America has been deeply entrenched in a love affair with sushi for quite some time, and for good reason. When properly prepared, the traditional Japanese dish is a delicious form of art. But is sushi good for you? Fish is bomb for your body, yes, but what about mercury? And white rice? And those fancy rolls that come with all the elaborate ingredients and sweet, salty sauces?
To boil down the nutrition facts on sushi—and whether or not it should be our go-to healthy date night dinner dish—we spoke with Rebekah Blakely, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert for the Vitamin Shoppe. Unsurprisingly, the answer isn’t quite black and white.
Is sushi healthy or not?
“A lot of people think of sushi as one of the healthiest options when eating out—and it can be,” says Blakely. “However, not all sushi is food for you. It depends a lot on the ingredients used and how it’s prepared.
While fresh fish is a great protein source and can supply healthy fats the body needs, many of the things we put with or around it can really add up, calorie- and sodium-wise, for little nutritional value.
For example, the most common sushi item is a sushi roll. Sushi rolls are usually seafood and vegetables wrapped in white rice. The rice is mixed with vinegar and sugar and packed tight. “Just one sushi roll can contain a half cup to one cup of rice and usually 300 to 500 calories (for most specialty rolls), and a lot of people order two or three rolls. “Studies have shown a connection between high intake of refined carbs—like white rice—and increases in blood sugar and insulin, which can in turn increase risk of diabetes and heart disease.”
When you add mayonnaise-based sauces, fried sides, and/or sake, you’ve likely come close to your calorie needs for the day. If you dip your rolls in soy sauce you might save on calories, but just one tablespoon has almost 900 milligrams of sodium (almost 40 percent daily recommendation), not to mention the extra sodium in the sushi itself. Oof.
Health benefits of sushi
There’s always an upside. Studies have shown that those who adhere to the Japanese food guidelines have a 15 percent lower mortality rate. “This would include eating foods like sushi, fish, pickled vegetables, miso, and seaweed,” explains Blakely. All of the above offer many health benefits, from iodine in seaweed (it improves thyroid health) to plenty of vitamin A (for glowing skin and a stronger immune system). “Just keep in mind that eating high calorie sushi rolls a couple times per week with no other changes will not produce the same results.”
Many studies also point to the benefits of regularly consuming fish and getting adequate omega-3 fatty acids (including decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, autoimmune issues, and depression).
What about mercury?
Another concern for those eating sushi regularly is mercury content. Some fish—including king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna—are a lot higher in mercury than others. “High exposure to mercury can lead to health issues including fatigue, depression, weight loss, memory loss, and more serious neurodegenerative issues,” Blakely says. There are multiple studies exploring the detrimental effects of mercury toxicity. Tuna is the most common source of mercury exposure in the country, so keep that in mind as you place your sushi order.
How can we make our sushi order healthier?
Choose low mercury fish, like salmon, shrimp, eel, crab, and trout—and avoid the high-mercury fish types we mentioned above.
Order one roll. If you like rolls, choose just one, then pair it with other options lower in carbs and calories like edamame, miso soup, or a side salad.
Skip the rice. Instead of a sushi roll wrapped in rice, request it be wrapped in cucumber. Or skip the rice all together and order sashimi. If you keep the rice, request brown rice for more fiber and nutritional value.