Seafood’s got a justified health halo: It’s generally lower in calories than other proteins, with beneficial fatty acids. So it’s easy to assume that sushi is also healthy. Problem is, all the things rolled up with that heart-healthy tuna and salmon roll can add up — in calories, sodium, fat and carbs. In fact, some of the most popular sushi rolls can have half a day’s worth of sodium, turning your sushi night out into a not-so-healthy meal.
First, some food purists might disagree, but sushi has long been a platform for flavors. Sushi’s origins trace back to prehistoric times, when people living in Southeast Asia’s mountain regions packed fish with rice and pressed it down with weight to preserve it. The rice produced lactic acid as it fermented, pickling the fish, which sometimes took up to a year. When it came time to eat, people tossed the rice and ate only the fish. There’s not a lot of efficiency in a system that takes up to 12 months and discards a lot of food.
By the 15th century, Japanese cooks realized if they added even more weight to the rice and fish, they could cut that fermentation time down to a month — this new process was called mama-nare zushi. And in the 17th century, the idea of adding vinegar to the rice helped cut down the processing time (no more fermenting) even more, and it added to the flavor, prompting people to start eating cooked rice with the fish. Eventually, sushi stalls became popular in Japan in the 19th century, with vendors setting out sliced pickled ginger and soy rice. Sushi went from a long process for preserving fish to a fast food served with condiments.
And today in America, sushi has its own unique interpretations: liberal uses of tempura batter to fry otherwise healthy seafood and vegetables for crunch; ingredients like cream cheese and mayo that add creaminess, mouthfeel and fat; and rolls that even swap the seafood for marbled steak and pork belly.
Sodium and Sugars
It’s those sushi rolls that are popular, like spicy tuna with avocado roll, for example, which is typically made with a mix of tuna, sriracha, scallions and mayonnaise. But a spicy tuna roll with eight pieces can have as much as 910 milligrams of sodium (the USDA recommended daily intake is 2,300 milligrams — max) and 12 grams of added sugars. That’s half of the daily sugar limit the American Heart Association recommends for women, and a third of the recommendation for men. (Don’t forget that sushi rice is made with sugar. Most rolls have about 11 to 15 grams of added sugar — that’s easily 3 to 4 teaspoons.) That amount of sodium only increases if you add soy sauce, wasabi (50 milligrams per teaspoon) and pickled ginger (55 milligrams per tablespoon).
“If you’re prone to dunking your sushi in soy sauce, keep in mind that 1 tablespoon of soy sauce has 920 milligrams of sodium,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., RD, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Compare this to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams/day.”
If you’re a fan of California rolls or shrimp tempura rolls, they both can also deliver a whopping amount of sodium and added sugars. Topped with masago (roe), and that’s another 150 milligrams of sodium.
And what about the more elaborate rolls like dragon roll, which typically includes tempura shrimp, eel, avocado, cucumber and rice, drizzled with sweet eel sauce? Well one eight-piece dragon roll tops our list at a whopping 26 grams of fat, 560-plus calories, 46 grams of carbs and more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium.
“Maki and gunkanmaki may have added ingredients such as cream cheese, mayonnaise or fried vegetables that amp up the fat and calories,” Linsenmeyer says.
And for those of you who like to tack on a side of edamame or miso soup to your meal, you might want to rethink that, too. In addition to just one of the rolls we mentioned above, a side of either edamame or miso soup will push you over the total recommended sodium limit for the day; miso soup alone can be up to 1,130 milligrams of sodium, while a serving of edamame could be more than 800 milligrams of sodium.
Of course, not all sushi is bad. “The fish itself is a good source of lean protein or healthy fats, if it’s a fattier fish like salmon or tuna. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish per week given their omega-3 fatty acids,” Linsenmeyer explains. “Also, rolls are often wrapped using seaweed sheets, which are a good source of iron, calcium and vitamin A.”
The secret to ordering a healthy serving of sushi is to peel back the layers. “There are many different forms of sushi, including nigiri (raw fish over a small ball of rice), maki (a sushi roll), or gunkanmaki (a combination of nigiri and maki),” Linsenmeyer says. “Generally nigiri is the healthiest choice because it has the fewest additional ingredients.”
So if you’re going to order rolls, opt for a California roll with real crabmeat, a tuna roll (instead of spicy tuna) or any sort of fresh vegetable roll. And skip those with heavy sauces. But your best option is to simply order sashimi, which is thinly sliced, high-quality fish served raw and without any rice. You’ll skip the carbs, added sugars (from the rice and sauces) and you can eat more. Just go easy on the soy sauce and wasabi (or skip them entirely). Finally, you can add a seaweed or other vegetable-based salad to round out and balance your entire meal.