Is Sushi Healthy? We Asked Two Registered Dietitians to Find Out
Hitting the town after work with friends to order sushi rolls and cocktails at happy hour price is a pastime for many. However, there is a lot of debate about whether sushi is a health-forward meal or not. Many of us have wondered at one time or another, is sushi healthy? Well, this is why we called on registered dietitians Kelli McGrane MS, RD for Lose It!, a food tracking app, and Laura Burak MS, RD, CDN, who's also Nutritious Life Certified, to give us the lowdown.
Read on to apply their helpful tips to your next sushi run and determine once and for all if sushi is a healthy meal.
Would you consider sushi to be a healthy meal option?
"Most sushi rolls are not as healthy as many of us might think," says McGrane. "While fish is an excellent source of lean protein and healthy fats, most sushi rolls contain only a small amount of fish and vegetables compared to the amount of rice."
Have you ever bit into a sushi roll and felt like you were just eating a clump of sticky rice that enclosed a dinky sliver of avocado and cucumber? In most cases, a sushi roll is made chiefly of white rice which, as McGrane points out, is usually prepared with sugar, salt, and vinegar.
"As a result, sushi rolls end up being higher in refined carbohydrates and low in protein and healthy fat," she says.
Are there types of sushi rolls that are healthier than others?
As is the case with all types of cuisine, there are several options that are more health conscious than others. McGrane provides a list of just a few of the healthier options.
- Salmon avocado roll. With omega-3 fatty acids from the salmon and monounsaturated fat from the avocado, this classic roll is one of the healthiest options at most sushi restaurants.
- Regular tuna or yellowtail and scallion rolls. Tuna is high in protein and also contains some omega-3 fatty acids as well. Look for rolls that also contain cucumber for an added crunch without extra calories.
- Naruto rolls. Instead of rice and seaweed, naruto rolls are wrapped in cucumber, making them a low-carb, higher protein option. Look for naruto rolls containing salmon, tuna or white fish.
- Hand rolls. Shaped like a cone, hand rolls tend to have a more balanced fish-to-rice ratio, while still providing a similar taste and texture to traditional maki rolls. Again, look for hand rolls containing salmon, tuna, white fish, cucumber, or avocado.
If you're planning on splitting a few sushi rolls with friends and they have already decided which kinds they want—all of which are drizzled with mayo and fried toppings—Burak offers another solution. She encourages her clients to enjoy eating sushi, especially in the company of friends but suggests ordering fewer sushi rolls and instead, ordering a wider variety of healthier menu items to complete the meal. This way everyone can get a reasonable portion of each small plate, diversifying the meal.
"Start with a big green salad with a side of the delicious ginger dressing, miso soup, edamame, two rolls, and a few extras piece of sashimi," she says. In contrast to sushi, sashimi is just thin cuts of raw fish.
If you've had an incessant craving for sushi for the past week and want to polish off two rolls yourself, then Burak suggests ordering one traditional sushi roll and one sushi roll that's wrapped in cucumber or radish, instead of rice.
"If you order like this, you never feel like you're missing out on your favorites, and you get a large volume of high-water-content foods and protein which will satiate you and prevent that feeling of 'restaurant deprivation,' which can lead to overeating later in the night," she adds.
What's your take on raw fish in sushi? Healthy or not?
"The mercury content of certain larger meatier fish (think shark, tilefish, tuna, seabass, halibut, king mackerel, grouper, marlin, and swordfish) can build up in your body and become toxic for the nervous system if you consume it too often," says Burak. "Aside from the mercury concern, however, raw fish from a quality sushi place is safe [to eat] and it's pure lean protein, which is filling and low-calorie."
McGrane says that raw fish may have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than cooked fish because the heat from cooking can potentially destroy some of them. However, since it's not cooked, you may run the risk of contracting a parasite or worse, developing a bacterial infection.
"It's important to only order raw fish from restaurants you trust, as many of these risks can be lessened by following food safety procedures," she says. "However, some individuals should completely avoid raw fish, including pregnant women, young children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems."
Brown rice vs. white rice: which one is healthier?
"In contrast to everything you may have ever read about brown vs. white rice, the truth is there is very little difference in fiber and calories," Burak says. "If you don't like brown rice, don't order it!"
She says that the nutritional differences between the two types of rice are so insignificant that it's not worth ordering the brown rice because you think it's slightly healthier if you prefer the taste of white rice.
McGrane points out that "the flavor of brown rice can sometimes overpower the flavor of the fish and isn't as enjoyable for some individuals. If you don't eat sushi regularly, I recommend getting the rice you prefer and focusing on eating whole grains in other meals throughout the day."
Next time you waltz into your favorite sushi spot, you'll know exactly what to order and have no guilt doing so.