khalesi, Irwin, & Schubert, 2015). Flax seeds additionally contain antioxidant compounds and may lower blood pressure through indirect means of vasodilation promotion (Parikh, Maddaford, Austria, Aliani, Netticadan, & Pierce, 2019). Flax seed consumption appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks (Tan, 2017). These research findings held up in both human and animal subjects.
Further, flax seed consumption appears to have protective effects against a variety of cancers. Flax seed consumption lowered occurrences of breast cancer and improved survival rates for persons already diagnosed with breast cancer in a systematic review of 10 studies on human subjects (Parikh et al., 2019). Flax seed also improved blood sugar levels for persons with type II diabetes. Other potential health conditions flax seed may play a protective role in include cancer of the colon, prostate, lung, liver, endometrium, and ovaries, though the research for these cancers is far more limited (Parikh et al., 2019).
Flax seed intake should be generally limited to 1 or 2 tablespoons per day due to naturally occurring cyanide compounds (Parikh et al., 2019). These compounds are naturally occurring in many foods and are not significant at normal consumption levels. Only excessive consumption would be of concern as noted in a post at nutritionfacts.org. Flax seed is readily available, and can be purchased here.
Nutrition information for flax seed: 1 Tablespoon contains 37 calories, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 1. 3 grams protein and approximately 2 grams of Omega 3 fatty acids (Tan, 2017; Zeratsky, 2019). I use 1 to 2 tablespoons, so up to an extra 4 grams of fiber from this add-in (plus of course all the above mentioned benefits). Not bad!
Most people are familiar to some extent with turmeric. The health claims around this ancient spice are profound, though actual evidence in terms of strong study design is lacking for many of these claims (Gopinath & Karthikeyan, 2018). Curcumin (found in turmeric) has demonstrated significant biological activity, though absorbancy orally is somewhat limited. This may actually be a positive feature however.
In small amounts in cells, curcumin serves as an antioxidant (Gopinath & Karthikeyan, 2018). In larger doses, it may actually have the opposite effect, causing oxidative damage. Biologic activity of curcumin includes additionally antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic activities (Gopinath & Karthikeyan, 2018).
Turmeric and curcumin have also received growing attention for anti-cancer properties, though much of the research has been in lab settings and animal studies as opposed to with humans (Gibson & Spiro, 2017). Human research has demonstrated anti-tumor effects for various cancers including skin and colon cancer though mortality rates were not the focus of the research (Gibson & Spiro, 2017). Research is continuing to evolve on this fascinating spice!
Daily intake in various countries where it is routinely consumed equates 100mg of curcumin or less (Gopinath & Karthikeyan, 2018). This amount is found in approximately 2 grams of turmeric (Meixner, 2018), or approximately 1 teaspoon (Watson, 2016). A little goes a long way!
In small amounts, the turmeric can be tasted somewhat but its not bad in the smoothie. Start with 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon in your smoothie if you are concerned about the taste. Work up to a teaspoon.
More is not always better when it comes to herbs and spices. Without strong evidence to do otherwise, they should be consumed within standard or recommended amounts. To boost absorbance of turmeric, I also add a couple tiny dashes of black pepper (Greger, 2014). Yes–black pepper added to my smoothie.
In very small amounts, you really do not notice the black pepper. Again, if you are worried about the taste of black pepper in your smoothie, start with very tiny amounts. I just hold the shaker sideways and tap it gently a once or twice with my finger. That’s plenty! Many Indian dishes include black pepper as well, fascinating how the two spices interact to boost absorbancy!
Turmeric (certified organic) can be purchased in a surprisingly large, affordable, and long lasting bag here.
Despite belonging to the cannabis family, hemp does not have psychoactive effects due to an extremely low content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (Palmer, 2014). What hemp seeds do have is PROTEIN, and lots of it. Three tablespoons have 10 grams of protein!!! (Added to my base smoothie, I am now at 38 grams of protein!! NO protein powders necessary!!)
Hemp seeds also have omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. They are significant sources micro-nutrients like zinc, iron, magnesium and others. Three tablespoons has 20% of your daily iron, and an impressive 45% of your daily magnesium requirements!!!!
Omega 6 fatty acids are higher in hemp seeds than omega 3 fatty acids, occurring at a 2: 1 ratio (Schwab, Callaway, Erkkilä, Gynther, Uusitupa, & Järvinen, 2006). Omega 6 fatty acids are essential but in excess may contribute to inflammation (Gunnars, 2018). So again, a little goes a long way.
Nutrition information for hemp seeds: 3 Tablespoons have 180 calories, 15 grams of fat (which includes the omega 3 and 6 fatty acids), 1 gram of carbohydrate, 1 gram of fiber, and 10 grams of protein. Hemp seed is readily available and can be purchased here.
Raw cacao powder
Cocoa has gained a lot of favorable press for containing flavonoids which may have beneficial health properties. Interesting research in humans (a randomized control trial though the study was small and exploratory in nature) demonstrated cocoa flavanols as having a dose-dependent reducing effect on inflammatory markers (Stote, Clevidence, Novotny, Henderson, Radecki, & Baer, 2012). That means as the amount of flavanols from cocoa increased, inflammation decreased.
Human research involving cocoa as an intervention demonstrated improved blood vessel function, antioxidant activity, and reduced platelet clumping (improving circulation) (Cooper et al., 2008, as cited in Williamson, 2017). Regular consumption of cocoa or cocoa flavanols has been associated with reduced blood pressure, reduced LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), improved blood vessel dilation and potential reduction in cardiac disease risk profiles (Williamson, 2017).
I use organic raw cacao powder. Cacao is the less processed form of cocoa, so it tends to be higher in antioxidant properties (McCulloch, 2018). Cacao and its more processed form, cocoa, contain iron, magnesium, selenium, tryptophan and other beneficial nutrients in addition to flavanols.
The flavor is chocolate-like but bitter. In small amounts when mixed in a smoothie it is barely noticeable. I use a teaspoon in my smoothie. Raw organic cacao (minimally processed) powder can be purchased here.
Amla powder (indian gooseberry fruit powder)
What is amla powder?? I first learned about it in Dr. Greger’s book How Not to Die. Amla powder is made from the amla fruit (known as Indian gooseberry) which is native to India (Ibrahim, 2017). The fruit and juice are rich in vitamin C and are highly consumed all over Asia for purported health properties. Amla fruit plays a role in traditional medicine in India (Baliga, & Dsouza, 2011).
According to a research publication in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, amla has been extensively researched over the past 30 years (Baliga & Dsouza, 2011). It’s vitamin C content is higher than oranges, lemons or citrus fruits. It is rich in tannins, alkaloids, and phenolic bioactive compounds.
The list of potential health augmenting properties noted in research is astounding (Baliga & Dsouza, 2011). However, IT MUST BE EMPHASIZED that these studies were in a lab setting with direct application of amla to the cancer cell lines themselves. Other effects listed below were noted during animal studies. Such studies do not always carry over when consumed and metabolized inside a human body!!!!!:
- Anti-mutagenic (anti-cancer by preventing mutations of cells)
- Anti-metastatic properties (reduces capability of cancer spreading)
- Stimulates apoptosis in cancer cells (cancer cell death)
- Liver protection
- Kidney protection
- Anti-ulcer/ gastro-protective
- Cholesterol lowering
- Protection against atherosclerosis
- Promotion of intrinsic (the body’s own produced supply) antioxidants
Treatment of cancer cell lines in a lab setting showed that amla extract prevented growth of lung, liver, breast, ovarian, and colorectal cells (Baliga & Dsouza, 2011). Amla in extract induced lymphoma cell death. Meanwhile, healthy normal cell lines were protected. Other cancers amla appeared to inhibit included melanoma and prostate cancer. AGAIN, this is research from animal studies and lab settings with petri-dishes essentially. Always coordinate with a health care provider before making treatment decisions!!!
So, the research is young and lacks robust human intervention trials. While intriguing, more human trials are needed. I buy certified organic amla powder and use 1 teaspoon in my smoothie. The flavor is mild and sweet. Amla powder is available here.
Pumpkin seeds are a great source of various nutrients and antioxidants (Ozuna & León-Galván, 2017). Pumpkin seeds are considered a good source of potassium and magnesium. They also contain calcium, iron, zinc and other minerals. Nutrition information for pumpkin seeds: Four tablespoons (approximately 1 ounce) of pumpkin seeds contain 151 calories, 13 grams of fat, 5 grams carbs, nearly 7 grams of protein, 37% of your daily magnesium requirements, about 2 grams of fiber, and 14% of your daily zinc requirements (Brown, 2018).
Most Americans are deficient in magnesium (Brown, 2018). Magnesium is necessary for blood sugar and blood pressure regulation among other functions (Brown, 2018). To get more than 1/3rd of your daily magnesium requirement just from 4 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds is pretty impressive. You can purchase raw pumpkin seeds here.
For the next two add-ins, I’m not going to lie. Their flavor takes a little getting used too. At least it did for me. However, as noted above, taste buds adjust. Within a few days I got used to the following add-ins and honestly, the flavor does not bother me at all any more.
Nutritional yeast is inactive (no longer living) and has a number of appeals in terms of adding it to smoothies despite is unique, strong flavor. The flavor is not terrible, rather, the profile is just a little different for smoothies. To give you an idea, nutritional yeast is often used by vegans as a cheese flavoring stand-in with pasta or popcorn among other uses. Nonetheless, the nutrition boost for a smoothie is substantial and worth getting used to from my perspective.
Nutritional yeast is loaded with protein and fiber. For example, 1 Tablespoon of the brand I have attached below has 5 grams of protein. So basic math tells you 2 Tablespoons has 10 grams of protein. Not bad at all! On top of all the ingredients I listed above, my smoothie with the added nutritional yeast is now somewhere around 50 grams of protein with NO PROTEIN POWDERS NECESSARY!
I use a big rounded tablespoon. Even then, I’m getting close to 50 grams of cumulative protein when added to everything else I already described in my smoothie. In addition, 1 Tablespoon of nutritional yeast has 2 grams of fiber.
However, nutritional yeast has more claims to fame than just protein and fiber. It is naturally high in B vitamins, though frequently it is fortified with additional vitamins including vitamin B12 (Julson, 2017). Most persons familiar with majority or exclusively plant-based diets are aware that followers of such diets need to supplement their vitamin B12 intake. Nutritional yeast tends to contribute significantly to their daily intake of this vitamin. Nutritional yeast contains other plant-based nutrients such as powerful antioxidants and potential immune stimulants (Julson, 2017).
Nutrition information for nutritional yeast (brand specific to the link below): 1 Tablespoon contains 40 calories, 3 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams of fiber, 0.5 grams of fat, 5 grams protein. The brand I use has 15 mcg of vitamin B12 or 630% of your daily requirements. It is available here:
The first time I added these to the smoothie I felt like I was drinking an entire field of farm produce! The flavor in my view was pretty strong. However, as noted, I adapted quickly and now I barely notice it.
Similar to the amla powder, I was inspired to add these after reading Dr. Greger’s book How Not to Die. The health properties for broccoli sprouts are very impressive, though with everything, the amount used needs to be within limits to avoid toxicity (Greger, 2015). In one high quality randomized-controlled double-blinded trial, administration of a powder made from broccoli sprouts improved fasting blood sugar and oxidative stress measures (which are viewed as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) for persons with diabetes (Bahadoran, Mirmiran, Hosseinpanah, Hedayati, Hosseinpour-Niazi, & Azizi, 2011).
Broccoli sprouts contain high levels of antioxidant plant compounds such as phenols. These include salicylic acids and quercetin along with others. Broccoli sprouts also possess flavonoids and vitamin C (Gawlik-Dziki et al., 2014). These compounds have research demonstrated protective effects against cancer (Gawlik-Dziki et al., 2014). As noted above, broccoli sprouts have research demonstrated and significant antioxidant properties.
Broccoli sprouts are rich in phytochemicals that when absorbed, are used by the body to produce sulforaphane. Broccoli sprouts contribute to the production of compounds within the body used to induce cell death in cancer cells (Bryant et al., 2010). For example, in a lab setting sulforaphane was shown to induce apoptosis (cell death) and decrease migratory abilities of human ovarian cancer cells.
Healthier skin: Another interesting protective feature of sulforaphane appears to be the protection against ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun (Sikdar, Papadopoulou, & Dubois, 2016). In human trials where subjects were exposed to UV radiation, sulforaphane reduced sunburned cell numbers by 29%. Additionally, this compound preserved skin collagen by blocking inflammatory enzymes (Sikdar et al., 2016). However, excessive levels of sulforaphane themselves can result in DNA and oxidative damage. So it is protective at low doses but in excess, destructive.
A thorough research overview concerning broccoli and sulforaphane found the following health benefits (Yagishita, Fahey, Dinkova-Kostova, & Kensler, 2019):
- Arthritis protection: reduced join inflammation and direct integration of sulforaphane into the joint
- Air pollution protection: reduced oxidative damage from air pollution
- Diabetes protection: reduced glucose production, improved insulin sensitivity, and improved inflammatory markers
- Protection against H. Pylori (a bacteria that causes stomach ulcers)
- Improvement in autism symptoms
- Cancer risk reductions for colon, bladder, breast and prostate cancer among potentially other cancers
Dr. Greger (2015) notes that it takes about 1/4 cup of sprouts per day to raise cellular levels of sulphoraphane to the amounts found to suppress breast cancer cells in research trials. While I personally do not worry about breast cancer for myself, I decided to use this amount in my smoothie. It is cheaper to sprout your own than to buy at the store.
I sprout 2 tablespoons of seeds and that amount produces nearly 2 weeks worth of sprouts (which I freeze) for my smoothies at 1/4 cup per day. I use a simple kit that you can purchase here.
The sprouts grow best when I place the jar in a bowel so that it rests and an angle. This allows the water to drain and air to circulate. Note: Dr. Greger (2015) states that the seed shape of broccoli seeds make them less prone to bacterial growth. This is in contrast to alfalfa seeds which are porous and prone to contamination.
Summary and tips
Smoothies are an easy way to get plant-based protein, antioxidants and phytochemicals with a variety of research-backed health promoting properties. Many of the ingredients I use listed above last a long time at the doses I use, though the hemp seed seems to get used up a little more quickly. Try one, try them all.
Give your taste buds a chance to adjust for some of the stronger flavors or slowly add them in starting with very small amounts initially. Tip: I prep ahead of time, placing all the dry goods into containers for each day of the week. I do the same with the beans, fruit and vegetables, placing them in their own daily containers and freezing them. Then in the am before work, its fairly quick to make the smoothie.
I hope you enjoyed this article! Feel free to leave a comment, share with a friend, and sign up for email notifications whenever I release new content! Thanks!! -Donovan
Amin, M. Z., Islam, T., Uddin, M. R., Uddin, M. J., Rahman, M. M., & Satter, M. A. (2019). Comparative study on nutrient contents in the different parts of indigenous and hybrid varieties of pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima Linn.). Heliyon, 5(9), e02462. doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02462
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