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How to Maximize Nutrient Absorption

Unhealthy lifestyle behaviors associated with an increased risk of premature death include smoking, excessive alcohol drinking, and not eating enough greens. The best way to get your greens is in whichever way you’ll eat the most of them, and one way to sneak extra greens into your daily diet is with whole-food smoothies, “a potent blend of good nutrition” in a quick, portable, delicious form.  

The Mayo Clinic offers a basic green smoothie recipe, combining the healthiest of fruits and the healthiest of vegetables, berries and dark green leafies, respectively. It calls for 2 ounces of baby spinach, which is about a cup and a half. Consider adding in some curly parsley, another mild beginner green to start with. Surprisingly, the sweetness of the fruit masks any bitterness from the greens such that the pickiest of children love these smoothies, as do adults who otherwise would not consume dark green leafy vegetables—or even fruit—for breakfast. Indeed, the average teen may only get about 1/20th of a serving of fruit otherwise—and Froot Loops don’t count. 

Offering smoothies can have a dramatic effect on fruit consumption for “students who do not want to take time peeling or chewing fruits.” (Who doesn’t have time to chew a fruit?!) The milkshake-y texture of smoothies may not only boost the quantity of fruit and vegetable consumption, but also the quality. 

Carotenoid phytonutrients, like beta-carotene and lycopene, can exist as microscopic crystals trapped inside the cell walls of fruits and vegetables. They’re only released when the cells are disrupted, which is why we have to chew really well. We either have to chew better or choose plants that are easier to chew. For example, while tomatoes have more beta-carotene than watermelon does, watermelon’s beta-carotene is more bioaccessible because its cell walls are wimpy compared with the smaller and tougher cell walls of other fruits and vegetables. To maximize nutrient release, food particle size would ideally be reduced to smaller than the width of the individual plant cells, but you can’t do that with chewing. Most vegetable particles end up greater than two millimeters when you chew them, whereas if we broke open all the cells, we could release much more nutrition, as you can see in my video, Are Green Smoothies Good for You?. The particle size distribution from chewing is about what you’d get blending in a food processor for about five seconds or one of those high-speed blenders for maybe half a second. Just 40 seconds in a blender can break down spinach to a subcellular level. 

Why does that matter? Let’s look at folate, the B vitamin in greens that is especially important for women of child-bearing age. Feed people a cup of spinach a day for three weeks and their folate goes up compared to control. What happens if you eat finely chopped spinach instead of whole leaves? You end up with more than twice as much in your bloodstream and the same absorption-boosting effect with lutein, the green nutrient so important for our eyesight.

It’s not what you eat—it’s what you absorb.  

The boost for lutein was only 14%; so, a few extra bites of the whole leafy greens would have given you just as much. Some other nutrients, such as vitamin C, aren’t affected by pre-chopping at all. This is also less of an issue with cooked vegetables. If you boil carrots for three minutes, regular chewing can release about ten times more beta-carotene bioaccessibility than eating them raw, but not as much as blended. Intense cooking, like boiling for 25 minutes, damages the cell walls so even gulping down large particles can result in significant absorption. But, blending may double carotenoid availability, explaining why we may be able to absorb three times the alpha- and beta-carotene from pureed cooked carrots compared to mashed cooked carrots. So, blending vegetables—raw or cooked—into soups, sauces, or smoothies can maximize nutrient absorption. Whether you went to the store and bought it, or toiled in your garden to grow it, you might as well take full advantage of it.  


Check out my other videos that touch on smoothies:

For other tips on getting children of all ages to eat healthier, see Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home and Tricks to Get Adults to Eat Healthier.

Finally, learn more about the effect of cooking on nutrient loss and absorption from these videos: Best Cooking Method, Raw Food Nutrient Absorption, and Sometimes the Enzyme Myth Is True.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


72 responses to “How to Maximize Nutrient Absorption

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    1. On the flip side, the more a vegetable is processed, the less fibrous it becomes.

      Moderation in all things, including grinding-up your greens.




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      1. Navy, processing different from blending. I’m mean in processing (generally we throw out the part) but in blending it’s all in there. Wouldn’t insoluble fiber still be insoluble? And wouldn’t soluble be easier absorbed, unlike juicing your not throwing out the baby with the bath water right?




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  1. It is all about enzymes and our lack of. phoenixhealth.me has some incredible articles about the importance of them and why many health issues can be reversed once this is addressed and the good foods we consumes can finally be absorbed properly. A urinalysis can quickly show what we lack and mainstream does NOT do this!….




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  2. Just curious how much of a role enzymes in our saliva play in digestion, especially of the “carb” foods we are more likely to make smoothies with. Wouldn’t chewing our food more effectively coat each mouthful with these enzymes, ensuring more efficient digestion? So wouldn’t chewing ensure more nutrient absorption than if the food was blended? After all, smoothies are actually highly processed ‘foods’ and we know processed foods (changing a food’s chemistry) usually isn’t a good thing. I’ve always thought the best blender is the one nature put in our faces — our mouths. If we were meant to drink our foods, I think our food supply would look very different. Just my opinion. But it would be nice to see more studies about chewing vs blending. Until I see more evidence, I think I’ll stick to thoroughly chewing my food instead of buying an expensive blender.




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    1. I THINK chewing helps to drain and/or circulate lymph and blood around the brain.

      Having dentures is associated with cognitive decline? Though there are other obvious issues with this.

      I don’t like smoothies so much because I tend to gulp them.




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      1. Chewing is the first and most important step in our digestive process — particularly regarding carbohydrates. All basic nutrition courses teach this. And since there is much we do not understand about the human body, we really don’t know what other necessary digestive roles are triggered by our chewing actions. Smoothies are human-created. If nature intended us to drink blended foods, there would be pools of liquid food all over this planet.

        I think we should also consider what we DO know about our food: We DO know that highly processing or changing a food changes its chemical structure (all foods are basically masses of chemicals that work in synchronicity within the food in ways we may never understand). This is why processed foods are not healthy for us. WE KNOW THIS. So how do smoothies (which are highly processed plants) escape this knowledge? Sorry, but until I see more evidence, I don’t believe REGULAR consumption of smoothies is a wise idea. We need to chew to properly digest our foods. BTW: Isn’t it highly suspicious that the sudden rise in digestive complaints seems to correlate to the rise in the smoothie trend?

        There can NEVER be a study that can actually compare the overall nutrition digestion of a food eaten whole vs a food blended up. Because we don’t know enough about the human body and our foods to know WHAT to study! There will be so many factors to adjust for (known and unknown factors) that any study will not be accurate. We learn more about ourselves and our food sources every day — and are constantly debunking what we thought we knew in the past! In any case, the studies done so far about smoothies are either in-vitro (test tube) or can be interpreted in many ways.

        I’m not saying stop drinking smoothies — I’m suggesting to enjoy them as a treat occasionally. NOT as a regular meal replacement! And if you really think your health improved because you started smoothies, well, ask yourself how much veggies and other plants were you eating pre-smoothie. You more than likely were not consuming at LEAST HALF your plate of veggies and other plant-based foods at every meal (yeah, even breakfast). Few people do. And this is the way we should be eating to ensure we are getting adequate nutrition to sustain life.

        In my 40 years of nutrition counseling, I have come across VERY few people who actually eat enough vegetables to supply the nutrients necessary for good health. I think it’s likely any health improvements were not due to smoothies per se, but that the person is now eating far more plants than they were in the past (as well as replacing less healthy food/meal choices with the smoothie). So let’s give credit where credit is due.

        I like to tell my clients: Trust nature NOT humans (the humans that assured us Thalidomide and asbestos and BPA were safe . . . yeah, THOSE humans). Mother Nature knows more about our bodies and our food supply than we do — or ever will understand. TRUST NATURE. Eat the foods as close as possible to how nature created them; avoid or minimize those that humans designed or created.




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        1. Agreed, Eve. However, as you mentioned, a lot of people would not eat enough fruits and vegetables if they did not drink smoothies. The conclusion then is that smoothies are good for you! I drink a fruit and vegetable shake for breakfast Monday to Friday because I do not have the time to cut and then sit down and chew my breakfast unless I woke up an hour earlier. I enjoy a beautiful fruit salad on weekends and holidays. I believe most people who drink smoothies do so because of time constraint, not because they are lazy and prefer liquids over solids.




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          1. Very good points, Carolina. And I completely agree with you. It’s a sad thing indeed what we have to do and sacrifice in order to live and function in the society we created.

            By the way, it takes me about the same amount of time to create my plant-based breakfast as it is to toss stuff in a blender and wait for it to whip up. But it involves being prepared ahead of time . . . I always have cooked whole grains, veggies sticks, and perhaps things like boiled eggs ready for use in the fridge. For breakfast, I put 1/2 cup pre-cooked whole grains on a bed of spinach, top that with fresh berries and nuts and if I have a boiled egg in the fridge, I might have that too. Then I add a couple of raw veggies sticks (i.e. carrots, celery) on the side. Unfortunately, it does take time to chew the meal, and I understand the time constraints many have, but 15 or 20 minutes more can be doable.

            Here are some more meal ideas (for breakfast or anytime) if anyone is interested: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/d30a77_ffabfdfb484a4ea394c305958908cdd1.pdf




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        2. I heard Standford used juicing, smoothies is fighting cancers and it actually not only regressed, but the spot disappeared. So I’m sure there are studies out there. I’m sitting in from front room right now with a smoothie. My mouth has not stopped salivating. It’s very active as I sit here taking a break from drinking it. Cool.




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        3. If this is a problem
          And you don’t salivate eating a smoothie. Try spitting it before you blend it. This would put the amalyse right into the cup and be good to go.




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    2. Hi, Eve Lees. Feel free to chew away at your whole fruits and vegetables. I don’t think that anyone here is trying to discourage you from doing that. That said, I would not classify whole food smoothies as “highly processed.” In fact, I would characterize them as minimally processed.
      Many people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. If smoothies get more of these nutritious foods into people than they would otherwise consume, then I think it is a good thing. We do swallow saliva with our food. I have not seen research pointing to the importance of coating each mouthful with salivary amylases.




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      1. I so agree with you Christine. I think the biggest problem in our society is the lack of fiber and nutrients obtained in our diet and if this is away to get more people to consume healthier foods it’s awesome. It was for me.

        On the amalyse debate, I know of a beer that’s made with corn in South America. The Vilagers make this by partially chewing the grain then spitting it into the pot before it’s the wort is cooked. It’s not highly chewed, but the spit allows the grain to ferment. Unlike barley, which has enough enzymes in it already, corn doesn’t or has way less. So, I think your are right on this account too, because just a little spit actually puts the amalyze into the wort and will allow fermentation of grains lacking in the enzyme.




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    3. I reversed sick sinus syndrome over 8 months of mostly raw vegan plus beer during billiards team days. I blended ~10-20 frozen bananas a day in a vitamix, and alternated weeks adding blueberries, raspberries or strawberries, and spinach. I also ate 2 pound salads 5 days a week for my work lunch. 8 months later the heart returned to normal, something normally always requiring a pace maker. I’d like to think that the vitamix and blending allowed me to ingest 10000% more greens and fruits than I would have been able to do chewing vs drinking.




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    1. If it is all coming from fruit and vegetables, I wouldn’t be too concerned about calories or sugar. Instead, consider the wealth of nutrients such a smoothie would contain!




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    1. Hello,

      no, it won’t have any effect since carotenoids are part of the plant cell’s and pesticides are not, they are mainly on the top of the produce. Metals should be a similar case.

      Moderator Adam P.




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  3. I’ve intuitively thought a solvent… like a few drops of alcohol for instance, could help for anything applied topically. Not sure if the same would be true if added to things consumed internally.




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    1. As Jerry Lewis suggests, any nutrient that is fat (oil)-soluble benefits from being consumed along with fat. Taking fat-soluble supplements without oil defeats their purpose.




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      1. This is misleading. Oils are not the sole source of fat. Jerry Lewis is, unfortunately, an advocate of unhealthy saturated oils and fats (and of other crackpot theories he has found on the internet). Facts and scientific studies are anathema to him. What he states as “facts” usually aren’t.

        Oil is unnecessary. What is necessary is fat to help nutrient absorption, This is best obtained from food where it comes pre-packaged with other beneficial nutrients. Oils have harmful effects. As Dr Greger, said in the previous video “Ideally, drink it with, while munching on some walnuts, pumpkin seeds, maybe a little avocado in there or something; some form of fat to help you maximize the absorption of all those fat-soluble carotenoid nutrients in there, as well.” Olives might also do the trick.




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  4. I am totally confused! I used to blend my fruit well and then I read that a shake “crunch” style was better because a smoothie destroys the fiber of fruit and vegetables. I also read somewhere that we should not chew almonds thoroughly so that little bits would get to our intestines intact and feed the good bacteria there. Are these myths? Would Dr. Greger kindly clarify? Thanks.




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    1. Dr. Greger has done a series of videos on optimizing green smoothies based on the recent nutrition research on smoothies. Under the “Video Library” tab, click on “Browse Videos by Topics”, then click on “S” and then “Smoothies”. You will find several interesting videos. Cheers!




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    2. Thank you for your question. Greensmoothieparty has kindly given you links to all the smoothie videos. Smothies are a good way to get your fruits and vegetable intake. The benefits are increased if you add greens to your smoothies and also drink them slowly. Regarding nuts, I don’t think there is any good evidence to support how to chew them. A handful of nuts should be eaten daily and nuts are linked to a whole variety fo health benefits




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  5. I wonder if there is information about minimum and maximum amounts of nutrients from fruits that can be absorbed at one time. For example, we put small amounts of a variety of fruits into our daily smoothies, but I wonder if the amounts are too small to be of value (two sweet cherries, two chunks of pineapple, 1/2 c strawberries, etc.). On the other hand, would eating two cups of strawberries at once but no cherries or pineapple might be less nutritious overall? What if we ate pineapples and cherries the next day but no strawberries?




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    1. Connie, yes you can. All of these fruits have different antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, and so as long you eat them regularly but not necessary on the same day, they will zap certain diseases. The reason that you don’t have to eat everyday is because they are not main foods for the nutrition such as protein and calcium but only for the phytonutrients.




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    2. There are no minimum or maximum amounts that can be absorbed. Whether you have one cherry or an entire watermelon, your body should be able to absorb the nutrients. The healthiest route would be to go for as wide variety of fruits and veggies as possible. You don’t have to eat a bunch of different foods at the same meal. Instead, go for a wide variety over the course of the week and rotate different fruits, veggies, legumes, and grains according to seasonal availability so that over the course of a whole year you have eaten a cornucopia of different phytonutrients.

      Dr. Jamie Koonce




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      1. I know in sports there does appear to be limits on how much we absorb in a given time. ( not sure about overall) The only studies I’ve seen had to do with protein and glucose. Protein over 25grams-35 grams in one sitting. The body hits its limit and the rest is peed out, hence hard on the kidneys. I also know, only so much glucose and be absorbed in a certain time frame, but not sure if it’s sits on the stomach or is just passed in intestines, but those test are based off a absorption vs depletion model. So probably not as relevant over the course of a day doing “normal” activity.




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  6. Fat is needed for the majority of nutrients absorption.

    Like the blog said, both blending and cooking or doing both, will break the cell all of Carotenoid and Lycopene rich foods. And surprisingly to everyone, cooking is one of the best way to get the nutrients released and easy and more delicious to eat. What you lose by cooking are the enzymes, which you can get by eating some raw vegetables on the side, and Vitamin C which you can get by eating fruits. And vitamin C is a precursor to a lot of nutrients absorption. This is why people traditionally eat fruits as dessert after a meal.




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  7. Dr. Klaper advised me once that one should not drink food, in a matter of a few minutes, that would otherwise require substantial time, say 30 minutes to an hour to eat. He advised that when drinking a smoothy, one should that time and chew because chewing triggers the production of certain digestive compounds that are needed to optimally process the food.




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    1. Digestion starts in your mouth while chewing. The saliva is very important.
      Drinking and chewing your smoothie over a longer period is a good way to get the best out of it.




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    2. Yes, i believe Dr Greger has previously suggested to chew your smoothie and consume it over a 15min (or more) period of time (i forget exactly).

      He’s also posted a video about the effects of drinking a smoothie and tracking the insulin response. Basically, drinking a berry smoothie that is based on whole raw foods will not trigger a major insulin response– as drinking a glass of pasteurized orange juice might.




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  8. Dr. Esselstyn suggests we eat (chew) our food and stay away from smoothies. His reasoning is that we get to much suggar when we drink our food and it spikes. Also, we need to use the enzymes we create in our mouth when we chew to properly begin the digestion process. Of course we could chew our smoothies…Would this make it work to max our nutritional obsorption?




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  9. I think some people are getting overly concerned about the smoothies from yesterday and today , for one thing it might only be about 50 calories , certainly under a 100 . So you will need to eat a lot of other foods to maintain your weight . I think the idea of the vege smoothie is to get some really good nutrients into you , it is not a meal or most likely not even a meal replacement , just an addition to your meals . at least i need more than 50 calories .




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    1. I agree, Ignatius. Dr. G isn’t suggesting that we blend all of our food or even a whole meal. That would be absurd. A smoothie is not a meal. Nor is soup. But they’re a good way to get a lot of nutrients.




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      1. For the people in this world that get less than 20g fiber a day ( I was one once) and people thought I ate healthy, this is a fantastic way to get the added nutrients and fiber. I’ve turned many a smoothie into a meal replacement by adding protein, and a little healthy (un-deep fried) fat to my diet by only changing my breakfast to a green smoothie. I’ve elimitanted a lot of inflammatory conditions I’ve had. But I’ve found new appreciation for some veggies I never liked before because in a smoothie the flavors blend together. We sure are critical on this issue. If you don’t want sugar don’t use sugars or juices. If you want to chew or swish your smoothie around do it. Personally I used about 3oz of orange juice and and 1/4 cup blueberries, the rest veggies. Most of you drink more orange juice sugar for breakfast than I put in a smoothie. I can use raw or cooked broccoli, to carrots and kale to onion. It’s also help my tastebuds change to where I taste sugar and salt in foods I didn’t before, such as catsup.

        I’m not sure about you, but green smoothies have changed my life.

        Thanks DR G.




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  10. So to avoid a sugar high, why not make a fruit and greens smoothie (I like spinach and banana as my base) thicken it with some ground flax or chia, place in the fridge, then take a mouthful here and there through the day?

    I usually add some organic amla or triphla powder.
    I also freeze bananas and include the skins when organic.
    Easiest spinach to use are the frozen spinach balls, low cost here in the UK.




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  11. I am so stepping up the use of Vitamix for soups with cooked veggies. Thanks for this important information, Dr. Greger!

    A proud monthly supporter of Nutritionfacts.org




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  12. Hy!
    excellent article simply explained.
    I have several questions … what to privilege? juice made with an extractor (without fibers, slowly extracted) or smoothies (with microscopically reduced fibers with high centrifugal force)? Sometimes my smoothies are a little heated by the speed of rotation of the blades and suddenly I wonder if the micronutrients are not damaged?

    in advance thank you for your lighting




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    1. DuAs a moderator on this site, I wanted to respond to your question. I believe you are asking about a brand (Priviledge?) of smoothie but . Since you’ve indicated the fiber has been extracted from it it appears to not be a whole food, missing a key element, the fiber. Better to eat the whole fruit, or if you occasionally indulge just with a smoothie, make your own, saving money and at possiby getting some of the fiber. You neednt worry about the small amount of heat that occurs during the blending.




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  13. I’m curious, about kale chips, and other dried greens, like collard and mustard greens…I make a lot of these every week, in my dehydrator…The dried “chips” taste good, don’t have any bitterness, and they seem to disintegrate in your mouth very easily. That must help absorbtion. But what does drying do to the nutrients though? I wonder if studies have been done to compare kale chips vs. steamed kale, etc.




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  14. Although a quick review of PubMed data base did not reveal a study that specifically compared nutrient loss of kale when steamed v dehydrated. However several studies mentioned loss of Vit C and A with dehydration, but also focused on nutrient loss when vitamins like B and some minerals are cooked in water. I think you’ll find the following article helpful in evaluating: http://extension.missouri.edu/p/GH1562 Remember with dehyration with the heat being lower the nutrient loss would also presumably be less. Hope this helps!




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  15. Yes, thanks for that interesting link, on food dehydrating! It is convenient and easy to do, so I will continue to use it. The dehydrator is one of my favorite appliances.




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    1. Hi David,

      Would you share your dehydrator brand name? A friend of mine bought one years ago and it was really inefficient. I would like to buy a reliable brand.




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      1. Hi Carolina,

        Yes, my first dehydrator was the Nesco American Harvest. It was pretty good, but the thermostat only lasted a little more than a year, and burned out. Then I decided to graduate to the next level, and got an “Excaliber” 5 tray. It’s slightly bigger but not too big..Really like that one, bought it from Amazon. Cost more but well worth it.

        David PL




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  16. As a long time WFPBnOil foody, smoothies have been a regular part of my daily meal plan. The idea of a savoury smoothie (as versus sweet) has always been appealing for nutritional reasons and I was hoping Dr’ Greger’s smoothie recipe might be the holy grail alternative to the fruit-included green smoothies I have been making for years.
    With all due respect to Dr. Greger, who is one of my super-heroes, the smoothie I made last night using fresh organic greens (kale and celery), carrots, bell pepper, turmeric, and organic bottled organic tomato juice was, well, pretty awful. My concern is that anyone new to smoothies might make one of these and just give up from the get-go.
    I am not trying to be Mr. Right and I certainly am not educated in nutritional nuances of mixing fruit and vegetables in a smoothie, but my most favourite, and therefore frequently consumed with great joy, smoothie consists of: carrot, beetroot, celery whizzed up in clean water and THEN filtered through a nut milk bag to isolate the hard fibre from the nutritious liquid. Something akin to juicing but not as fibre isolating. The fiber left in the nut bag is most unattractive- it looks somewhat like dog-poop, and rather than throw it into the composting bin, I feed it to our dog mixed in with the rest of her food. She gobbles it down, but I digress-
    The next step is to use the liquidised carrot-celery-beetroot mixture and add any number of things including greens (usually Kale or spinach), lemon juice, sometimes hempseed powder, tumeric powder, usually avocado and fresh peanut butter, and one or two fruits, usually banana and blueberries or other berries. The texture and taste of the final mixture once blended is, well, simply scrumptious and this means everyone in the house wants a serving day after day and week after week. I figure it is better to get my raw greens in a palatable fashion than to have to force foamy brown gluk down my gullet. Of course the big spider in the car is that the TOMATO juice is missing, so I drink bottled organic tomato juice daily spiced up with a little salt, pepper, chile powder and lemon, and this too is delicious and s’morish.
    Comments are welcomed as to my process, ingredients mixing or anything else you can think of, because I want to LEARN, not lead.




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  17. Great interesting comment, good to know I’m not the only one who adds peanut butter to smoothies….
    On the subject of dogs liking vegetables, more should be done with that!




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  18. My concern with smoothies is the insufficient amount of time that drinks of any kind spend in the mouth. Without sufficient time in the mouth to adequately mix with amylase and other enzymes it doesnt seem as healthy as it could be.




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    1. Wegan, I understand you thought on the acidic on the teeth. Do you think it’s much more than if you ate the food items by them self. Surely, the reduced time in the mouth would reduce the exposure time of the acid? Or are you saying because it’s being circulated, in liquid form in the mouth, it’s doing more damage.




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        1. Eve, after watching the above video again dr G appears to be taking about “sour smoothies” having excess acid. Such as those with lots of lemon or strawberries and sugars. Thanks for pointing this out. I wonder if one could rinse ones mouth with baking soda to negate the acidity on the teeth?




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          1. Along with drinking through a straw, apparently simply rinsing your mouth with even just plain water — directly after consuming acidic liquids — is adequate.




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