Is Sushi Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Says
Japan has one of the highest life expectancies globally, and their diets help contribute to their longevity. One of Japan's most frequently eaten staples is sushi, a traditional dish where seasoned short-grain rice is prepared with vinegar and served with fillings and toppings such as vegetables, fish and seafood.
Sushi is no stranger to the American food scene either. The number of Japanese restaurants on American soil is steadily increasing over the last ten years, with more than 28,000 restaurants in the US.
Here we explain a little bit more about sushi, the health benefits of eating it, sushi nutrition, plus dietitian-approved tips for a healthier order and what to watch out for on the menu.
Try it: Vegetarian Sushi Grain Bowl
What is sushi?
Rice is the common ingredient among all sushi types, except for sashimi, which consists of a standalone piece of thinly sliced raw fish or meat. The rice is prepared with vinegar and other seasonings to help it hold its shape. Sushi comes in different forms, including:
- Maki, rolls with rice, seaweed and different fillings (usually a vegetable or seafood)
- Nigri, rice topped with raw fish
- Temaki, a hand roll where nori (aka seaweed) is used as a wrap and filled with rice and fish and/or vegetables.
If you have never had sushi, it is never too late to try this delicious food and discover its nutritional benefits. If you are already a sushi lover, you'll love learning more about why it's good for you.
What makes sushi a well-loved food is its endless combination of ingredients creating a wide range of complex yet enticing flavors. From the freshly tasting sashimi pieces to the famous California roll and the chopped scallop handroll, restaurants can offer traditional sushi selections alongside the house or specialty rolls.
Generally, one piece of a traditional maki roll provides anywhere between 20 and 28 calories. Depending on the filling, a piece of vegetable maki (20g), for instance, has 20 calories, while a piece of tuna maki (30g) has 29 calories. A piece of salmon nigiri (35g) provides 37 calories, and a slice (1 oz) of salmon sashimi provides 36 calories.
Sushi health benefits
The health benefits of sushi lie within two components: the fish and the seaweed.
Fish is a lean and nutritious source of protein. While most people get enough protein, USDA My Plate recommends adults eat between 5 and 7 ounces-equivalent of protein foods daily. Protein helps fill you up since it takes longer to digest, so your meal is more satisfying. Sushi is a great way to get your lean protein servings if you love eating fish, but if you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you can also enjoy sushi made with plant-based proteins, such as tofu, to meet your recommended daily intake of protein foods.
Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are among the common ingredients in sushi, with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the omega-3 fats that are essential for heart health. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of three-ounce-cooked fish per week, particularly fatty fish, such as salmon.
Fish also contains more vitamin D and vitamin B12 than other foods, providing a source of essential minerals, including selenium, zinc and iodine.
If you choose to eat maki and temaki hand rolls, you will also enjoy a piece of blackish-purple dried seaweed that wraps the rice and filling. You may be surprised to learn that this type of seaweed contains iodine, an essential nutrient to make thyroid hormones for controlling the body's metabolism.
Potential drawbacks of eating sushi
While sushi is generally considered a nutritious food, there are some culprits that you want to watch out for.
The type of sushi you choose matters
The house or specialty rolls consist of more ingredients and sauces. Inevitably, they will have more calories, sodium and fat included than a traditional sushi roll.
For example, a piece of spicy California roll (30g) has almost doubled the calories (54 calories) of its non-spicy counterpart, which only has 28 calories. The difference between the two is a spicy sauce added to the former. Rolls dressed with additional sauces, such as mayonnaise, spicy mayonnaise or teriyaki sauce, have additional calories, saturated fat and sodium.
Rolls that provide a crunch, such as those that include deep-fried ingredients, like tempura rolls, which consist of fillings dipped in a tempura batter which is then deep-fried; and spider rolls, which contain fried soft-shelled crab meat, are also higher in calories and fat since they're made with fried ingredients.
To put this into context, a piece of shrimp roll (30g) has 30 calories. A piece of shrimp tempura roll, on the other hand, has an extra 17 calories. That's not a huge difference, but you'd be looking at an additional 100 calories for six pieces.
Your best bet is always to read the roll's description to know what is in them before ordering. And, if you decide to order any specialty rolls, enjoy them in moderation.
Condiments and extras can add up
Many people enjoy dipping sushi and sashimi in soy sauce. Drenching them with soy sauce actually overpowers the natural flavors of the fish. And, from a nutrition standpoint, soy sauce is packed with sodium, with 879mg for every tablespoon. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend no more than 2300mg of sodium per day, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. In other words, if you finish about one tablespoon of soy sauce in your dipping dish, you would have consumed over one-third of your recommended sodium intake.
But don't fret; you can still enjoy the umami flavor by choosing the low-sodium version, such as tamari. It is similar to soy sauce but typically gluten-free (it's worth double checking if you have celiac disease and are strictly gluten-free).
Instead of using soy sauce, you can give your sushi and sashimi an extra hint of spicy flavor by pairing it with a small amount of wasabi, which offers one-tenth of sodium found in one teaspoon of salt.
If you are not into extra flavorings, consider eating a slice or two of pickled ginger served with sushi and sashimi. Traditionally, pickled ginger is eaten between different kinds of sushi to give your taste buds a cleanse to experience the full-bodied flavors from the subsequent sushi pieces.
Watch out for mercury
Fish undoubtedly provides abundant nutrients, but it is best to avoid eating raw fish while pregnant. You may want to go for sushi selections that offer fish with lower mercury concentrations, such as salmon, Atlantic and Pacific mackerel, especially if you're breastfeeding, as the mercury in fish can pass through breast milk in small amounts. Additionally, you would want to keep your fish and seafood consumption between 8 and 12 ounces per week.
A healthier sushi meal looks like this
So, the million-dollar question is, can sushi be part of a healthy meal pattern? The simple answer is yes, and that depends on what you order. If you look solely from a calorie perspective, a typical, healthy meal (lunch and dinner) for most people contains 500 to 700 calories.
That said, your healthier sushi meal could look something like this:
Six pieces of salmon roll: 185 calories
Six pieces of avocado roll: 166 calories
Six pieces of California roll: 167 calories
If you have a larger appetite, you may want to order a house salad (easy on the dressing), a bowl of miso soup, and a side dish of edamame. Contrary, if you still want to enjoy miso soup and edamame but do not have the appetite for all the food, consider ordering two sushi rolls instead of three.
For the most part, we'd recommend sticking with a few rolls and adding in some healthy sides, but especially if you don't eat sushi often, it's OK to order whatever you're in the mood for at the time and balance it out with your meals and snacks throughout the rest of the day.
Can you eat sushi and lose weight?
The good news is that sushi can be a part of your diet if you're trying to lose weight. Following the suggestions mentioned, such as ordering more of the traditional rolls and less of the specialty rolls, will help you from eating more calories than you need.
Some restaurants also offer brown rice as an alternative to white rice. If you are managing your weight or want to eat healthier, you may want to swap the white for the brown for the fiber, which can be more satisfying and have a lesser effect on your blood sugar.
Practicing mindful eating is also key to managing weight and avoiding overeating. Listen to your body by eating slowly and savoring every bite.
Related: Best Foods for Weight Loss
Can you eat sushi if you're vegan?
Yes, but you'll want to skip the seafood and egg. With more focus on plant-based foods, sushi restaurants are getting creative with their menus by offering plenty of vegan options. There are also vegan sushi eateries sprawling in trendy neighborhoods to appeal to those who strictly eat plant-based foods.
You'll find a mix of traditional vegetable sushi rolls—think cucumber and avocado—and contemporary rolls catered to vegans. These may have several different foods in one roll, like a specialty roll, but with plant-based ingredients. As such, these fancier vegan sushi rolls may have added sauces, which means more calories and sodium.
Lastly, while some vegan sushi may use tofu or mock meat, some maybe lack it. In this case, you may want to order a side dish, such as edamame, to include some plant-based protein as part of your meal. If you're eating strictly plant-based, you may want to ask about foods that seem vegan, like miso soup, but may be made with fish sauce or broth.
Sushi is a well-loved food internationally. The combination of fish, rice and seasonings makes sushi a perfect food part of a healthy meal pattern. Sushi can fit into almost any diet as part of a healthy way of eating. You can also enjoy eating sushi at home by making your own—try our Spicy Salmon Sushi Roll-Ups and Vegan Sushi with Tomato "Tuna". Enjoy!