Reality check: Is sushi actually healthy?

Can Sushi really be considered ‘healthy’?
Sushi is often considered to be a healthy meal choice - but nutritionists say there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the claim that the popular Japanese dish can be considered "healthy."

Sushi is often thought of as a healthy and nutritious meal choice — but is it really?

The question was posed last week on the Time website, and the answer from Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian and associate professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic, may surprise sushi lovers.

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Despite the meal having a “halo of being healthy,” she said, it isn’t always a healthy choice.

According to Zeratsky, there are several things that can make sushi a not-so-healthy meal as it can come packed with calories.

One of the biggest issues, fellow registered dietitian Isabel Maples said, is portion control. One sushi roll cut into six to nine pieces can contain as many as 500 calories.

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And most of those calories come from the sticky rice that is usually used to hold a sushi roll together, Zeratksy said. The rice is often made by adding vinegar and sugar, and it’s that sugar that can pack a caloric punch.

So what do Canadian dietitians have to say?

Many agree that if you don’t pay attention to the type of sushi you eat and how much of it, then there’s a good chance you’re not getting as many benefits from the sushi as one would hope and think.

“Without a doubt, sushi can be a healthy choice and a chance to get some extra omega 3s in your diet too,” said registered dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio of Dietetic Directions. “However, we do have to be mindful when consuming sushi, especially the all-you-can-eat.”

Among the aspects that can make sushi unhealthy, registered dietitian Cailtin Boudreau adds, is the fact that sushi can be high on the glycemic index and is low in fibre content. The rice can also have high sodium counts, as can the sauces people often like to pair with their sushi.

The healthiest sushi, she says, are nigiri, maki and sashimi.

One piece of nigiri sushi is between 40 and 55 calories. This is the sushi that is in a rectangular shape with one piece of fish on top.

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Maki sushi are the rolls with the fish in the middle and the seaweed wrapper on the outside. One piece is usually around 50 calories, so six pieces can add up to 300 calories. However, this number can easily reach 500 calories with deep fried ingredients or with sauces.

Lastly, is sashimi, the healthiest type of sushi. It is simply raw fish and no rice. One piece, she says, can be 30 to 40 calories.

Try to stick with sushi that comes with avocado, omega-3 fish like salmon, and brown rice instead of the white sticky rice, Boudreau says.

“These are healthy due to the unsaturated fats, and in the case of the vegetable rolls and brown rice rolls, they would contain slightly more fibre and vitamins and minerals,” Boudreau points out. “The least healthy would be ones that are deep fried or contain deep fried elements, like fried shrimp or salmon, or very ‘Americanized’ rolls with beef. These would be unhealthy due to the high-calorie content and unhealthy fats.”

Another way you can make your sushi order healthier is by ordering a seaweed salad or edamame (soybeans) as an appetizer for added B vitamins, D’Ambrosio suggests.

Avoid rolls with rich sauces and of course deep fried. Just to give you an idea of how many calories you’re consuming when you choose these types of sushi meals, one roll of tempura and deep-fried shrimp dynamite roll (six pieces) can account for 508 calories. Instead, D’Ambrosio says to choose the salmon roll (six piece) as it accounts for only 290 calories.

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Also, try to stay clear of all-you-can-eat sushi buffets as it can promote over-consumption.

Lastly, choose the lower sodium soy sauce with about half the sodium (600 milligrams sodium per tablespoon) rather than reaching for the regular soy sauce.