Rainbow-hued acai bowls remain buzzy on Instagram, with 1.8 million posts (and counting) using the hashtag #acaibowl. Just about every juice bar—even Costco’s—offers the delicious smoothie bowls. No doubt, they’re pretty and popular.
But what’s underneath that lovely layer of fruit? Is this tasty trend boosting your health or hindering it? And how many calories are in an acai bowl, anyway? We’re dishing with registered dietitian Jenna Werner, creator and CEO of Happy Strong Healthy, on all of the acai intel.
The bottom line is no surprise: The answers to the questions above come on a case-by-case basis. While loaded with nutrition, acai bowls can also “pack a lot of calories, sugar, and even fat,” Werner says. “The nutrition varies based on where you get your acai bowl and how it’s made.”
What are acai bowls, exactly?
Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) is a violet-skinned, yellow-fleshed berry grown in the Amazon forest. Due to its solid supplies of antioxidants, vitamin A, calcium and fiber, acai is often deemed a “superfruit.” Its flavor is similar to a combination of dark chocolate and blackberries, making it ideal for blending into smoothies for a dessert-like flavor boost.
Acai bowls began as a specialty in Brazil. Due to its vibrant appearance and ice cream-like consistency, the food trend quickly spread to all corners of the globe. Served in a bowl or a cup, these smoothie bowls are made with acai pulp that’s usually mixed with frozen fruit like banana, and is accented with additional mix-ins and toppings.
How many calories are in an acai bowl?
As much as we wish we had a firm answer to the question, “How many calories are in an acai bowl?” the answer is: It depends.
Take a look at the differences between a few popular chains and store-bought acai bowl options:
The Acai Primo bowl contains 510 calories, with 10 grams of fat and 8 grams of protein. It also has 11 grams of fiber and a considerable amount of sugar: 65 grams.
(Image: Jamba Juice)
The acai version of this smaller chain’s “Power Bowls” contains 510 calories, with 10 grams of fat and 4 grams of protein. It also has 45 grams of fiber and a whopping 73 grams of sugar.
(Image: Fresh Restaurants)
New York City’s Juice Generation offers a few acai options. On the leaner side, there’s the Aloha Bowl, with 259 calories, 9 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein, and a relatively low 26 grams of sugar. But the PB Bowl packs a lot more of everything (thanks in large part to the addition of peanut butter): 495 calories, 26 grams of fat, 12 of protein, and 40 grams of sugar.
(Image: Juice Generation)
The popular grocery chain’s frozen, organic acai bowl offers one 10-ounce serving, which contains: 260 calories, 10 grams of fat, 4 grams protein, 9 grams fiber, and 18 grams of sugar.
(Image: Trader Joe’s)
How can you make a low-calorie acai bowl?
Many cafes and juice bars blend in sugar, often in the form of honey, maple syrup or agave nectar, and pile on calorie-dense toppings to keep you coming back for bowl after tasty bowl. Such additions “can pretty quickly take the bowl from a meal to dessert, especially when chocolate and sweeter items join the ingredient list,” Werner says.
That’s OK for a once-in-a-while treat, but if you want to make acai smoothies part of your regular healthy diet, it’s much better to DIY.
“I encourage my clients to make their own versions at home,” Werner says. “They can be a great way to add in fruits and even veggies, plus homemade acai bowls can be customized to include your favorite ingredients.”
Where to get your acai? Most grocery stores have packets you can find in the frozen fruit section, making it easy and economical to DIY your own bowls at home. We love the Sambazon brand, which comes in Original Blend or Pure Unsweetened, and is usually priced under $10 for a pack of four pouches.
For the most calorie-smart, at-home bowl, select a smaller-sized vessel and stick to two or three toppings max.
Five delicious additions to your at-home acai bowl
1. Plant-based milk: You’re going to need a liquid to blend your frozen acai and other ingredients into, so choose your favorite healthy, plant-based milk. If you prefer cow’s milk, get a probiotic boost by using kefir instead.
2. Frozen banana: A frozen banana will add great texture, not to mention a boost of potassium. And let’s be honest: Smoothies and bowls are more fun when they have the same creamy mouthfeel as a milk shake!
3. Berry boost: More berries are never a bad idea. Blueberries, strawberries, take your pick. You’ll get an extra boost of antioxidants and vitamins, plus the berries’ natural sweetness can satisfy your taste for sugar.
4. Nuts or nut butters: For a boost of protein along with some healthy fats, add a tablespoon of almonds or cashews, or use creamy peanut butter.
5. Veggies: Smoothies and acai bowls can be a great way to get a serving of vegetables, too. Add a carrot, a beet, or even a handful of spinach into your mix!
Want even more ideas for sneaking super-healthy acai into your day? Start with a low-sugar smoothie such as this Chocolate-Cherry Smoothie or this Raspberry Oat Smoothie, then add frozen acai. Or, opt for the easier-to-store, concentrated acai powder, such as Whole Foods Market’s 365 organic version.
So, are acai bowls healthy?
Seek out acai options that are as low as possible in added sugars and high in fiber and protein.
“Remember that restricting something you love is never the answer,” Werner says. “But it’s important to be aware of what may be in your food and how you feel when you are eating it.”