It’s time to get the lowdown on acai bowls.
Are they healthy?
Should you be eating this “superfood” for weight loss?
Or do Americans eat acai with so much sugar that it overrides the benefits of this antioxidant-rich fruit…
We’ve had lots of questions about acai from our 1-on-1 coaching clients, so we decided to explore this “superfood” extensively and share our research below!
Here’s what we’ll cover to answer the question, “Are acai bowls healthy?”
- What is an acai berry?
- How do you pronounce “acai”? (Ah-sigh-ee)
- Why are acai bowls so popular? (The history of acai)
- How do you make an acai bowl? What are some typical acai bowl recipes?
- What are the benefits of acai? (Fact vs. Hype)
- Are acai bowls good for weight loss?
- Should I eat acai bowls for breakfast? (Protein in the AM)
- A note on “superfoods” (Next steps for healthy eating)
What is an Acai Berry?
The acai berry is a small purple fruit found on the acai palm.
They come from Brazil and other northern regions of South America.
- 80% of the berry is actually the seed, which for the most part people don’t eat.
- This leaves only about 20% for the flesh and skin of the berry, the stuff folks generally do eat.
People will often eat acai in a bowl that will look like this:
Why should you care about acai?
Generally, the answer lies in the word “antioxidants”.
I know, “Why the hell do I care about antioxidants?”
Antioxidants are substances that fight a process called oxidation.
When your body interacts with too much sunlight, toxins in smoke, air pollution, alcohol, and other challenges, it can create “free radicals,” AKA molecules with an unpaired electron.
And these molecules? They are single and ready to mingle. So when they collide with an electron that’s already paired, they more or less steal it.
This molecule then has to steal another electron, and the process continues. You can see how this could get out of hand. While some free radicals are normal, too many in our bodies can indeed lead to cancer.
Note that “Free Radicals” are different from “the New Radicals,” a one-hit wonder:
Which brings me back to antioxidants.
Depending on the particular molecule, antioxidants either provide the free radical with an extra electron, or break it down altogether.
The point: antioxidants neutralize free radicals, making them harmless.
That’s why antioxidants are important.
How Do You Pronounce “Acai”?
We need to talk about how you actually pronounce “acai.” I’ve seen it make all sorts of people tongue tied.
And you want to sound important and all-knowing at your next cocktail party, right?
It’s “ah-sigh-ee.” Like this:
Often times, when exotic fruit is brought to the West, it’s name is changed so it’s easier to pronounce.
Storytime: This happened with the fruit “kiwi,” actually called “Yang-tao” in China. But marketers banked on “kiwi” being easier to say than Yang-tao, pronounced “yahng tou” in English. So they named it after the famous kiwi bird from New Zealand.
And boom, that’s why you know kiwi fruit as “kiwis.”
Such a name swap didn’t happen with acai.
Acai has kept its original Brazilian name, which is why us English speakers trip up pronouncing it.
Why Are Acai Bowls So Popular? (The History of Acai)
The credit of the acai berry being popular outside of Brazil can be attributed to Ryan and Jeremy Black, two brothers from Southern California.
Together with their friend Ed Nichols they realized the acai berry could have a potential gigantic market in the West.
The Black brothers and Nichols came across acai on a trip to Brazil. The locals encouraged them to try it, proclaiming the health benefits of the berry: an energy boost, kickstarted immunity, and detoxification.
They got HOOKED on these things, and from then on, whenever Ryan, Jeremy, and Ed were in Brazil, they would search for an icy acai bowl.
On one such trip, the Black brothers and Nichols discussed how great it would be to enjoy acai back in the States.
Strange fruit from Brazil with antioxidants?
Exotic, healthy, and easy to make grandiose claims about?
And that’s why acai bowls can now be found in every city in America with a punny store name.
How Do You Make an Acai Bowl? What Are Some Typical Acai Bowl Recipes?
In Brazil, the acai (in the form of frozen pulp) is generally served in a bowl with granola and bananas. Sometimes a fourth ingredient would be used, the Amazonian fruit guarana, which contains more caffeine than coffee.
How about here in the States? That’s where acai bowls get cray.
You’ll for sure get acai berries, granola, and banana. And maybe guarana. But how about some of the following:
- Apple Juice
- Almond Milk
- Almond Butter
- Mango Juice
- Peanut Butter
- Soy Milk
Pick a handful of the above, mix them in a bowl, and BOOM! Acai bowl.
One thing most ingredients listed or referenced have in common, is they are carbohydrate and/or sugar heavy. Some, like agave and honey, are more or less just sugar.
What Are the Benefits of Acai? (Fact vs. Hype)
There are a lot of health claims associated with the acai berry. Some of which make my eyebrows raise. Others make me nod approvingly. And one or two that make my soul hurt.
Which is why I’d like to introduce my new favorite Nerd Fitness game, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”:
CLAIM #1: “There are good antioxidants in acai berries.”
Acai berries are indeed high in antioxidants. Which is great, for the reasons we talked about earlier. When people talk about the benefits of the acai berry, it more or less comes down to antioxidants.
I support this claim.
Now, I will mention just about any berry you pick (blackberry, blueberry, raspberry) is also a great source of antioxidants. But I won’t completely steal the acai berry’s thunder.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #2: “Acai berries are nutrient dense.”
REALITY: Also true!
Acai berries contain as much Vitamin C as blueberries. Plus acai is a great source of Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and E. They also contain plenty of minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and copper.
Good stuff there. As a proponent of eating REAL foods that are nutrient-dense, I would throw acai into that category. An acai berry is REAL food.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #3: “Acai berries aid digestion.”
REALITY: eh, sort of.
Fiber aids digestion. And acai skin and pulp contain fiber. So acai aids digestion?
Sure, that’s true. But it’s not the complete picture. All sorts of things contain fiber, like every other berry you’ve ever heard of. Plus, some food like carrots, are more fibrous than the acai berry.
There is no special acai ingredient to improve digestion. If fiber is what you’re after, an acai berry isn’t a bad decision. But it’s not the single best option.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #4: “Acai has anti-aging powers.”
REALITY: Bollocks! Hogwash!
Antioxidants are a good thing, because keeping your cells healthy and clear of free radicals is important. But are your wrinkles going to smooth out with the help of a berry? Or really, anything shy of botox? Don’t buy into this.
Acai have no special anti-aging magic. If the claim is antioxidants reverse aging, sure, in that they keep cells healthy. But not in the “I’m going to reverse time” way.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #5: “Acai will improve libido.”
Will eating nutritiously lead to improved health? Which will improve how your body functions? Which could include libido? Sure.
Is there a berry out there that will make you awesome in the bedroom? No.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
CLAIM #6: “Acai berries help weight loss.”
“Acai is a nutrient-rich source of antioxidants, much like many other fruits, but there is nothing magical about the fruit to cause weight loss.” Thank you David Grotto, RD.
Promises like better health, improved libido, and weight loss sell well. That’s why you’ll come across them. But as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Naturally, the idea that a berry will make you lose weight is silly. It depends on what else you are consuming, and in what quantities, in addition to the acai berry. I’m going to cover this more extensively below.
PANTS ON FIRE SCORE:
Are Acai Bowls Good for Weight Loss?
“Can I lose weight eating acai bowls?”
It truly depends on how you used to eat and what else you eat every day (we discuss this thoroughly in our guide The 5 Rules of Weight Loss).
To help paint this picture, let’s talk about carbohydrates and sugars found in an acai bowl.
Let’s start with the traditional acai bowl: acai puree, granola, and some banana. That will run about 355 calories, including 50 grams of carbohydrates, with 18 grams of those being sugar.
For comparison, the average bagel from a deli will have about 350 calories and 50 grams of carbs.
And that’s just a traditional bowl: what about the Americanized versions?
Acai puree often has sugar added to it, since the acai berry itself isn’t too sweet. Plus, an acai place might also pour things like honey and agave into the bowl. And don’t forget fruit contains quite a bit of sugar.
When you add it all up, it becomes a lot.
Let’s analyze the 12 oz. Acai Berry Bowl from “Juice It Up”: acai puree, a strawberry juice blend, actual strawberries, blueberries, and guarana. This rakes up:
- 340 calories
- 66 grams of carbohydrates
- 60 grams of sugar
If you called this meal a “carb bomb” or “sugar bomb,” I wouldn’t disagree with you. And none of this factors in additional toppings like coconut flakes or granola.
You can see how all of this adds up quickly. Acai bowls with over 90 grams of sugar are not unheard of.
That’s why I cringe when I read the Huffington Post’s article that acai bowls are the world’s healthiest breakfast. I have no problem if you eat an acai bowl for breakfast.
But don’t let the good attributes of a South American berry distract you. Carbs, calories, and sugar don’t count less just because there are antioxidants present.
Eating a pile of pureed carbs, topped with carbs, and sprinkled with carbs, might be only a slightly better decision than a bowl of Lucky Charms.
All of this to say: be smart and learn about what you’re eating! Know the caloric, carbohydrate and sugar makeup of the food you eat, even if it’s “super.”
We remind our coaching clients that green juices, smoothies, and acai bowls all might have lots of nutrients, but they all will likely contain tons of sugar and calories too. That’s why we help our clients factor in these foods into their weight loss plans.
Should I Eat Acai Bowls for Breakfast? (Protein in the AM)
If you are going to eat breakfast, shift your focus from a pile of carbs to something loaded with protein and healthy fat. It’ll help fill you up in a more calorically-efficient manner, provide your muscles with rebuilding fuel, and not spike your insulin levels like sugar/carbs can do.
Eggs are a breakfast staple that Team Nerd Fitness wholly endorses.
You can read our five favorite quick recipes here.
If you need some other examples for meal ideas, check out our post on 10 meals that can be made in 10 minutes.
But that’s only if you actually want to eat breakfast. You can also…
SKIP BREAKFAST. Some people forgo breakfast all together! Like me. It’s called intermittent fasting. It lets you make one less meal decision for the day, you’re less likely to overeat in a day, and it can help manage your insulin levels.
So start with protein in the morning. Or skip breakfast. But personally I wouldn’t start with a bucket of sugar in puree form if I was trying to lose weight.
Bummed out that your superfood breakfast isn’t that super? I hear ya. There’s nothing worse than TRYING to be healthy and discovering the food you thought was helping you lose weight is actually making things worse! Crap. Fun fact: I used to eat tons of granola bars and thought they were healthy (nope, carb and sugar bombs – might as well have been a Snickers!)
Our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program seeks to make fitness, by telling you EXACTLY what to do. No guesswork on breakfast, no wandering around lost in the gym, just an exact blueprint to follow. Plus a coach to keep you accountable!
A Note on “Superfoods” (Next Steps for Healthy Eating)
If you ever read anything about a “superfood,” let this act as a public service announcement.
Be skeptical. Marketers love this term because it’s not defined, regulated, or provable. Meaning it can be used at whim to sell whatever to desperate folks trying to lose weight with zero repercussions
The acai is a well hyped piece of fruit thanks to a serious marketing engine and lots of money at stake.
Like most berries, it has good antioxidants and nutrients. Good stuff.
And If you like the taste and want to treat yo self? Occasionally, hell yeah.
Should you eat one everyday for breakfast? Especially smothered in granola, drizzled with honey, and topped with more carbs/sugar?
There’s likely a better option if you’re not seeing success and losing weight.
What kind of option?
We’ll, since you asked nicely, I’ve got a few in mind that I can share with you.
NEXT STEPS IF YOU WANT TO GO FARTHER!
#1) Our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program: a coaching program for busy people to help them make better food choices, stay accountable, and get healthier, permanently.
You can schedule a free call with our team so we can get to know you and see if our coaching program is right for you. Just click on the image below for more details:
#2) The Nerd Fitness Academy – This self-paced online course has helped 50,000 people get results permanently.
There’s a 10-level nutrition system, boss battles, 20+ workouts, and the most supportive community in the galaxy!
#3) Join our free email list and community – I send out two fun emails a week – and I’ll send you our free 10-level Nutrition Guide along with a bunch of other free bonuses. Get them when you sign up in the box below:
Now, I want to hear from YOU:
Am I being too harsh on acai?
Or does this berry deserve to have some of its hype squashed.
Let me know in the comments.
Also, do you have any other “superfoods” you want us to take on in future “Liar, Liar Pants on Fire” posts?
-Steve, who is definitely NOT hiding from Brazilian acai marketing companies in my apartment closet, so don’t bother looking there.
PS: Curious where other fruit like bananas and oranges fall on the “healthy” spectrum? Then check out our guide, “Is Fruit Healthy?”