Whether you’re finding your inner zen or just hankering for something healthy, the answer can be found within your Buddha bowl.
Buddha bowls, otherwise known as power bowls or grain bowls, are hearty, filling dishes that have recently gained popularity for being aesthetically pleasing. Bowls are typically comprised of a base ingredient, usually grains, or greens, or both, with an assortment of toppings including a source of protein, artfully arranged atop.
From a nutrition standpoint, the bowls are an excellent way to create a meal that combines all the main food groups and ensure you’re getting an array of nutrients. However, “healthy” and “healthy for weight loss” are not the same thing, and although the bowls combine ingredients that are healthy, as far as your diet is concerned, your Buddha bowl can end up anything but.
To build a Buddha bowl that won’t give you a Buddha belly, consider the following:
Greens vs. grains: The base of your Buddha bowl is arguably the most important part, as it makes up the bulk of the bowl. Where most bowls are created using a base of grains, use your bowl as an opportunity to get more greens into your meal. Lettuce, watercress, swiss chard, baby greens, spinach, radicchio, kale, and arugula are all excellent choices on their own, or mixed together, and compromising your base of these ingredients, rather than grains, can save you up to 400 calories.
Vegetables: The base of your Buddha bowl isn’t the only place for vegetables. Most Buddha bowls have up to six toppings, in addition to protein, arranged artfully on top, and vegetables work wonderfully here as well. Non-starchy vegetables are less than 30 calories per cup, and loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber, so if you aim to make even half of those toppings non-starchy veggies, you’re off to a great start. Such vegetables like carrots, cabbage, radishes and beets add color, flavor and crunch to your bowl too. In addition to the aforementioned veggies, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, cucumber, tomatoes, zucchini and bell peppers all add nutritional power to your power bowl too.
Proteins: No good satiating Buddha bowl is complete without a source of protein, and the leaner the protein, the better. Excellent options include skinless chicken breast, turkey, sirloin steak, and fish like salmon, snapper, and branzino--grilled, baked or broiled. The protein component of your bowl can be vegetarian too. Tofu, egg whites or a poached egg all work to provide the protein necessary to turn your bowl into a complete meal too. Whether your protein is animal-based or vegetarian, women should aim for a 3-ounce serving (which is about the size of a deck of cards) and men, a 6-ounce serving.
Grains, starches and legumes: Quinoa, chickpeas, edamame, corn and squash are all healthy sources of carbohydrates commonly used in Buddha bowls. While relatively healthy and diet friendly on their own, more often than not these items are selected in tandem and can rack up a carbohydrate count higher than that of a piece of cake! To keep your bowl from getting too carb-heavy, stick with only one or two starchy toppings, and pay attention to their portions. As far as grains go (quinoa, farro, brown rice, wheat berries, barley, whole wheat couscous, and freekeh) that proper portion is 1/3 cup. For starchy vegetables and legumes, serving size varies: roasted squash is one cup; corn, sweet potato, and beans like chickpeas, black beans, and lentils stick to 1/2 cup; and when it comes to hummus, have two tablespoons max.
Noodles: Buddha bowls often include a noodle component, in addition to the grains. While soba or udon noodles are the standard, they’re not the best addition to your bowl if weight loss is your goal. That’s because such boodles are made from from buckwheat or wheat and are therefore high in carbohydrates. To keep your bowl light and low carb, try using kelp, shirataki, or zucchini noodles instead. Kelp noodles are made from mineral-rich sea kelp and have only six calories per half a cup, while shirataki noodles are made from a resistant starch and have zero calories! Zucchini noodles are simply a non-starchy veggie spiralized, and can be purchased as noodles or made yourself with a veggie spiralizer. Whichever better-for-you noodle you choose, the caloric savings will make your bowl a better-for-you bowl.
Dressings, sauces, avocado, seeds, and nuts: What do salad dressing, avocado, tahini, seeds and nuts all have in common? They’re fats, and fats are just that: fattening. That’s why when it comes to these items, portion control is extra important. Contrary to what many believe (or want to believe) one serving of avocado is just two tablespoons, and one serving of olive oil is one tablespoon. Try and get dressings on the side to minimize the calorie impact of the fats alone. Use your fork to dip into the dressing and then use the fork on the salad. If you want to add sauce on top, be sure to drizzle, not douse.
Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian in New York City and the author of two bestselling diet books: The F-Factor Diet and The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with Fiber.