Sushi may seem like an incredibly healthy meal because it’s made up of seafood which provides high-quality protein. However, depending on the choices you make you could end up with a lunch or dinner that is very high in carbs and does not contain any significant vegetables.
What Are the Health Benefits of Sushi?
Sushi is a quick and easy source of protein. If you’re looking for a high-protein meal or snack, choose tuna, salmon or rainbow rolls, which can have 20 or more grams of protein per roll.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish benefit your cardiovascular health, plus they're natural anti-inflammatory compounds and play a role in brain function. Choose salmon, trout and tuna if you’re looking to get omega-3 fatty acids.
Sushi Can Be Very High in Sodium
One of the major drawbacks of sushi is its relatively high sodium content. While the nutrition information for sushi differs from roll to roll, and from restaurant to restaurant, many sushi rolls have a significant amount of sodium.
For example, a lobster shrimp roll at one popular American sushi restaurant has 1,030 milligrams of sodium. That's an excessive amount of salt, given that the upper intake limit for sodium is 2,300 milligrams, and more than half of the people in the U.S. are limited to a daily intake of 1,500 milligrams because of high blood pressure and other health conditions or other factors.
Tempura rolls, king crab rolls and calamari rolls also contain more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Why Sushi Rice Tastes So Good – It’s the Added Sugar!
Ever wonder why sushi rice tastes so good? Traditional sushi rice is made with sugar and rice vinegar. On average there is one tablespoon of sugar for each cup of cooked sushi rice. And each sushi roll contains about one cup of white rice in it. So, the rice in one roll alone contains 240 calories. And most people will have more than one roll as their meal.
Traditional white sushi rice is also high in refined carbohydrates, which aren't your healthiest option. White rice digests quickly and causes a spike in blood sugar that leaves you hungry shortly after eating.
And while USDA dietary guidelines allow for up to half of your daily grain intake to come from refined carbohydrates, you're better off choosing a whole-grain option. Consider asking for sushi made with brown rice. Brown rice is higher in fiber, which makes it more filling than white rice, and eating whole grains lowers your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
The healthiest choice is to go for sashimi (raw fish without rice) over maki sushi, which are the rolls.
Which Are the Best and Worst Sushi Rolls to Order?
THE BEST SUSHI ROLLS: 1. Fresh raw fish like salmon, tuna or trout 2. Vegetable rolls such as cucumber, asparagus or avocado rolls 3. Rolls with brown rice instead of traditional white sushi rice 4. Rolls without sauces
Examples of GOOD sushi roll options include: Tuna rolls (not "spicy” tuna rolls, though – the spicy sauce is primarily mayo) Rainbow rolls * California rolls made with real crab
THE WORST SUSHI ROLLS: 1. Crunchy or tempura rolls – Thick batter and frying add unhealthy fats. 2. Unagi/Eel sauce rolls – The primary ingredients in this unagi sauce are soy sauce (sodium) and sugar. 3. Cream cheese rolls – Cream cheese adds extra flavor, but also extra fat. 4. "Creamy" rolls – Creamy sauces add fat, as well. 5. Spicy rolls – "Spicy" is shorthand for mayonnaise mixed with chili paste.
Examples of BAD roll choices include: Shrimp or vegetable tempura rolls Spicy tuna rolls Philadelphia (includes cream cheese) rolls Spider rolls (a double-whammy of fried soft-shell crab and spicy mayo) * Dynamite rolls (spicy mayo sauce) and eel.
Why Sashimi Is the Healthiest Option
Even better than ordering a roll, choose to order sashimi (thin cuts of high-quality raw fish served on its own, without the rice found in maki sushi, which are the rolls).
Each serving of sashimi has more fish so you’ll get more protein and omega-3s. Ordering sashimi also allows you to avoid huge amounts of carbs. Just make sure to choose a high-quality sushi restaurant, since it's essential to use only the best-quality fish for sashimi.
Other Health Concerns With Sushi
Whether you're enjoying sushi or sashimi, you'll need to keep a few health considerations in mind.
Some of the types of fish used to make sushi are high or moderately high in mercury, so it’s best to enjoy these fish in moderation. Albacore tuna, for example, has a moderate amount of mercury, and swordfish and mackerel are high-mercury fish to be avoided, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For lower-mercury options choose sushi or sashimi made with salmon or shrimp.
Make sure you're also enjoying sushi at a clean, reputable restaurant with skilled sushi chefs. Sushi that hasn't been stored or prepared properly poses a risk of foodborne illness from pathogens like E. coli. Go for industrially-processed sushi, like frozen sushi found in some grocery stores. A study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2008 found that frozen sushi has a lower risk of contamination than fresh sushi from a sushi bar.
It's important to mention, however, that frozen sushi is not completely safe either. As a 2015 outbreak of salmonella in frozen tuna sickened 65 people in 11 states showing that freezing does not prevent every pathogen from contaminating raw fish.
Because of these risks the CDC recommends that people at higher risk for foodborne illnesses – those with weakened immune systems, children under 5, adults over 65 and pregnant women – refrain from eating raw fish or shellfish.
- Sushi FAQ: Sushi Calories and Nutritional Information
- Linus Pauling Institute: Essential Fatty Acids
- Colorado State University Extension: Sodium in the Diet
- Linus Pauling Institute: Whole Grains
- RA Sushi: Nutrition Information
- U.S. EPA: What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish
- Journal of Food Protection: Microbiological Quality of Sushi from Sushi Bars and Retailers
- CDC (2015): Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Linked to Frozen Raw Tuna
- NPR: "Why Freezing Didn't Keep Sushi Tuna Safe From Salmonella"