How to Drink Greens (and Why!)

Originally Published August 5, 2013

This post is devoted to a vastly underrated and under-recognized food that deserves to be in a class of its own–leafy greens!

In health discussions and articles, virtually all the nutrition attention goes to macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  Out of these three, protein gets the most attention.  Yet the average American gets twice the protein they need in any given day.  So it’s baffling to me why we’re all still talking about protein all the time.

What is much less often mentioned is that almost every one of us is terribly deficient in micronutrients: vitamins and minerals.  These deficiencies cause our immune systems to have trouble functioning, make us feel fatigued, and also cause us to have more food cravings and even simple hunger.  Hunger, of course, hits when our body needs nutrition, not just when our stomach is empty.  If our last meal had little to no nutritive value, we will be hungry again sooner.

I do not recommend relying on vitamin and mineral supplements in most cases because these are almost always chemical versions–imitations–of these nutrients, produced in a lab, and have been shown to be unhelpful and even harmful in scientific studies.  By taking isolated vitamins and minerals, you are also missing out on MANY nutritional components that come with the whole food, making food many many times more nutritious than manufactured supplements.  Real nutrition is also highly assimilable and absorbable while chemical “nutrients” are hard to absorb and mostly get flushed out of the body–clearly not worth the money!

How do we quickly and easily get lots of vitamins and minerals every day?  Green stuff!  Interestingly, the closest animals to humans consume a huge amount of greens daily.  Chimpanzees eat about 40% of their diet as leafy greens.  Many animals consume greens as their main, staple food.  Imagine–cows eat practically nothing but grass and managing to maintain a massive body size and weight!

Leafy greens such as kale are loaded with micronutrients: vitamins and minerals–which most of us are starving for.  Getting this less-then-ubiquitous nutrition can be extremely powerful for our health and in healing.  Remember, getting enough nutrition often dramatically decreases cravings for unhealthy foods.  It also gives you a full feeling that lasts a long time.

American cuisine usually only involves greens in the form of salad or a leaf of lettuce on a burger.  We usually don’t eat salad every day anyway.  There could be some greens in soup or stir-fry’s, but they are then boiled to death.  When we eat greens raw, we are able to get the full benefit of their nutritional profile.  Cooking destroys most vitamins as well as many minerals.  Cooking also destroys 50% of the protein of any food, and believe it or not, raw greens are a great source of protein, as they are assimilated at a far higher rate than traditional sources.   We need to see green on our plate at every meal possible–even breakfast!

Raw greens happen to be rather tough to break down.  The cell wall is made of cellulose, one of the toughest natural substances.  It is cellulose that allows a plant to defy gravity and stick straight up out of the ground toward the sun.  Without very thorough chewing (or cooking), the cell wall will stay intact, keeping the nutrients inside, unabsorbed by our bodies.  Most humans do not or cannot chew thoroughly enough to break down the cell walls due to jaw strength, jaw problems, lack of the right habits, or even dental issues.  Without proper chewing, greens can be difficult to digest, cause indigestion, and end up causing us to dislike them.

I came across a brilliant solution to the difficulty of getting plenty of raw greens into our diets and absorbed by our bodies daily in a book by Victoria Boutenko called 12 Steps to Raw Foods.  Her book is designed to help readers transition to a mostly or completely raw food diet, and while that is not my personal goal or a goal I would suggest to most people, her book is full of fascinating and useful information.

The solution is green smoothies.  Ok, before you close the browser window, allow me to continue!  The recipe is just 40% greens and 60% fruit.  The fruit overpowers the greens and the taste is sweet and entirely palatable.  If it isn’t sweet enough for you, add more fruit or sweeter fruit.  While the combination sounded strange to me at first, it tastes surprisingly “normal” and even delicious!  One big glass each morning, and I know I have already consumed a significant amount of nutrition needed for the day.

Green smoothies take just a few minutes to prepare and clean up after.  Smoothies can also stay fresh for a couple of days so you can make a big batch in advance if you like.  Drinking raw greens and fruit in the morning continues the “fast” we are on during the night while we sleep.  It gives us a final flush and cleanup before we move on to heavier foods later in the day.  The fiber is also an excellent component of breakfasts and can get our bowels moving as well.

I personally feel so full and fulfilled after drinking about a glass and a half of green smoothie, I can often go many hours without eating and can end up eating a pretty late lunch.  This may not be true for everyone, as all our calorie needs are different, but it says something to me about the completed-ness of the meal.  Other breakfasts do not usually satisfy me as much, or if they leave me feeling full, it’s with a sense of heaviness like I over-ate.

I am often asked if making a green smoothie counts as “juicing.”  No.  Juicing involves using a special piece of equipment, a juicer, which extracts the liquid and nutrition from the plant, leaving the pulp separate as waste.  You are left with a smooth liquid the consistency of water.  A smoothie blends the whole plant, fruit or green, in the blender with water to make it a drink but does not extract anything to throw out.  It is thick.  For the many differences between juicing and smoothies, see my previous post, Smoothies vs. Juicing: Which is Healthier?

How to Make a Green Smoothie

Here is a very simple “recipe” to start with.  You can find probably hundreds online and also experiment yourself with your favorite fruits and greens.  You will want to ideally use a high-speed blender like Vita-Mix or Blendtec which will thoroughly liquefy your greens.  Other blenders may work fairly well in the beginning while the blades are sharp, but once they dull, the speed will not be enough to effectively break things down, so you will want to sharpen the blades regularly if you have one of these.

Fill the blender 40% full of one or more greens such as spinach, swiss chard, kale, collard greens, dandelion greens or another.  I have listed these 4 roughly in order of sweet to bitter.  If you are still doubtful about taste, start with spinach.  Then move to swiss chard, kale, and lastly to dandelion greens.  Dandelion greens are fantastic cleaners, but they are on the bitter side to use your sweetest fruit when you use them.

Choose about 3 pieces of fruit which should fill about 60% of the blender.  I use a pear in every smoothie.  The texture makes things really smooth, and if it’s ripe, it’s nice and sweet.  You can also try banana, apple, peach, berries, cherries, and anything else you like.

So for instance:  40% full spinach, 1 pear, 1 apple, handful of blueberries.  Then add 2-3 cups of water depending on your preference of how thin/watery you like it.  For me, 2 cups is plenty, but you may like starting with 3 cups to make it even more drinkable.  If the texture seems too thick and chunky still, try blending it longer, sharpening your blades, or adding more water.

I hope you enjoy your smoothie, and make sure to leave a comment and tell me about your experience!

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