Walk into any poke bowl establishment and you’ll find lycra.
The Hawaiian staple sits somewhere between sashimi, ceviche and buddha bowls (basically a bunch of grains and veg thrown in a bowl). It’s got all the makings of a ‘fuel your body’ esque meal your HIIT class trainer wouldn’t pop a vein over.
Raw fish. Rice. Veggies. Other ancient things you can’t pronounce.
But are poke bowls actually healthy? Or are we all blissfully ignorant?
We asked nutritionists, Accredited Practising Dietitians and co-founders of The Biting Truth, Anna-Jane Debenham and Alexandra Parker to take us through each part of our poke bowls, and tell us grain by grain whether they’re actually as healthy as we think.
You’ll find their thoughts below. Read on… if you dare.
Which base should I choose for my Poke Bowl?
Every good poke bowl – well actually, every poke bowl – starts with the base. Here, one commonly chooses between brown rice, sushi rice, soba noodles, quinoa and cabbage. Debenham and Parker rate them from ‘healthiest’ to ‘maybe not every time’:
Adding a wholegrain base such as brown rice to your poke bowl is a great option as it helps to leave you feeling fuller – i.e. you’ll be less likely to reach for an extra something something to satisfy your hunger.
Brown rice is richer in fibre, B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium and copper [than white or sushi rice], so it’s the healthier option to go for.
There are SO many benefits to eating quinoa. It’s low GI, high in fibre and is higher in protein compared to other whole grains.
It’s also super easy to cook, just as you would rice! This is one of the bases we’d usually go for – we sometimes even mix it together with brown rice!
Cabbage is naturally high in fibre and contains isothiocyanate compounds, which have disease-fighting properties. Added to poke bowls, cabbage is a great way to bulk them out and help you reach your recommended serves of veggies!
Soba noodles are typically made from buckwheat so they can be a great option for those with Coeliac Disease or a gluten intolerance.
Keep an eye out though as some brands add other types of flour like wheat flour – check the label. Soba noodles provide a little bit of protein too so they will also help to keep you feeling full.
The rice used to make sushi often contains added sugars to help it stick, so we’d generally recommend steering clear of this one on a regular basis.
While it’s OK to enjoy every now and then, there are healthier options available that you could go for.”
Which protein should I choose for my poke bowl?
‘Clean’ proteins are what Poke Bowls are all about. So, is there a bad choice one could make here? Not really, our dietitians found:
Salmon or tuna sashimi
Sashimi is a great source of lean protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In terms of raw versus cooked fish, this really comes down to personal preference. From a nutritional point of view, they are going to be very similar. We love the texture and taste of raw sashimi in our poke bowls, so we usually opt for this.
Chicken is a great source of lean protein and is generally lower in fat than other meats. Poaching is a very healthy cooking method as it uses the water to carry heat into the food rather than a fat like oil or butter.
Prawns are an extremely nutritious type of seafood, packed full of protein, calcium, iodine and zinc with little fat. Grilled or marinated prawns are the best choice because deep fried or tempura prawns will increase the saturated fat significantly.
Tofu is made by curdling soy milk, pressing it into a solid block and then cooling it. It is a great source of protein and iron, which is especially important for vegetarians.
Some people are often worried about eating soy products because they are concerned about a possible increased risk of breast cancer. This is based on the theory that soy contains compounds called isoflavones that mimic the hormone oestrogen and breast cancer risk is increased with high levels of oestrogen.
The research shows that isoflavones in the diet do not cause or increase the risk of developing the disease, and therefore it is safe to consume soy products.
Are all the Poke Bowl vegetables ‘healthy’?
Unsurprisingly, there are no ‘bad’ veggies in Debenham and Parker’s minds. So go on and load your Poke Bowl up with ’em. Here’s what they said:
Raw and cooked veggies both provide an excellent array of nutrients. Cooking veggies can reduce certain nutrients, while increasing others. For example vitamin C, thiamin and folate are all water soluble vitamins, which means they dissolve in water when cooked (meaning less in the veggies). This loss is minimal and should not put people off eating cooked vegetables. Some nutrients actually become more bioavailable when cooked (like phytochemicals), which means the body is more able to absorb them. This occurs with vegetables such as carrots and asparagus.
As for which veggies to choose?
Carrots are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body. This is important because vitamin A is not widely distributed in foods. Vitamin A is important for eye health and good vision. This is why carrots got their reputation for helping you to see in the dark.
The vibrant purple colour of beetroot has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure. Beetroots are one of the best sources of dietary nitrates. These are converted to nitric oxide in the body, which in turn helps to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.
These will ALWAYS feature in our poke bowls! Not only are they a good way to bump up the protein and fibre content of your poke bowl they add a delicious crunch and also make them look amazing.
Kimchi is fermented cabbage that is thickly cut and often served with a variety of condiments such as chilli, garlic, pepper and fish sauce. Kimchi is a source of probiotics (healthy bacteria found in our gut). A diet rich in probiotics can help to improve our health by reducing the number of harmful bacteria that may survive in our gut.
Radishes are often the ingredient that make poke bowls look oh so beautiful. Radishes are a very good source of vitamin C and have powerful flavonoids such as zeaxanthin, lutein and beta-carotene.
Which Poke Bowl dressing is the healthiest?
This is where our healthy intentions can come unstuck, our dietitians warn. So brace yourself for some bad-ish news:
Keep in mind that even just a small amount soy can bump up the sodium content. Just one tablespoon contains one third of the upper recommendation for our daily salt intake.
We love the roasted sesame dresses as they taste delicious, however, they can increase the overall calorie content a little. If you do go for a sauce like this, just keep an eye out on how much there is and be careful not to go overboard.
Lemon and extra virgin olive oil
Lemon and extra virgin olive oils are your best option – they are an excellent choice as they pack lots of flavour and nutrients.
Are the poke bowl ‘extras’ healthy?
Again, what can tip a perfectly healthy poke bowl into the ‘still healthy but not as much if you’re trying to lose weight’ category are the extras. Aka the fun things. Here’s what Debenham and Parker suggest.
You won’t see us eating a poke bowl without avocado!
Avocados are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats which give it their deliciously creamy texture. These fats along with the high fibre content of avocados make them a great addition. A serve of avocado is a quarter of an avocado so try and stick to this.
Another ingredient we like to add occasionally is seaweed – it tastes great and adds some iodine and protein to the bowl. This is because it is grown underwater where there are higher levels of iodine.
Whilst wasabi peas add a delicious crunch to poke bowls, it’s important to consider how many you add. Wasabi peas are green peas that have been coated and roasted in a mixture of starch, sugar, salt, oil and wasabi.
They may also contain artificial colouring depending on the brand. Like other processed foods they are quite energy dense and therefore can add unwanted kilo-joules to a healthy meal like poke. If you’re making your own poke bowl try adding just a small amount of these or swap for pepita seeds or unsalted almonds for a delicious crunch.
Tamari is a wheat free soy sauce that adds a delicious salty flavour to almonds. Tamari is often marketed as a healthier alternative to soy sauce however it is still high in sodium and also contains MSG. Almonds are a great addition for some extra crunch and we’d usually recommend going for plain, unsalted ones from a nutrition point of view.
While shredded coconut can add a yummy flavour boost, this is usually one of the ones we’d avoid as it does bump up the saturated fat content. It’s ok to enjoy occasionally and does add some fibre, however, overall there are better options when looking for crunch.
What are the healthiest poke bowl options?
You’ll be glad to hear, overall our dietitians gave poke bowls their tick of approval.
“Poke bowls are a great option. They are usually high in lean protein, heart-healthy fats from fish, avocado and seeds and packed full of fibre from all the veggies and wholegrains, plus loaded with vitamins and antioxidants,” they said.
Woooo. Now for the things to keep in mind. Ugh.
“Be mindful of your portion sizes. If you’re using rice or noodles as a base, stick to half a cup cooked and add cabbage or greens to bulk out the bowl. And sauces, remember the energy and fat in the mayo you add in can really add up so keep it to a small drizzle.
“But given that many take away options don’t offer an adequate serve of veggies, poke bowls are a great take away choice. You can often construct your own, which is great as it means you can tailor them to your preferences and also pick the healthier options.
“Start with a wholegrain base (brown rice, quinoa) then add a lean type of protein (sashimi, chicken) and then bulk out with loads of veggies. Then you can add a few of the toppings for some additional flavour and crunch (nuts or seeds are great options).”
LISTEN: Speaking of ingredients we can’t pronounce, Bridget Delaney tried a bunch of ‘interesting’ diets so you don’t have to (post continues after audio…)
Guys, it’s a yay!
“If you’re looking for a healthy lunch option during the work week, poke bowls are almost always a safe option. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t love salads, you might find yourself going back for another poke bowl,” Debenham and Parker said.
“We’re huge fans of poke bowls. They are fresh, tasty and healthy, high in lean protein and healthy fats (if you go with raw fish) and they provide a good dose of veggies and wholegrains. Tick. Tick. Tick.”
Thank God. Now excuse us while we finish tucking into our poke bowl while feeling really good about the healthy choice we’ve made for our bodies.