I may receive a commission if you purchase through links in this post. I am not a doctor; please consult your practitioner before changing your supplement or healthcare regimen.
The smoothie as a meal is a new notion. Fruit as a snack, fruit on a salad, fruit cooked into stew- they’re all old ideas that are good. But fruit for a meal. That’s new. So we add protein powder, or green vegetables, and try to rectify that which is incomplete. Yet the problem is too complex to fix with a scoop and powder, or a handful of raw leaves.
What about smoothies that are made of nut butters and cocoa and protein powder? We call those a meal? Times are bad in the nutritional segment– when gurus are modeling how to satiate one’s sweet tooth and call it a meal.
Don’t get me wrong: we all love a cold, ice cream-like treat. But we need to be careful how often we treat ourselves and how we perceive the treat. While many need quick, healthy food (and smoothies seem to fit that description), only whole foods can fully nourish us. A meal should contain fat, protein, and carbohydrates. A smoothie with some added amino acids does not qualify.
Our bodies need it. Increasing one’s protein intake is often a good idea, especially for the following people:
- those who wish to lose weight, as it increases one’s metabolism and satiates better than other foods
- those who struggle with hypoglycemia or blood sugar regulation
- athletes who want to build more muscle or aid their post-workout recovery
- those who struggle with chronic illness or the elderly; it helps to prevent tissue breakdown
- those who deal with stress or adrenal issues, and therefore the breakdown of tissues; protein helps to rebuild that tissue
Essential Amino Acids
Protein is comprised of amino acids. All of the essential amino acids are found in muscle meats, organ meats, seafood, eggs, and dairy. (Organ meats, seafood, eggs and dairy also contains some of the “nonessential” amino acids.) These essential amino acids must be supplied by the food we eat because our bodies cannot make them.”Nonessential” or “conditional” amino acids are found in gelatin or collagen. Our bodies need both essential and nonessential amino acids to function well.
When we just add the nonessential (but still very important!) amino acids to our smoothies, we are not getting a complete protein. Getting the essential amino acids in a different meal of the same day does help the smoothie’s nutrition. But all of the amino acids must be present in each day, in the right ratios, for our bodies to benefit. It’s a matter of how we perceive the collagen, how we perceive the protein in that smoothie.
Adding collagen or gelatin to a smoothie can be a good thing, if the additional essential amino acids are added too. One tablespoon of collagen is best accompanied by a portion of meat (about 4 ounces), so the amino acids are balanced. If you skip having essential amino acids in your smoothie meal, it’s even more important to get meat in the other meals of the day.
Why to Add Collagen or Gelatin to Smoothies
Although the human body can make all the same amino acids that collagen and gelatin provide, those who struggle with less than optimum health may not generate amino acids as effectively. Supplementing helps the body to have what it needs. Collagen and gelatin are also great building blocks for a healthy gut.
Eat Collagen or Gelatin with Fat
In keeping with consuming collagen or gelatin with other sources of animal protein, it is important to remember that amino acids require fat soluble vitamins (A and D) to absorb properly. These fat soluble vitamins are found in egg yolks and dairy fat, both great additions to a smoothie: raw egg yolks and raw or cultured milk.
Protein Powders and Vegetable-Based Protein Sources
Plant proteins are incomplete proteins. Even if we get what looks like an adequate amount of protein from pea powders or hemp seeds, this is what the Weston A. Price Foundation tells us about our body’s ability to utilize the nutrition:
In terms of quality and accessibility to the body, the animal protein in meat, milk and especially eggs goes further in meeting our needs than protein from plants.
…high protein processed foods contain potentially large amounts of MSG in the form of protein isolates. Separating protein from its food source during manufacturing results in the creation of MSG – the amino acid glutamic acid gone bad. Therefore, MSG is present in high protein processed foods but it is not on the label because it is not technically added to the final product. It is only created during manufacturing and therefore can be conveniently unlisted on the label. Don’t buy into the “low temperature dried” protein powder fallacy as well. While low temperature processing and drying of protein powders is a less damaging manufacturing method, it still denatures the protein. Whey protein in particular is very fragile and cannot be dried or powdered.
She goes on to recommend nutritional yeast as a protein alternative. I would personally add my caution to this option. While it may work well for some, nutritional yeast can cause light-headedness, dizziness, stomach discomfort, and rashes in others.
Chris Kresser says of protein powders:
…the downside of protein powder compared to whole foods is that it’s more processed and it’s not still in the whole-food form. It doesn’t have as many of the cofactors and enzymes…
However, he goes on to say that occasional use of the highest quality protein powders in certain circumstances is not problematic. The contexts he considers appropriate include using protein powder amidst an otherwise nutrient-dense, whole food diet 1-3 times a week, especially after a heavy workout. If you’re someone who really likes to include protein powder in your smoothies, no nutritional expert recommends doing this often, certainly not daily. This is the one Chris Kresser recommends: it contains both beef muscle meat and collagen, so all of the needed amino acids. However, it is virtually fat-free! SO if you use it, please, please add fat to your smoothie, too! This can be egg yolks or raw cream; it can be coconut oil; but of course, animal-sourced fat is best. It’s hard to beat a couple of scrambled eggs cooked in butter or lard!
Smoothie Proteins to Consider
Below I’ve listed several add-in options, whole foods that contain protein. They are good options for adding protein to your smoothie, but they are not all excellent options. You’ll see a glimpse of their amino acid profiles and what makes them great or less than great.
- Raw milk- 9 grams of protein in 1 cup of raw milk! AND, “raw cow’s milk has all 8 essential amino acids in varying amounts, depending on stage of lactation.” (source) So combining raw milk with collagen is an excellent source of protein for smoothies. This is my favorite choice. Of course raw milk is also full of vitamins, minerals, living enzymes, anti-viral antibodies, and if it’s pasture-raised, omega-3 fatty acids. Milk is also a great source of fat, helping therefore to digest the nutrients in one’s smoothies.
- Kefir and Yogurt- Kefir and yogurt contain just as much protein as milk, with added probiotics and easier digestion for some. Both of these dairy sources are great ways to add the right amino acids to one’s smoothies.
- Spirulina- You’ll get about 2 grams of protein from 1 teaspoon of spirulina. This expensive source is certainly not going to replace steak and eggs in anyone’s diet. However, if you’re adding this blue-green algae to your smoothie anyway, for all the amazing iron, calcium, magnesium, chlorophyll, B vitamins, Vitamin A, cleansing, energy etc. that it provides, you can know that it’s adding a bit of protein too. The protein is comprised of all the essential amino acids and most of the nonessential ones. Adding collagen or gelatin to spirulina in a smoothie creates a complete protein.
- Tigernut flour- 2 grams of protein for a 1/4 cup of flour? Not much! But it’s something, and you’ll also get resistant starch. Obviously, tigernut flour (or milk) alone isn’t going to do it. Tiger nuts contain most of the essential amino acids in decent quantities, but not all of them.
- Sprouted nut or seed butter– About 6-7 grams of protein is provided by 2 tablespoons of nut butter, depending on the seed or nut. Pepitas/pumpkin seeds, for instance, have 9 grams. While many nuts and seeds contain all of the essential, and some of the nonessential, amino acids, they are not all in high quantities nor an efficient form of protein, because our bodies can’t absorb all of the amino acids well. The nutrition in nuts and seeds is not as bioavailable. Also, too many nuts, or nuts everyday, is often taxing on the digestive system, instead of providing gentle nutrition. Always make sure to buy or make sprouted butters. Here’s why.
- Chia Seeds- 2 tablespoons of chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein. Chia seeds don’t need to be soaked and, in addition to providing a bit of protein, provide, among other nutrients, good fat, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Chia seeds contain all of the essential amino acids and some of the nonessential ones; so teamed with collagen or gelatin make a decent complete protein source.
- Hemp Seeds- No wonder protein powders are made from hemp. 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds provide almost 11 grams of protein. All 20 amino acids are present, both essential and nonessential. Hemp seeds also have a good omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and they do not need to be soaked. They are a source of magnesium, zinc, and iron. (Homemade hemp milk makes a good liquid smoothie base: puree on high speed 3 cups water with 2/3 cup hemp seeds. Add vanilla, dates, honey, or stevia, to taste.) Again, my opinion is that all nuts and seeds should be eaten in moderation, not everyday. One of the main problems with plant-sourced protein, and relying on it, is that the body does not absorb it as well as animal protein. So while the label says 11 grams of protein, the correlation to what your body actually absorbs is less.
- Peanut Butter- Surprisingly, perhaps, peanuts have more amino acids that other nuts. Of course they’re not nuts; they’re legumes. Yet we eat them as if they’re nuts, and they rank the highest in the essential amino acid category. Peanuts contain all of the essential amino acids and most of the nonessential amino acids. Paired with collagen or gelatin, peanuts are a complete protein. Keep in mind that peanuts are commonly contaminated with mold. I recommend eating peanuts only occasionally for this reason and using a pathogen-killing herb to protect against mold ingestion.
- Raw Liver- One ounce of liver provides 6 grams of protein. With this choice you are also getting lots of Vitamin A, B vitamins, Vitamin K, iron, and the reputed energy boost that organ meat boasts. The Weston A. Price Foundation advises preparing raw liver thus, for safety:
…freezing the liver for 14 days in large chunks. (Fourteen days will ensure the elimination of pathogens and parasites.)
Conclusion and Summary
If you consume collagen or gelatin in conjunction with other protein sources, from muscle meats, the body absorbs them better. Collagen and gelatin on their own can not fully nourish the body.
Plant-sourced proteins are not as efficient. The bioavailability of the amino acids should not be relied upon on a regular basis as a good source of protein.
Raw milk, yogurt or kefir, and liver are the best possible add-ins, in conjunction with collagen or gelatin, to boost the protein content of smoothies. Fat should be added too, in the form of raw egg yolks, raw cream, or full fat milk or yogurt. Occasional use of nuts and seeds, and spirulina, can also be helpful.