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Grain Bowls: How Can You Make Sure They Are Healthy?

Salad or grain bowl? Raw or cooked? What’s the healthiest lunch option with the “bowl” trend available at every corner?

It used to be that a “healthy” take out lunch was a sandwich. Then it was a salad. At some point a few years ago grain bowls hit the scene and they are now the new lunch option on the fast food lunch line. But are they healthy? Here is a breakdown of the ingredients in these bowls and what you should know to make them nutrient rich and satisfying:

Grain Base
The base of these bowls is usually a hot or room temperature grain or “grain-like seed.”  Some of us tolerate whole grains well and are unaffected by them during digestion and assimilation. Others fare best on a paleo-type diet where the base of the nutrients come from vegetables, fat and meat without grains as a main nutrient source. The best tip for grain intake is to listen to your body and when in doubt keep your portions small. When ordering a bowl, you can ask for no grains or a small portion. If you engage in a lot of physical activity, you can likely burn off the carbohydrates in grains better than someone who does not. If you have any issues with your hormones, bowels, weight, or mood, grains may not be the best source of nutrients for you. Here is a quick look at the usual grains offered in these bowls:

  • Quinoa – An edible seed that cooks and tastes like a grain. These seeds cook quickly and take on the flavor of the broth or water they are cooked in. Quinoa is a gluten free food. It is best to rinse quinoa or soak it before cooking to remove any bitter flavor or residue. Quinoa is high in carbohydrates but also contains complete protein.
  • Amaranth – Another grain-like seed, which goes back 8,000 years ago to when the Aztecs first cultivated it. Amaranth is more nutrient dense than wheat or rice, and has a pleasant flavor and many health benefits. Like its sister seed, quinoa, amaranth is packed with complete protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids.   
  • Barley – Part of the grain family, barley is quite tasty and has a chewy almost “pasta” flavor. Barley contains gluten so steer clear of it if you are celiac or gluten intolerant. This grain has a long history of use in the Middle East and Asia and is often incorporated in dishes like soups or stews.  
  • Rice – Cheap, tasty, and with many different varieties, rice is easy to cook and find. It is the agricultural commodity with the third-highest worldwide production, after sugarcane and corn. If you are feeling adventurous, try brown, red, black, or purple rice, which all taste different! Rice is gluten free.
  • Millet – Popular in Asia and Africa, millet is a seed grain and is also gluten free. It is not likely you will see millet in the mainstream grain bowl scene, but if you do, go for it, as it is packed in nutrients, relatively lower glycemic, and has a unique taste.
  • Farro – Often found in Italian dishes, this is a variety of wheat that tastes almost like pasta and looks kind of like barley.  Farro is quite similar to spelt in nutritional content.  The flavor is wonderful, but it is definitely not gluten free and cooking it on your own can be tough.

Veggies

Many places offer fresh raw veggies that are cooked on the spot with the other ingredients. This option is great because you know what is being used to cook the vegetables. Clearly some of the Brassica family veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.) need to be steamed beforehand, otherwise they will not really cook to appropriate softness when stir fried. Loading up on veggies is a great way to balance these bowls and keep them nutrient and flavor rich without weighing you down. Go for veggies bright in color for the most nutrients and flavor!

Protein

For those who eat meat there are usually many options for bowls. Broiled or grilled meat or fish with minimal salt are the best option in these cases, but not always easy to find. Try to stick to organic.

Sauce

After the veggies and protein, the next ingredient added to these bowls is a condiment or flavor. This is where the mystery of what you are really eating begins. Caution: many of these sauces are loaded with sugar, salt, strange vegetable oils, or all three. Unfortunately just the sauce itself can leave you feeling bloated or thirsty and make an otherwise “clean” meal rather unhealthy. If you are unsure what is in the sauce, you probably want to opt for olive oil or nothing, if that is an option. A great suggestion is to ask for a side of olive oil to drizzle on your bowl after it is finished, along with salt and pepper to taste. If you eat in your office, you can keep a bottle of fresh olive oil or coconut oil along with nutrient dense like this Celtic sea salt. For extra flavor, add a squeeze of fresh lemon and/or coconut aminos as a soy sauce alternative.

What is healthy about grain bowls?

  • They are made from cooked, warm, whole foods. Whether you choose to keep the grains in these bowls or not, eating your food warm will keep you satiated with fewer calories. In Chinese medicine, raw foods are harder to digest than cooked foods and require more energy to assimilate nutrients. When eating seasonally and locally, cooked and warmed foods are often the best option during the fall and winter because they limit mucus production, which helps our immune system.
  • Bowls contain whole grains, which are less processed than bread, pasta, and any starch flour based food. This means they are lower glycemic, so the body gets less of a sugar rush. Whole, unprocessed (not ground) grains also provide more nutrients and fiber. Because the ingredients in these bowls are largely unprocessed, they can be a great substitute for eating pasta or a sandwich.

What is potentially unhealthy about grain bowls?  

  • The sauce. When unsure of the specific ingredients, ask for sauce on the side or none at all.
  • The protein. It may not be organic and could be pretty salty (or have added sugar, believe it or not), so try to stick with a place that serves organic and local (if possible).
  • Even whole grains (and grain like seeds) are very rich in carbohydrates. Over the years, high consumption of sugars and carbs cause inflammation, weight grain, and lead to metabolic syndrome. It is best to limit the use of grains as a large part of every meal.

Do you feel lost on your journey in nutrition and wellness? If you would like to speak to a coach about how to alter your diet and lifestyle, reach out to Naturna Institute for a consultation about how you can look and feel your best!

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