How To Make The Best Smoothie For Your Goals

We love a good smoothie, but not all blends are created equal. In order to make these liquid snacks work for your personal health and fitness goals, you may need to switch up the ingredients you throw into the blender.

First things first, you want your smoothie to provide a balance of four things: nutrient-dense carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and plenty of fiber, says Wesley Delbridge R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. From there, a few tweaks will help you whip up your perfect drink.

Whether you’re looking to bulk up or shed a few pounds, these nutritionist-backed guidelines can help you make you a smart smoothie next time you reach for the blender.

Goal: Weight Management

If you’re trying to shed pounds, calorie control is the name of the game. While the body needs carbohydrates for energy, cutting down on the carbs and fat in your shake can keep its calories in check to support weight loss. Making sure your shake packs plenty of protein, though, helps you maintain and build muscle while cutting calories, says Jim White, R.D., founder of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.

Unsweetened almond milk makes a great base for a weight loss-friendly shake because it’s low in calories, White says. (One cup has 39 calories.) He recommends blending it up with whey protein powder—one scoop for women and two scoops for men. This blended snack comes in somewhere around 150 to 200 calories, keeps carbohydrates low, and packs on the protein.

Related: This Is The Best Cardio Workout For Weight Loss

Goal: Meal Replacement

On super-busy days, sitting down for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) just isn’t in the cards. Smoothie to the rescue!

If your blend is replacing a meal, White recommends women shoot for a 400-calorie drink while men go for a 500-calorie drink. When building your meal replacement smoothie, be sure to incorporate protein, carbohydrates, and fat before blending for a nutritionally-balanced result.

Start with a base of six to eight ounces of coconut milk and add the following: dry oats (a quarter-cup for women and half-cup for guys), one cup Greek yogurt, three quarters-cup berries, and a tablespoon of chia seeds. The berries knock out a serving of fruit, the oats provide fiber-filled carbs, the yogurt provides protein, and chia seeds add essential fatty acids. Now that’s a balanced, busy day-friendly meal.

Goal: Muscle-Building Or ‘Bulking’

In the fitness world, protein and muscle gains go together like peanut butter and jelly. While the average person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day, athletes who are really working their muscles hard may need up to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram, says Delbridge. (That’s roughly 0.36 grams per pound for the average person and 0.64 grams per pound for someone stressing their muscles big time.)

White recommends muscle-making smoothies that have a ratio of one part protein to two parts carbohydrate. If bulking up is your goal, you need carbs after a lifting session to restore the glycogen in your muscles, in addition to needing protein to help them rebuild and grow. Mix one cup of skim milk (nine grams of protein and 13 grams of carbs) with a scoop of whey protein (about 20 grams of protein). Then add a medium banana for two full servings of fruit and 27 grams of carbohydrates. That gives you a prime post-workout shake consisting of 316 calories, 41 grams of carbs, and 30 grams of protein.

Related: Find the flavor of protein powder you’ll look forward to every time.

Goal: Endurance Exercise and Performance

If you’re training for a distance-racing event, or are just trying to run or cycle farther, smoothies can be a great way to fuel your body for the long haul. For this, you’ll need higher amounts of nutrient-dense carbs for long-lasting energy, says Delbridge. Oh yeah, there are bananas and oats in your future.

White recommends starting with a base of unsweetened almond milk and adding the following: a half-cup to one cup dried oats, half a frozen banana, a handful of spinach, and a full orange. This shake uses whole food sources to jack up the carbs (upward of 100 grams) and provides some protein from the oats and spinach to promote recovery post-workout, he says.

Save this handy infographic for the perfect smoothie instructions, whenever you’re craving a blend: 

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Casein Is The Next-Level Protein You Need In Your Life

In the world of protein supplements, whey has been the long-reigning king. The milk-based protein is a fan favorite because it contains all nine essential amino acids the body needs to maintain and build muscle—and it’s pretty easy for the body to digest. But there’s another type of milk-based protein fitness fanatics should have on their radar: casein.

You know the nursery rhyme about curds and whey? Well, casein is the ‘curds.’ “When you expose cow’s milk to heat or acid, it separates into its two major proteins: whey and casein,” says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. That casein actually makes up about 80 percent of the protein in milk and other dairy products.

Like whey, casein is a ‘complete protein,’ meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids our body needs and can only get from food. The major difference between casein and whey is that whey digests quickly, while casein breaks down more slowly, says White.

Check out 15 fascinating facts about protein:

Plus, casein has a higher concentration of an amino acid called glutamine. Glutamine is essential for preventing over-training and muscle breakdown, especially when you’re sick or under stress, explains White. (One scoop of your average casein protein contains about half White’s recommended five grams of glutamine per day.)

Another major perk of casein: It may keep you full for longer than whey. One study published in Advances in Nutrition, for example, found casein to be more satiating than whey throughout a period of about six hours.

Because of casein’s slow digestion and absorption into your system, and its high levels of glutamine, it’s the perfect protein source to consume before bed. “Casein is great at night because it helps prevent protein and muscle breakdown,” says White. So while you may want whey’s quick delivery of amino acids before or after a workout, casein’s slow and steady release can help to sustain that hard-earned muscle throughout hours of fasting while you sleep.

Related: The 5 Best Bedtime Snacks If You’re Trying To Lose Weight

Given that, casein can be a great protein for those looking to lose weight without sacrificing muscle mass. Overweight police officers who supplemented with casein throughout a 12-week diet and strength-training program lost more body fat and saw greater strength gains than those who supplemented with whey, according to a study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.

You may also see casein as one of a few types of protein in protein blend supplements. With a blend, you reap the benefits of both whey and casein, says White. While casein is higher in glutamine, whey is higher in another amino, called leucine, which is key for stimulating protein synthesis and muscle growth. These casein-containing supps can be a good, satiating option for post-workout, he says.

Related: Find the perfect protein supplement for your needs.

All Calories Are Not Created Equal—Here’s Why

For plenty of people, calories are king. We watch, count, and talk about calories an awful lot—but is there a difference between a PopTart calorie and a broccoli calorie? And do we really need to whip out our calculators every time we sit down for a meal?

First things first, we need to understand what a calorie really is. A calorie is a unit of energy that our body gets from a food or drink we consume, explains Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Keri Gans Nutrition. Our body needs calories to maintain basic functions and power us through daily activities, like exercise. (We each need a different ideal number of daily calories, depending on our gender, size, our health goals, and our activity level.)

What That Number Doesn’t Tell You

Calories alone shouldn’t be your only food-selecting compass. “There’s a big difference between 100 calories from almonds and 100 calories from cookies,” says Gans. While 100 calories of almonds provides heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and some calcium, 100 calories of cookies likely provides little more than a quick burst of energy (and later, crash) from simple carbs and sugar. Without fiber or protein on board, the cookie’s carbs and sugar break down fast and send your blood sugar flying.

When you pick up a food product, Gans recommends asking yourself: “What nutrition does this give me that I need? What does it contain that I could do without?” Pay attention to where your calories are coming from. Protein and fiber? Great. Saturated fat and added sugar? Not so great.

Get in the habit of reading ingredient lists: “If we’re just focusing on the calories in a packaged food that has 50 ingredients, we’re way off,” says Brittany Michels, R.D., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. Calories aside, our healthiest food choices are packed with nutrients, aren’t processed, and are free of antibiotics, chemicals, and preservatives, she says.

Foods that have a high ratio of important nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) to calories are called ‘nutrient-dense’ foods, explains Michels. These foods give your body more health bang for your buck. Meanwhile, foods that provide calories but little or no vitamins or minerals are ‘empty calories,’ says Gans. To support your body and health, you want your daily calories to be as nutrient-dense as possible. Foods like salmon and seeds may be high in calories, but they also happen to pack plenty of nutrients.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Popular Whole30 Diet

Considering Calories And Weight Loss

The number of calories you consume does matter, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, so while calories aren’t equal across the board, you should consider them.

You’ve probably heard that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn in order to shed pounds—but you don’t need to count every single calorie to get there. Instead of slaving over your food-tracking app, Gans recommends choosing whole foods and learning how to combine them for balanced, healthy meals. “Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein like chicken or fish, a quarter with whole grains or fiber-filled carbs like quinoa or sweet potato, and half with vegetables like spinach or broccoli,” she says. When you combine nutrient-dense foods, you’ll feel full and satisfied, and likely land in the right calorie range without all the counting.

Keeping these portion sizes in mind is key, though, says Gans. Too much of a nutrient-dense, healthy food is still too much. Take avocado, for example. The fruit contains fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but one serving is just a quarter of an avocado, says Gans. So if you spoon your way through the whole thing (been there, done that), you’re still racking up major calories and sabotaging your weight-loss efforts. Other good-for-you fats, like nuts and olive oil, can also be easy to overdo if you’re not conscious of serving size, says Gans.

The bottom line: Calorie count doesn’t define whether a food is healthy or not. Keep your body in tip-top shape (and at a healthy weight) by picking nutrient-dense, whole foods over empty, processed foods, while staying aware of serving sizes when you nosh.

Related: Find a supplement to support your weight-management plan.

Are There Any Legit Health Benefits To Sitting In The Sauna?

If you belong to a gym, chances are you’ve spent some time in the sauna. After all, it feels pretty great to get your heat on after working your muscles hard. Lately, lots of celebrities have been touting the detoxifying, fat-busting, and pain-relieving power of sweating it out in the sauna—but is this too good to be true? We asked experts to weigh in on the hype before you sweat your life away in search of all those benefits.

Can Sitting In The Sauna Help You Lose Weight?

You may have heard through the grapevine that sweating buckets in a sauna could help you drop major pounds—but sadly, this is not an effective weight loss treatment, says Mitchell Rosen, M.D., chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Here’s the theory behind saunas and shedding pounds: “When you’re in hot or cold [environments], there’s a certain amount of work that your body has to do to maintain a normal temperature,” says Rosen. “So you burn some extra energy to keep your body at that normal level.” However, this extra energy expenditure is so minimal that it won’t noticeably influence weight.

Related: Can Drinking Lemon Water Really Help You Lose Weight?

That being said, you’re probably wondering why you might be a pound or two lighter after a long sauna session. While you haven’t lost any actual fat, what you have lost is water. By making you sweat buckets, saunas dehydrate you (a.k.a. deplete you of fluids). “You could make weight if you were on the wrestling team, but that weight would come back very quickly,” says Rosen. “You’re not going to dehydrate yourself to weight loss.” Nor would you want to, considering proper hydration is key for your body to function at its best.

What Benefits Can You Actually Expect from the Sauna?

Saunas may not be the miracle weight loss tool you hoped for, but that doesn’t mean they have zero benefits. Saunas help promote better circulation and improved heart rate, says Svetlana Kogan, M.D., a holistic doctor and author of Diet Slave No More!.

How it works: “Heat increases the heart rate by stimulating a cardiac muscle to contract faster,” explains Kogan. “Circulation is improved by causing vasodilation (widening) of the arterial blood vessels.”

Research also points to a few potential perks of spending time in the sauna. For example, a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that regular sauna treatments improved both the cardiovascular health and exercise ability of patients with chronic heart failure.

That’s not all, though. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that regular sauna use could be effective in helping to improve the function of blood vessel walls (called ‘endothelial function’) of those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

“Endothelium is the innermost layer of the arteries, which can shrink or expand,” says Kogan. So, better endothelial function means your arteries can stretch to accommodate the same volume of blood, leading to lower blood pressure.

Plus, a 2014 study published in JAMA International Medicine even found an association between frequency of ‘sauna bathing’ and lower risk of fatal cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Saunas may do us good beyond our heart health, too. According to Kogan, the intense heat can help soothe symptoms like muscle soreness and joint pain, making them popular among chronic fatigue and arthritis patients. That’s because heat relaxes muscle fibers, relieving tension and spasms, she says.

Related: Find a supplement to support muscle recovery.

One more major reason to enjoy a good sit in the sauna: You may find yourself in a more warm and fuzzy mood afterward. Saunas have been used since ancient times as a wellness tool by northern societies with lots of cold weather, says Kogan, who notes that many of her patients report a mood boost after a sauna treatment. Similarly, a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that daily sauna sessions improved ratings of relaxation in patients with mild depression.

The good news is there are no harmful effects that can come from spending time in a sauna, says Kogan. Just keep in mind that women shouldn’t use saunas while pregnant in order to avoid the risk of becoming overheated or dehydrated.

Belly Fat Facts

The Truth About Belly Fat

A strong six-pack or a flat, toned tummy is the ultimate goal for many of us, but some people have a harder time than others achieving the core they desire.

Even if your heart isn’t set on a washboard abs, there are plenty of reasons to aim for shedding weight in your mid-section. For one, according to Human Molecular Genetics, abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk of type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among other serious health complications.

Here, everything you need to know about belly fat—so you can kiss it goodbye!

What causes belly fat?

For starters, evidence says that there is a definite genetic component. For instance, in one Human Molecular Genetics study, five genes were identified to be related to a high waist to hip ratio.

But if Mom and Dad aren’t to blame, there are certainly some habits that contribute to excess fat around your middle. Excess sugar, for instance, has long been known to increase insulin resistance—a key player in the belly fat fight, according to Dr. Barry Sears, a bestselling author who has dedicated his career to studying the interaction of nutrition and the body’s hormonal response.

“It is partially genetic, but primarily driven by increased insulin resistance,” says Dr. Sears. “Increased insulin resistance is a consequence of inflammation disrupting the signaling between the insulin receptor and the interior of the cell.”

Related: Shop weight-management products to stay fuller and and more satisfied longer.

So, how do you get rid of it?

Not to burst your bubble, but core exercises alone won’t do the trick. The main way to get rid of abdominal fat is by taking your nutrition seriously. Cutting down on your caloric intake is the key player in fat loss, because doing so signals your body to burn stored fat for energy, according to Dr. Sears.

“Use the 80-20 rule for exercise,” he says. “Eighty percent of the reduction of belly fat will come from calorie restriction.”

As for what you should eat, it is important to keep in mind that there’s no magic six-pack diet. Instead, a long-term commitment swapping sugar and refined carbs for vegetables, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates is going to reduce your belly fat (and overall body weight) over time.

Related: 7 Weight-Loss Myths That Can Sabotage Your Progress

What exercises work?

Sure, nutrition is the most important factor in slimming down your waist, but double that up with exercise and you’ll be on your way. The type of exercise you engaged in really does matter, too. Don’t be fooled into believing that a lot of crunches or planks will banish your extra tummy weight for good. Instead, Dr. Sears encourages a focus on fat-burning interval training, which reduces insulin resistance.

Interval training combines short, high-intensity exercises that get your maximum heart rate pumping followed by short recovery periods during a less intense exercise. Paying attention to your heart rate is an important part of an effective interval training workout, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

During the high-intensity exercises, your heart rate should be between 80 and 95 percent of your estimated heart rate and when you slow things down for a recovery period, your heart rate should be between 40 and 50 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Related: 6 Dietitians Share Their Go-To Healthy Breakfasts

Taking care of yourself matters, too.

In addition to diet and exercise, it has long been believed that cortisol, a hormone our body releases in response to stress, plays a role in fat accumulation around the middle. For instance, one 1994 study by the Department of Psychology at Yale University found participants with a high waist to hip ratio had higher cortisol levels when exposed to stress and reported having poor coping skills and stressful life events in their past.

Finding ways to manage stress in your life —whether that’s through yoga, meditation, or getting more sleep —can help your cut down on your stress and, in turn, your belly fat.

Why Do Men Seem To Lose Weight More Easily Than Women?

Simply cut off the soda supply and your average guy will seem to drop five pounds overnight. Meanwhile, many women overhaul their diets and work out five times a week, and still struggle to lose one measly pound.

It’s infuriating—at least for women. But what’s behind this weight-loss inequality?

Much of the difference between how men and women lose weight comes down to their levels of fat-free mass, explains board-certified family and bariatric physician Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., a diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine. Fat-free mass includes every bit of your body that isn’t fat—like organs, bones, connective tissues, and muscle.

Guys tend to have way more mass, including fat-free mass, than women. (After all, the average guy in the U.S. is five-foot-nine, while the average gal is five-foot-four, according to the CDC.) According to PLOS ONE research, the size of a person’s kidneys, brain, and liver greatly contribute to their resting energy expenditure (the number of calories burned doing nothing).  Plus, research published in the British Journal of Nutrition confirms that after accounting for lean body mass levels there’s little to no difference between the resting metabolisms of men and women. So it makes sense that larger guys (and their larger organs) burn more calories than smaller women.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted

“Calories are fuel. And the bigger your body’s engine, the more fuel you are going to need and burn every day,” Nadolsky explains. “It’s also easier for you to cut calories from your daily intake without feeling like you’re starving.”

Think of it this way: If you’re a guy who burns 2,500 calories per day just binge-watching Netflix, you can cut 500 calories to lose weight and still be eating 2,000 calories a day. But if you’re a girl with a resting metabolic rate of 1,500 calories, you can only safely cut 300 calories—most experts recommend a minimum of 1,200 calories a day—a deficit that won’t move the scale’s needle all that quickly. The same thinking applies to workouts. A big guy is going to burn far more calories running a mile than will a petite woman.

Still, size doesn’t explain everything. For instance, according to research from the National Institutes of Heath, women’s daily energy expenditure varies by about 100 calories or so throughout their menstrual cycle. (It’s highest during the luteal phase.)

Yep, this is where hormones come into play. After all, the luteal phase (which begins after ovulation) involves a delicate interplay of hormones, including estrogen, which peaks at menstruation and then tapers off, and progesterone, which increases throughout the luteal phase and then nosedives to help trigger menstruation.

Animal research published in Endocrinology and Metabolism suggests that a woman’s natural estrogen (called estradiol) and progesterone may promote fat retention and discourage lean muscle formation. But meanwhile, research published in Diabetes links declining levels of estrogen and progesterone during menopause with the body’s cells becoming more likely to store fat. So women’s hormonal fluctuations—and their impact on weight—are definitely a bit more complicated than men’s.

And then there’s the hormone of note for guys: testosterone. An anabolic hormone (meaning it helps build tissues in the body) testosterone contributes to muscle formation. Men have 15 times as much testosterone as women, largely explaining why men have a greater propensity for putting on lean, metabolism-boosting muscle, says Neerav Padliya, Ph.D., vice president of Research Alliances at MYOS RENS bionutrition and biotherapeutics company. Having all that extra muscle no doubt contributes to men’s faster metabolisms.

In the end, these hormonal differences do influence weight-loss efforts, but women can hack guy-style weight loss with the right strategy.

Related: Attention All Men Over 30: You’re Leaking Testosterone

Muscle Up: How to Lose Weight Like a Guy

It all comes down to muscle. “Lean mass is the largest source of energy expenditure in the body, and the only one which is variable,” Padliya says. So by increasing how much muscle you have (a major part of that being lean mass), you can pump up your calorie-burning potential.

So, to boost your muscle mass, metabolism, and weight-loss results, your first step is to perform more strength training, ideally with heavy loads (sets of six to 12 reps) and shorter recovery times (30 to 60 seconds between sets). This sort of protocol is optimal for muscle-building, partly because it triggers a short-term spike in T levels, Nadolsky says.

From there, make sure to complement your muscle-building workouts with muscle-friendly nutrition. According to a 2015 review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, people need to get about 25 percent of their daily calories from protein in order to increase muscle mass lose weight (in combination with strength training).

Ideally, each meal and snack should contain somewhere around 25 to 35 grams of protein to stimulate maximum muscle growth. That’s roughly the equivalent of a cup of Greek yogurt with a sprinkle of nuts, one half-cup of chopped chicken breast, or a two-egg omelet with veggies, milk, and cheese mixed in.

Related: The Easy Way To Pump Up The Protein In Your Oatmeal

Sure, should guys follow these tips, they’re likely going to put on more muscle than women. But any muscle women can build puts them a step closer to easier weight loss.

Related: Find a protein supplement or snack to boost your intake.