When Should I Worry About...

Are Greens Powders Good for You?

May 8, 2023 - Katie McCallum

We don't eat enough fruit and vegetables. Nowhere near enough, in fact, considering the CDC says that only around 1 in 10 adults actually meet the recommended amount every day.

This is concerning since fruits and vegetables are a cornerstone of a healthy diet, packed with the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs to function optimally. They're also a great way to get plenty of fiber, a nutrient that can help prevent blood sugar spikes, lower high blood pressure, balance cholesterol levels, reduce your risk of chronic health conditions and more.

Knowing we need more yet finding it difficult to get enough, many of us are looking for easy ways to increase our fruit and veggie intake.

One option you might be considering is a greens powder, also sometimes referred to as super greens powder or powder greens. Chances are you've seen ads for these products or heard first-hand testimonials about their benefits from people you follow on social media.

They're very green — that suggests they're healthy, right? — and, these days, they're everywhere. But are greens powders actually good for you?

What are the benefits of greens powder?

Most greens powders are marketed as a way to fill nutritional gaps, providing a boost of vitamins and minerals when your diet falls short. Some even claim to be a way to get your daily dose of greens.

The exact formulation of greens powders varies by brand, of which there are many these days. Most, though, are a mix of various vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are dried and then ground into a powder. Often added to these mixtures are plant chemicals or components that have been isolated and concentrated, such as enzymes (like amylase) thought to aid with digestion, inulin to add back some of the fiber lost during processing and popular extracts, like ginkgo bilboa.

The advertised benefits of greens powder include:

  • Improved gut health
  • Higher energy levels
  • Enhanced exercise recovery
  • Immune system support

Some brands come with other wellness claims, like helping to reduce bloat, stress, inflammation or act as a detox for the body. Many are also geared toward the fitness-minded, proclaiming improved exercise performance and recovery.

It all sounds well and good, but is any of it actually true?

Do greens powders work?

Critical to answering whether greens powders are beneficial is a discussion of what you can (but mostly can't) expect out of them. Fortunately, Monica Bearden, a sports dietitian at Houston Methodist, is here to help.

Greens powder can't replace real fruits and vegetables

As enticing as it may sound to scoop some green powder into a glass of water, chug it and carry on with your day — unconcerned about your fruit and veggie intake — it's nowhere near that simple.

"A greens powder can be a good supplement to a healthy diet, but it cannot be a replacement," says Bearden. "The nutrients found in fruits and vegetables benefit our overall health, but this benefit comes when these nutrients are consumed from their natural sources, in their natural combinations and in their typical amounts."

In other words, you'll still need to eat a balanced diet — that is, a diet including a variety of whole fruits and veggies — to make sure your body has what it needs to function optimally. Variety is key here, something a daily greens powder just can't provide.

"Real fruits and vegetables provide a combination of nutrients, including macronutrients and micronutrients and fiber, that work together in a synergistic way," says Bearden.

For example, carrots, watermelon and bell peppers have different combinations of carotenoids. These are the orange and yellow pigments found in these fruits and vegetables.

"Some carotenoids are converted to vitamin A in the body, such as beta-carotene. Others, like lutein and zeaxanthin, have their own functions, important for eye health and even eye damage recovery," explains Bearden. "Additionally, the combination of the variety of nutrients in their natural, whole-food form helps each other be absorbed and metabolized by the body."

Plus, fiber can be lost when processing fruits and vegetables into a powder, especially if they're juiced before drying. Fibrous plant components are sometimes artificially added into these powder mixtures, but be forewarned: Some components — inulin, in particular — may cause unwanted gas and bloating.

"Also, many of the water-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals, such as vitamin C and polyphenols, can be lost when dehydrating and processing fruit," adds Bearden.

The bottom line: If you're eating a well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables, you're likely already getting all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs to support gut health, energy needs, immunity, exercise recovery and more — no greens powder necessary.

Greens powder can help with exercise performance and recovery

From a nutrition standpoint, Bearden stresses that effective exercise and recovery begins with a balanced diet — and, truth be told, it's technically all most people really need.

"An overall balanced diet, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and non-fat dairy, provides all the nutrition needed to top off energy stores, repair and build muscle and decrease the inflammation and stress that leads to muscle soreness," explains Bearden. "A balanced diet also supports muscle function and overall cardiovascular health."

But Bearden adds that the extra boost of vitamins and minerals found in certain greens powders can further optimize how your body reacts to exercise.

"As a supplement to an overall balanced diet, a greens powder can aid performance and recovery," says Bearden. "They can help further reduce muscle soreness, as well as promote blood vessel dilation and health — allowing oxygen and nutrients to get to muscles and the brain effectively, as well as promoting overall cardiovascular health."

A word of caution, though: Greens powders are considered supplements, which means they're not regulated by the FDA like medications. This also means that the ingredients may not be well-tested for safety in humans, particularly at the levels sometimes found in these products.

"Overconsuming a nutrient in a real food isn't typically a concern," says Bearden. "But some of these greens powder products have fairly high concentrations of nutrients or herbal extracts, higher than what's found in the whole food or herb. This can lead to side effects and sometimes even safety issues."

For instance, concentrated wheat grass extract can cause allergies or nausea and green tea extract may cause headaches. It's best to get these in their natural form versus an extract.

Additionally, Bearden warns that high levels of certain nutrients can interfere or interact with medications, such as antibiotics and blood thinners. Always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement so you can be sure it's safe for you.

"Another example is soy," adds Bearden. "Soy-based foods provide great nutrition and promote good health. When eating soy protein isolates and concentrates, on the other hand, the amount of phytoestrogens can become higher than what's considered optimal for certain populations."

What is the best greens powder to buy?

If you do decide to make a greens powder part of your daily nutrition routine, Bearden has some tips for how to decide which specific product you should buy:

  • Choose a product made from dehydrated whole fruits, vegetables and grains
  • Stay clear of powders with vitamin, mineral and herbal extract amounts that are double, or even sometimes triple, the recommended daily allowance (RDA)
  • Since the FDA doesn't regulate these products, look for ones certified by a third-party (example: NSF-certified)
  • Consider researching the literature yourself — a published study (or studies) conducted with the product is a big plus

"I do think these powders can be a good supplement, but they cannot replace a healthy diet," says Bearden. "And you need to fact-check and do your research. You'll likely find that only a few of the greens powders available meet all of the criteria above."

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...