If you have an Instagram account, you’ve seen them. They’re garnished with a tropical rainforest of fruit, topped with mounds of unctuous shredded coconut, bittersweet cocoa nibs and glistening chia seeds, and they’re always shot from above like an exotic island as seen from the window of a plane.
Smoothie and açai bowls snuck onto the scene several years ago, and their popularity shows no signs of waning. But how healthy are these beautiful breakfasts, really?
“The aspects of the smoothie bowls that have us all fooled are the fancy health buzzwords and elitist prices,” explained Ilana Muhlstein, registered dietitian nutritionist.
“When the marketing touts itself as containing maca, spirulina, reishi, and other exotic ingredients that most people don’t understand the value to, for a premium price, people feel like it absolutely must be great for them,” she said.
However, many of these bowls contain as much sugar, calories and carbs as several glazed doughnuts. And that’s before you add the fun toppings that make them so darn ’grammable.
Nutrition facts don’t lie. Keep an eye out for your smoothie bowl’s sugar content.
If you like to grab a bowl at one of the many smoothie and juice stands popping up nationwide, you may have noticed some troubling nutrition facts.
The Açaí Primo Bowl at Jamba Juice contains 490 calories and 67 grams of sugar, and the Açaí Blueberry Bowl at Juice Press contains 260 calories and 34 grams of the sweet stuff. And even the basic All-Star Açaí Bowl at Juice Generation serves up 345 calories and 47 grams of sugar. While most of that sugar comes from fruit, even “natural sugar” can lead to health concerns, especially combined with a relative lack of protein, fat and fiber to balance it out.
A 2014 study found that added sugars ― found in delicious toppings like granola ― can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Even if you forgo those and stick to smoothie bowls made only with whole fruit, you’re still consuming a lot of fructose. And while controversial, a recent study found possible links between sugary foods that spike insulin levels and acne.
And don’t let the color fool you. Even “green” smoothie bowls usually contain fruit and fruit juices to balance out the bitterness of spinach or other plants. Consider the Hella Good Greens Bowl from Juice Generation. While it does contain spinach and plant protein, it’s also made with banana, mango and blueberries for sweetness. That all adds up to 490 calories and 46 grams of sugar.
Even though these bowls tout “superfoods” such as açai, don’t think of them as magic bullets. “While superfood ingredients can be beneficial to your health, the slight amount found in one of the bowls is likely not going to impact you much,” Muhlstein explained. “However, the sugar and calories absolutely can.”
Smoothie bowls contain the perfect storm of nutrients to make you hangry.
Registered dietitian and health coach Jessica Cording usually steers her clients away from these bowls because of two related concerns: nutrient balance and portion sizes.
“Even though it’s natural sugar, if there’s no protein or fat to balance it out, it hits your bloodstream all at once,” she explained. “It’s also a lot of calories in one bowl. If you’re having it for breakfast, you might not realize that, since it’s mostly carbs, you’ll end up hungry again, sooner than later.”
When determining what makes a healthy diet — which differs slightly for everyone depending on body type, activity level and other factors — Cording likes to use a technique she calls “hanger management.”
“A well-balanced meal should have fats, sugars, carbs and protein to get more of a slow release and keep a stable breakdown in the body,” she said. “That will keep your mood more stable and avoid you getting shaky and cranky and that feeling of needing to eat something right away.”
Smoothie bowls can hit your bloodstream like an atomic bomb because they often contain relatively little protein. Your blood sugar will spike and then drop just as quickly, leading to that shaky, woozy feeling a few hours later — not to mention hanger pains.
Even if you add a nut butter to your smoothie bowl for protein, it doesn’t make much of a dent. For example, the Island Pitaya Bowl at Jamba Juice weighs in at 470 calories and 70 grams of sugar but just 6 grams of protein. The Almond Butter Açai Bowl at Juice Press contains just 7 grams of protein along with 24 grams of sugar and 360 calories. Adding healthy fat and protein-rich ingredients like nut butter will up that protein quotient, but watch out for your calorie count. The nutrient-dense butters will pack a caloric punch, as well.
Nutritionists also look askance at the portion sizes at many commercial establishments. And when making your own smoothie bowl, it’s easy to get carried away, especially when trying to make a big, beautiful bowl. Many smoothie bowls contain far more servings of fruit than you’d typically eat in one sitting if you sat down with whole pieces, Cording explained.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of fruit for most adults with a light to moderate activity level. For context, one banana, a small apple, 1/2 cup of dried fruit or one cup of whole fruit juice each counts as a single serving. To make those big, gorgeous smoothie bowls, most people use multiple servings of fruit without realizing it, even at home. Blending up a smoothie bowl with a banana and a scoop of berries, and then garnishing it with dried fruit can easily pack in two to three servings of fruit in a single meal.
“Social media plays a big role in this — we see people posting these huge, elaborate bowls with all kinds of ingredients piled on top, and you’ve got to wonder if that’s what they’re really eating,” Cording added. “When it comes to things like smoothie and açai bowls, I recommend people look at it and check in with yourself. Ask, ‘Would I eat this much fruit in one sitting if it was a full piece of fruit?’ It’s not exactly sexy advice, but it’s all about balance and portion control.“
Eating blended foods shortchanges you on fiber and satiation.
The convenience of a smoothie or bowl also comes with a downside. Yes, a smooth, drinkable meal makes it easier to get those great, nutritious whole foods on the go, but your body doesn’t register those the same way as meals that require really chowing down.
“Blending breaks down fiber, which may decrease foods’ satiety,” explained Andy Bellatti, registered dietician. “In other words, blending a half cup of strawberries, two bananas, and a peach may not be as satiating as eating — and chewing on — those same foods.”
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the more the participants chewed, the less they ate. While eating crispy, crunchy pizza, participants instructed to chew 50 percent more than they typically would consumed about 10 percent fewer calories. And those who doubled their chewing also ate 15 percent less, overall. The ceremony of eating a “real” meal also makes a difference.
“When you chew, there are certain enzymes released that get the digestion process going, but there’s also that behavioral component,” explained Cording. “Chewing, eating whole food, signals to your body that you’re having a meal. If you’re sitting down and picking up a fork or a spoon or bringing food to your mouth and then chewing it, that sends signals that will end up being much more satisfying.”
Slowing down also affects the way those hormones get released, as well as the speed at which they reach your brain. In simple terms, if you spend more time chewing and consuming your food, that also gives your body more time to send your brain that “I’m full” message. That, in turn, can limit accidental overeating.
Researchers in a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition measured hormone levels of participants who ate food with low or high amounts of chewing. The study showed that when participants chewed more, they registered lower levels of ghrelin, or the hunger hormone. They also registered higher levels of GLP-1, a peptide hormone that stimulates insulin secretion, as well as cholecystokinin, or CCK, which helps regulate satiety. Therefore, they felt full after consuming a smaller amount of food.
In addition to the effect of lower protein and fiber, as well as higher sugar contents that many smoothie bowls present, their lack of physical heft can make a difference in how long they keep you full. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics asked 35 normal-weight men and woman and 35 overweight or obese individuals to eat a test meal twice. The first time, researchers asked them to eat slowly, and the second, more quickly. Participants reported that the more slowly they ate, the longer they felt full afterward. Even if you do choose a quick hit like a smoothie bowl, taking your sweet time to consume it can help it have a bigger impact on your satiety.
The good news: There’s a way to make smoothie bowls better for you.
But if you do love the convenience and, let’s face it, sheer social media prowess of smoothie and açai bowls, you can hack the system.
All of the nutritionists HuffPost talked to warned against added sugars, as well as ingredients that naturally contain a lot of them. Bellatti suggested going for unsweetened plant-based milks instead of sugary fruit juice as a smoothie base. “I recommend healthful, sugar-free toppings like unsweetened shredded coconut, cacao nibs, hemp seeds and chia seeds, as opposed to sugary granolas, honey or dried fruit with added sugar,” he advised.
And if you want to add a creamy element, stay away from fat-free yogurt. Fat makes food more satiating, so you’re better off sticking with full-fat, unsweetened yogurt.
Cording added that you can pump up the protein using an unflavored protein powder or protein pea milk, which has more protein than the average nondairy milks.
“I also encourage people to add vegetables in smoothies,” she said. “A 2-to-1 ratio of vegetables to fruits is a good goal.” Riced cauliflower also adds that creamy, thick texture as well as vital fiber and nutrients, without what Cording calls “that funky cauliflower taste.”
“It sounds weird, but it’s really great,” she added.
And feel free to add hemp and chia seeds, in moderation. Those really do pack a nutritional punch, Bellatti noted. “Hemp seeds and chia seeds are two foods I recommend that people integrate into their diets, ideally on a daily basis,” he explained. “They both offer heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds are also a wonderful source of protein, magnesium, and potassium. Chia seeds are a fiber powerhouse and also provide calcium, They are versatile, so they can be added to anything.”
But as with all smoothie bowl ingredients, portion control is key. Cording recommended keeping all toppings to a tablespoon, in total. That means just a teaspoon or so of multiple goodies, or a full tablespoon of just one. Look at it as a garnish, rather than a full ingredient.
The bottom line? Those smoothie and açai bowls you see on the ’gram or at your corner juice bar might look gorgeous, but they don’t really deserve the health halo many influencers have bestowed on them. Go ahead and grab one for an occasional treat or a decadent dessert, but they shouldn’t serve as your sole ticket to better health.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to remove a reference to a study examining links between fructose and insulin resistance, as it did not find adverse health effects from naturally occurring fructose in fruits and vegetables.