Is sushi "healthy"?

I had some interesting responses to my post yesterday about feeding raw fish sushi and sashimi to kids, including at least one angry person, but that's par for the course really.

One thing that was contested was whether sushi is healthy, everyday food. Sushi seems kind of healthy, since it doesn't weigh down your digestive system much. And fish is healthy - right? Sure it is, notwithstanding the mercery problem in certain types of fish.

However, sushi is not necessarily that healthy, and the culprit is not the fish. It's the rice.

Here's a sushi set that would be considered a small or 'regular' option on a sushi restaurant menu.

Food model: Sushi (about 500 calories)

This set, which would be a small portion for an adult, is about 500 calories. Calorie wise that's not too bad for a meal. However, most of those calories come from white rice that's flavored with salt, sugar, vinegar and a little umami. Most people dip their sushi in some soy sauce, which adds more sodium, and may have a bowl of miso or clear soup too - more sodium. So while the fish itself maybe healthy, you're eating a lot of refined carbohydrates and taking in a lot of sodium too. You probably want to add a salad or other vegetable side dish to round it out a bit.

The thing is though - I don't know about you, but I like to order bigger portions of sushi than that usually! So I estimate that when I go out for sushi, I'm probably eating at least 800 calories or so, most of it from white rice. As a diabetic I can't do that all the time for sure. (And to be totally honest, I probably eat a whole lot more than that when I hit my favorite sushi spots. I do love sushi!)

Sashimi is a different story of course. If you mix up your fish selection and do not just indulge in high-mercury fish like tuna, a sashimi meal can be fairly healthy - especially if you don't have to worry about sodium. Still, the cost of good sashimi does prevent it from being an everyday dish for most people.

I did skim over the mercury factor, but it is a growing concern. And I haven't even touched the subject of over-fishing and some species of fish being endangered - not directly related to our health perhaps, but something to be concerned about for sure. So all things considered, I don't really think that sushi in particular can be considered everyday food, and even sashimi needs to be eaten in moderation.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments. (But be nice. And yes, I am a genuine Japanese person, believe it or not!)

(Incidentally, the sushi set pictures abouve may look a bit strange, because it's actually a plastic model of a sushi set used at a Japanese hospital to educate patients about healthy eating. I wrote about how these are used some time ago. See: How plastic food models are used for nutrition education. I think that seeing a lifesize, realistic model like this really makes the point very well.)

Filed under:  japanese sushi fish health and weight loss sashimi

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Honestly Maki, I prefer shashimi to sushi in the first place, but I live in a landlocked area, so my only options are usually sushi rolls made with smoked or otherwise cooked fish.

I really miss good, fresh, sashimi.

I agree with a lot of you statements. I don't think sushi is healthy, and I think it might be slightly less healthy if you're getting it from a store or resturant where you can't control how much salt/sugar you add to the rice.

I think of it as a treat and try to just go for a lunch and then have a lighter snack in the evening because sushi is super filling. If I make it at home I try to not add salt and 1/2 the sugar when I'm making the rice. Then I use a lower sodium soy sauce to try and limit intake. I also try to make smaller rolls with 1 vegetable to cut done on how much rice I inhale.

Thank you for posting these articles, I liked the one from yesterday even though I don't eat fish, but I have friends that do and might not think about some of the concerns you shared.

I fixed the link now...sorry about that!

It's worse than that since so much sushi at American restaurants contains a fried component and/or mayo. The rest really depends on you as an individual. I have low blood pressure and don't worry about the soy sauce, but someone whose blood pressure goes very high from salt might want to choose the low-sodium version which many restaurants offer.

Have you tried brown sushi rice? I've run across it on Amazon but haven't tried it yet, though I've tried other short grain brown rices. We're a low-salt whole grain household, and I've made a sort of fake sushi with soaked black short grain rice, nori, and unsweetened rice vinegar, filled with avocado and other veggies. It tasted ok, like a sea tinted veggie wrap, but did NOT kill the sushi craving! lol The soaked and steamed black rice stuck together quite nicely, however, so I'm hoping the brown sushi rice will also work.

Also, try not to let net trolls get to you. Your "angry" poster obviously didn't take the time to read your full post, much less any other posts on the site - his or her tiny rant was uninformed, nasty and foolish. Pretty much the definition of a troll. Unfortunately for the vast majority of us who spend part of our lives on the net, there are some people who enjoy posting rude, inane and often off-topic vitriol to any site that will let them post, whether it's a blog, forum or wiki. Perhaps it makes them seem less inconsequential in their own eyes? I firmly believe that because they post so often, trolls seem to be more numerous than they are. They are a nuisance, but nothing more.

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and creativity with the rest of us. You have a loyal fan base and we DO read your whole posts. *smiles*

Hi Maki - I remember the article about food models (your link didn't work for me, by the way, but I found the article through searching).

I work as a Dietitian in a UK hospital, and we frequently use food models that are so badly made that the first task for the clients/patients is to correctly identify the food! It would be wonderful to have access to such lifelike models as you showed in Japan - do you have any idea how we might go about finding some?

Lola, they are made to order for the hospitals in Japan from what I understand, not off-the-shelf items. I fear it could get a bit expensive to have them custom made for one hospital though. Making realistic fake-food models is a serious and skilled profession in Japan.

I actually eat sushi quite often, since I've started using a bento box for my diet. However, I mostly make maki rolls with a lot of veg and fish/tofu; and I cook my own rice (by your excellent recipe, I should add), so I do control the sodium content.

I do find that in the weeks where I prepare sushi for my breakfast and lunch bento instead of rice, pasta or bread; I find it easier not to snack in between and I also lose more weight. So I do think sushi can be healthy, but - like with anything - only if it's homemade.

I'm still going to put sushi in my "healthy" eating out category. But that is relative to going out to get a burger and fries.

Many of the ingredients are fairly wholesome, and that's what I tend to look at when I consider a healthy diet. Sure, it's high in refined carbohydrates and salt, but as an occasional eating out treat, I don't worry about it too much.

I always have green tea. There is the seaweed, which has many essential minerals. Fish is lean protein. Miso is a fermented food.

Putting ranch dressing doesn't make a carrot stick less healthy. (the overall effect is less healthy, but it's not subtracting the water, fiber and other nutrients that you get from the healthy component). Some may disagree, but I'm just sharing my food philosophy, not looking for a debate.

I do think it's a bit of a "relative" thing. Compared to a lot of other "eating out" options in the west (burgers, rich pastas, creamy curries and rice, fried foods) I guess you could consider sushi to be a healthy option. But of you compare it to a well-balanced meal that is heavy on vegetables and low on carbs then obviously it comes out less well.

I do like sushi, but not enough to eat it with any great frequency and if I have the choice, I tend to go for sashimi. I've bought sushi as a bento box a couple of times when on holiday in Japan, once from a little specialist booth in Nara (had to try it wrapped in persimmon leaves!) and once from a kombini, but I've never been out specifically to eat it. I think the lack of vegetables would get to me - I do like salads and veg a lot, and that would start to add up costwise.

Vegetable tempura and chicken on sticks, on the other hand, I can eat to excess, but I try not to. Everything in moderation is the best rule, I think - though I don't always have the self-discipline to stick to it.
Also, I laughed at the silly, angry person, I hope you did too.

I think sushi, with it's salt-and-sugar-vinegar treated rice and accompanied by salty soy sauce, is a sometimes food, not an all-the-time food. Bacon, donuts, desserts, sushi - all sometimes foods.

My son could live on sushi - it was his first food, at 14 months (kappa maki) and he has continued to devour it ever since. But it is still a weekly thing, not a daily thing. We make it at home (smoked salmon, krab or crab, smoked eel, veggies) and get it from a restaurant about once a month each, then get him a weekly dose from the excellent subcontractor at our local market.

Once a month we also make a dish a Korean friend taught us: easy scallion pancake (no rolling dough - just mix all in til pancake consistency) cut into strips, placed on unseasoned rice in a seaweed square, with or without chili paste. Yum!

So yes, I agree with you that sushi is not an every day food, and we have found other ways to include the sushi-like experience into our lives :-)

Many of our holistic doctors and health practitioners are advising a more plant based diet- organic if possible, ....less meats of all kinds, lots of dark green vegetables , other vegetables of all kinds( esp root vegtetables) and of course a wide variety of fruits....
I prefer to eat organic because of the heavy pesticide use all over the country now...and around the world..We don't even know what they are spraying on foods/fruits/veggeis from Chile, the islands and Mexico....We don't even have enough inspectors for the USA!!!Much of our meaat is contaminated with antibiotics and growth hormones, making it esp dangerous for us and our children. Our large fish are contaminated with mercury and of course now radiation from nuclear accidents, esp Japan add to our concerns...We must work to stop the use of fossil fuels all over the globe , reverse tha damage from cliamte change, develop more sources of sustainable energy, eat local and organic and try somehow to clean up our planet if it is not too late....

I think it is a very modern notion to keep thinking in terms of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' foods causing people to overdose on things considered healthy and then wondering why they still end up with health problems.
Eat everything in moderation and in a wide variety and you should more or less hit your nutritional needs as well as not getting into all those pitfalls of restriction, cravings and guilt.
I mean I love sushi, burgers, chips and cheesecake but extremely rarely would I would eat the same thing twice in a week or even 2 weeks, there's just too much variety of good food out there!

I have a bias in that I tend to approach nutrition from a fuel and athletic performance/activity perspective. That said, I approach food from a love to cook it and eat it perspective.

My perspective is that sushi, is middle of the run in nutrition, but then again, no food in isolation makes for complete nutrition. The carbs, although processed, are no big deal, as you need them to function. The 1 to 1.5 cups of rice in a roll doesn't even get you to 100 grams. The fact the rice is white can be made up for by eating a large salad for one of your other meals.

Probably the bigest shortcoming from my point of view is the meager portion of protein that it typically has. Even though fish is a pretty efficient protein, there simply isn't much. But, once again, this can be made up for in other meals with some planning.

I agree with a previous poster that the idea of "healthy" and "unhealthy" is a little strange. It is more like "food" and "junk". Sushi really doesn't have any major detracting factors as it is not massive on sodium, calories, or fats. Hard to subsist on solely but we don't do that with apples either. Work it into a well-constructed, balanced/varied diet...just like everything else.

We all know that seafood is extremely good for you and low in fat compared to red meat. Seafood is high in Omega 3, which is extremely beneficial to our bodies, especially the cardiovascular system. The dangers that are related to eating sushi (raw fish) may be minimal, but you still need to make sure that you are eating the freshest fish available. If you don't,you might end up with irritable bowel syndrome. Sushi is usually served with soy sauce, which can be high in sodium so moderation is key here.

"Healthy" is such a relative term. What are you comparing sushi to? A burger and fries? Sushi wins hands down. A grilled chicken breast with steamed veggies? The chicken wins.

So, I would consider sushi to be a better choice than others that I would make, especially considering that I eat most of my sushi by myself for lunch. Either I'm taking myself out for lunch at work or I'm stopping for a break in the middle of running a day's worth of errands. The other options I could pick are much worse! The other way I have sushi is to make it at home, and I've taken to making very veggie-heavy, light-on-rice sushi. That helps.

There are some things you can do to make your sushi pick a better one. I've gotten into sashimi for at least part of my order. All the benefits of fish, none of the rice. But I really love rice! So I pick a few favorites to go along with that. I also like to pick the chirashi bowl option, which gives me a large variety of fish. Then I only eat some of the rice. You can also pick brown rice, but it just isn't the same. I always start with soup (yes, sodium) and a salad or other vegetables. That takes the edge of the hunger before my sushi arrives, making me less likely to stuff my face. I get the sodium complaint, but since high blood pressure isn't a problem for me and I drink plenty of water, I don't sweat it. As a pre-diabetic, the carbs are much more of a concern.

Honestly, I'm with the other posters that pretty much everything is fine in moderation. A big sushi order isn't going to kill me.

I thought sushi is relatively healthy, but now I look at it differently. However, for a diabetic (same as my husband), carbohydrate is not really the problem. Of course, I don't recommend white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but rice is not too bad, especially for brown rice. You know, what really cause high blood sugar is that eating carbohydrate with fat, or if your system has a lot of fat in it. Because the fat will trap all the carb/sugar you eat in your blood stream, and prevent them to be used by your cells.

I'm not trying to promote anything. It's just that my husband found something that works for him and I would like to share it with you. Check out The 80/10/10 diet by Dr. Graham, it really helps. I don't know if I should post the link here, but I think it is easy to find it if you Google it.

Very topical here in Britain now that Andy Murray has taken the Wimbledon trophy. His 6,000 calorie a day diet includes a lot of... guess what? Sushi!
High carbs, high protein and high salt (and not just from the soy sauce accompaniment, sushi rice is laced with sugar and salt)
Sales of sushi from a British grocery chain, Waitrose, have gone up 50% in Scotland on the back of his victory where Mr Murray's diet preferences have become common knowledge.
I'd say this example proves your point perfectly, Maki! Sushi, just like pasta and peanut butter, is great in moderation, but very unkind to a non athletically punished body when eaten with too much regularity.

Even more so, the rice might be considered unhealthy in light of the recent stories of arsenic content in rice.
And brown rice allegedly has more arsenic than white rice due to it not being milled.
And the articles say that California grown rice has less arsenic than others...
Oh well... nothing is really safe anymore and the old adage "everything in moderation" seems to be the way to go...

Being an Asian the best part for me is Sushi rice. Hint of vineger smell and wasabi and ginger combo are my home taste.

I have been enjoying eating chirashi lately. I can control the amount of rice I eat (well, I can see the amount of rice I'm eating). I use less soy sauce with chirashi as well. It is the perfect summer dish. when I order sashimi, I eat way too much fish. My children are grown now, but I invited them to eat sushi as children and they enjoy it now. We lived in a middle class suburb when they were growing up, on the affluent side, but mixed. I was stunned that middle school aged children had birthday parties at Japanese restaurants (seemed way to expensive for a kid party), but really glad that they weren't the only children having food adventures.

It's not that healthy due to the high refined carb content, but it's not really any worse than what a lot of other restaurants serve. Much less most fast food or the prepared, prepackaged stuff you get in grocery stores.

If your diet is at the point where you are thinking about sushi as the worst thing you are eating, I'd say you are doing pretty good compared to the rest of the US.

That having been said, white rice and sugar cranks up that blood sugar level very effectively. People should be much more concerned about that and the accompanying insulin resistance than salt.

I would be very interested in a post about endangered fish.
I know in the UK alot of places stopped serving eel (yo sushi for example).
Relating to the mercury and fishing of tuna I think I would avoid types of sushi if I had more information.

Great post on calories in sushi - I love a sashimi platter but often find I need some rice or salad to balance.

Barnicles xx

Thank you for your insightful and informative article Maki. Incidentally, have you looked into the debate about arsenic in rice?

It's getting harder to feel confidence in the foods we eat. There are genuine concerns, including mercury, pollutants etc as well as the salt sugar and fat levels of commonly eaten foods. I'm a believer in cultivating an appreciation for the variety of foods there are, and working on having the self-control to enjoy them in moderation!

I agree that it's really hard to know what to believe anymore in regards to food. We all have to eat as human beings after all. In regards to rice, it seems that brown rice has more arsenic than milled white rice - which goes agsinst all the advice we've received for decades that 'whole grains are better than processed grains'. I think that the only thing we can really do is eat everything in moderation. (Also, I have lost a lot of respect for Consumer Reports in recent year, for reasons unconnected to the rice thing. I think they are an organization that may be increasinly irrelevant, and are getting rather desperate to make the headlines.)

I thought about this thread when I read a sushi menu the other day. There's sushi, and then there's *sushi*. This place - in Washington DC - bills itself as fusion, not Japanese. That's key, because there's one sushi roll they offer that can only come from the country that brought the world fried butter on a stick. The Las Vegas roll: deep fried with bacon. I think in this case, a burger and fries might be the healthier choice!

BTW, I did try it. Very, very tasty. But healthy sushi it is not.

I think it deppends of what you put in it, and also of the amount of rice you use, i made homemade sushi and owith 260 gr of steamed rice, i can make for 3 people sushi, using a thin layer, and if put inside raw vegetables and just add sesame oil (just a little) it's healthier than using just 260 gr for 2 people or 1 ...

By the way i love your web site!! :D

well of cours sushi is not an everyday treat i think, that should be really clear to everyone in my opinion. (exept if you are a milionair perhaps and can afford it, you might loose the notion)

but i still think in comparison its way healthier than most of the food you would get in restaurants when eating out.
most of the restaurant food is very high in sodium as well and more often than not it is also extremly fatty and also very high in refined carbs and low in vege as well..
(pizza/pasta/beef with sauce and pasta and so on..)

i have it perhaps 3 or 4 times a year, even though if i could i'd probably want to eat it everyday and would strugle to hold myself back.

so yeah i'd say sushi is often at least a healthyER option.

Nutritionally-speaking, I don't worry too much about foods as long as they are 'real.' Sushi = fish, soy sauce, nori, salt, sugar. Not a problem. Instant ramen, on the other hand = Goodness knows what - I couldn't begin to pronounce most of the items on the package, let alone know what they really are.

Sorry to be a quibbler on the previous thread -- I love your website and have mentioned it to many people and have also enjoyed your bento book. Recently I used your mother's umeboshi recipe -- many thanks for that and for so many lovely recipes and interesting insights over the years.

When I make sushi at home, I use raw black rice-- the healthiest kind, as far as I am aware. Sometimes I mix it with Japanese sushi rice. Both options look super duper pretty.

Of course this way I don't eat authentic Japanese sushi. And the same as with long grain brown rice, black rice isn't meant for sushi. But, it tastes good for me-- not too off to feel like I am not eating sushi, but some different dish ;)

If we're just talking about calorie content (which is the main thing that matters for body composition), then sushi is just like any other food: It's possible to fit it in to your diet, provided that you control your portions. In my experience, rice is pretty filling relative to how many calories it has. Fat is very calorie dense, so very fatty foods tend to be easiest to overeat.

I find that 500-600 calories of sushi is fairly satisfying. And yes, while it's mostly rice, the fish is indeed very healthful (mercury concerns aside) and many people of the world live very healthfully on a diet high in rice and fish.

So, all in all, I think sushi is healthy food and it works well for me on a diet, because it is low in fat. Fat isn't inherently unhealthy, but it does add a lot of calories.

Last thing, I don't worry about sodium. As far as I'm aware, the latest scientific research has not found that a normal healthy person needs to worry about it. I'm satisfied that the dangers of sodium are overrated. I'm pretty sure that the stress of worrying about sodium is worse for you than the sodium itself. This may be different for people with certain existing problems, but I don't see much evidence that sodium itself CAUSES these problems.

Hi Maki, I agree, the refined rice is too much in sushi. My Japanese wife and kids love it so it's hard to avoid. As a diabetic I have to avoid refined carbs but I do love sushi. The omega-3 oils in the seafood are said to be good for health and I avoid tuna for taste rather than higher mercury content. I prefer salmon to tuna. At one stage I just ate the topping and left the rice for the kids. But now I just give in and eat the rice too but go for long walks to get the blood sugar down. Sushi an occasional delicious treat and better than the McD's the kids love too.

Very interesting post! A little disappointed, since I just fell in love with sushi and was happy that I finally liked something healthy! Ha ha!

In fact I just wrote about it myself:

There's nothing wrong at all with enjoying sushi, maybe not everyday though. Everything in moderation, including moderation. ^_^

Has anyone tried making sushi using white quinoa instead of rice? I would like to make a healthier version using quinoa (or maybe brown rice) and use honey instead of sugar in it.

I love quinoa, but I think the texture is utterly wrong for sushi.

Also, in terms of sugar content honey is not healthier than sugar. It only has trace elements of other nutrients so overall it's not that healthy at all, unfortunately.

I love sushi! I think it can be healthy if you avoid all the extra sauces they sometimes slip on top (but they're so yummy, it's hard to avoid them...) The white rice probably isn't that bad for health as long as you're not eating a ton of it. Brown rice would probably be the better option. And the fish is extremely healthy and tasty. Well, if you eat the white rice it raises blood sugar, but if you eat the raw fish it will work to lower the blood sugar, so it will have a relatively in the middle as far as glycemic index goes. When you eat sugar it causes wait gain (white rice, carbs, etc turn to basically sugar in the blood stream). BUT one way you can get around this problem (and still eat rice and lose weight) is to eat large amounts of veggies and meat which lower blood sugar. (as long as they aren't in sweet sauces). So when you eat sushi, maybe homemade veggie juice with a variety of veggies and one or two fruits for flavor will help. (just dump a bunch of them in the blender, blend and then drink. Over time you'll find a mix that works for you. Avoid cabbage and tomatoes in this though and probably onions, gross! Also anything too citrusy doesn't taste right.) Drink this with the sushi (with brown rice) and a nice side of either raw fish, or grilled/baked (don't use oil if possible). It will lower the entire GI. :)

Not sure where the calorie count comes from. Just as an example, UK based Itsu sushi boxes have
190 cal for six pieces of sushi
240 cal for eight pieces of sushi...
and the protein / fat content is really good.

Personally I find that I eat sushi much more slowly / mindfully than other food, helping me feel satisfied with less. Especially if I munch slowly on a bit of ginger / wasabi.

What I find more problematic is the very low fibre content, and as someone who has to eat an extremely high fibre diet for medical reasons, sushi has to be an occasional treat unfortunately.

The sushi from that restaurant must be very small...

My calorie counts come from a hospital nutrition education department. I would say that is pretty trustworthy.

I was wondering if you knew if brown rice grown in Japan has less arsenic than brown rice grown in the US? I have read that brown rice grown in California has less arsenic than brown rice grown elsewhere in the US, but if brown rice from Japan has even less I would totally be willing to buy the brown rice at Marukai/Nijiya in favor of any other grown outside of Japan. I tried asking some of the workers at Marukai, who had no idea, and also tried looking it up, but didnt find much and kind of wasnt surprised, since I just assumed most of the pertinent stuff would be in all Japanese, which I sadly do not speak.

The thing is though, most "Japanese" type rice sold in the U.S. is grown in the U.S. (Take a look at the labels). I've yet to see any brown rice from Japan sold in U.S. Japanese grocery stores, because it's really expensive after shipping, etc.

I believe that the amount of arsenic in rice is influenced by the soil it's grown in, and some rice grown in California has more than say, rice grown in Arkansas. But unfortunately labelling laws don't say you need to say which state something was grown in...

[quote=maki]The thing is though, most "Japanese" type rice sold in the U.S. is grown in the U.S. (Take a look at the labels). I've yet to see any brown rice from Japan sold in U.S. Japanese grocery stores, because it's really expensive after shipping, etc.[/quote]

Aww, even Japanese rice at Marukai/Nijiya? I guess I just assumed the rice was from Japan also since they have a lot of other things imported but Ive never actually looked at them too closely.

[quote=maki]I believe that the amount of arsenic in rice is influenced by the soil it's grown in, and some rice grown in California has more than say, rice grown in Arkansas. But unfortunately labelling laws don't say you need to say which state something was grown in...[/quote]

Yeah, articles like this one

support that. Something about arsenical pesticides being used for decades on the cotton there. I didnt know if Japan was a big cotton grower and if they had ever used those kinds of pesticides there but I was kind of hoping not. Kind of sad because I really like brown rice better than white but not enough that I want to ingest arsenic no matter how small the amount. Thanks so much for the reply, Maki. I love all your recipes and its very nice of you to be so helpful in your replies. I always love reading your posts, keep up the great work!