Sushi is a Japanese delicacy that has enjoyed global success over the last few decades – with sushi bars and restaurants popping up all over the world. Indeed, these little seaweed rolls have become synonymous with Japanese cuisine, and are the dish that pops into many foreigners’ heads when asked about Japanese food.
The Japanese diet is lauded as being extremely healthy, with experts drawing strong correlations between what the Japanese eat and their increased life expectancy. Sushi is no exception to this rule – most variations boast a winning combination of fish, vegetables and rice; ingredients which get two thumbs up from nutritional specialists. Of course, as with any food, there are unhealthy variants of sushi – for example, the deep-fried varieties (tempura) are high in saturated fat, and not suited for every day consumption (unless you’re hankering after a heart attack). It is also worth noting that sushi is not necessarily low in calories – oily fish can pack a caloric punch, so don’t confuse “health-boosting” with “weight loss promoting”.
I’m a proud pescatarian, so sushi tends to be my preferred dish when traveling in Japan. Anyone with dietary requirements will tell you that a language barrier can mean accidentally consuming something you shouldn’t – but for my diet, I know that sushi is a safe and delicious local choice. For all my fellow food nerds, sit back and let me walk you through the health benefits of humble Japanese sushi.
Okay, I’m going to start with the most questionable health component of the dish – sushi rice. I’d be lying if I said that sushi rice is the healthiest variety of rice you could eat.
For one thing, it’s white in the vast majority of cases (I have eaten brown rice sushi before – in my humble opinion, it’s just not the same without the stickiness). White rice is lacking in fiber – something to consider if you find yourself feeling a little, shall we say, “stuffed up” on your Japanese adventure. Nori seaweed does have a decent fiber content (more on that later), but complementing your sushi with some pickled ginger, wasabi, vegetable side orders, and plenty of green tea will also keep things moving in the right direction.
In addition, sushi rice tends to be marinated in vinegar, sugar and salt to enhance the taste — depending on what region you’re in, sushi rice might be saltier or sweeter. Salt and sugar obviously aren’t the ideal ingredients if it’s a healthy dish you’re looking for. If you’re adding soy sauce to your sushi (and Lord knows I enjoy adding soy sauce to my sushi) you might want to keep an eye on the sodium content, as the dish already contains salt.
With all this being said, the amount of rice in sushi is so small compared to the amount of rice one would eat with a curry or a stir-fry. Given the relatively small amount of rice in the dish, these sugar and salt flavorings really are negligible in the grand scheme of things. That’s what I like to tell myself anyway.
Why hello nori, you beautiful nutrient-dense seaweed, you. Nori seaweed, known to the untrained eye as the edible black border that hugs your sushi together, is a veritable superfood. I could speak for days about the benefits of the black stuff (possibly the first time an Irish person has written that and not been referring to Guinness) but I’m on a word limit here – so instead let me give you a whistle stop tour of just some of the highlights.
Nori is rich in iodine, which keeps your cholesterol low and your thyroid gland running as it should. For those who don’t consume dairy, look to nori as an excellent calcium source and build strong bones by eating sustainable seaweed. Moreover, nori also contains Vitamin D, which is the vitamin we need to be able to use calcium in our bodies.
Nori is a great source of protein, and if you don’t eat meat then you know that natural plant protein can be hard to come by – any gym bunny will tell you that this nutrient is essential for bodily growth and repair. It is an iron source, and also rich in Vitamin C (which unlocks iron for use by the body).
It is an antioxidant, and has detoxifying properties, too – which is partly why seaweed baths are used worldwide as a method of skincare. If just lying in seaweed can have an instant soothing effect on your skin, imagine what it can do to the inside of your body (NB – do not follow this principle blindly across skincare products. I don’t want to hear about anyone drinking their acne cream.).
Anyone who has travelled in Korea will likely know that nori holds a special significance for Korean people – it represents health and longevity, and as such is often served to people on their birthdays. I have to say, personally, I would consider nori a pretty fantastic birthday meal if it was hugged around a delicious Japanese sushi roll.
Please note – not all sushi contains nori seaweed. Kakinoha sushi, for example, uses persimmon leaves as a wrapper for your rice and fish filling.
Sushi can contain numerous different fillings in Western restaurants – but in Japan, it is generally filled with some form of seafood. I’m biting my tongue here to stop myself from getting up on my soapbox about the health benefits of fish – this is, after all, Japan Junky, not Fish Fanatics, but indulge me for a little while as I outline just some of the health-boosting properties of the most common Japanese sushi fillings.
So firstly, the elephant in the room. Is the fish in Japanese sushi served raw? Generally, yes – unless you’re eating eel, which is served cooked. The phrase sashimi refers to uncooked fish, and most sushi you get will involve sashimi. Don’t be scared! There are so many health benefits to eating raw seafood.
The lack of cooking means sashimi preserves all of its vitamin and mineral content – much of which is lost when exposed to heat. This means we get the full nutritional punch of what fish can offer our bodies in an ideal world when we opt for sashimi.
Each fish will have different health benefits, but in general you can expect to consume high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids – fantastic for heart function and regulating blood pressure. A lot of sashimi also contains high levels of magnesium and B vitamins, and all sashimi is an excellent protein source.
I could tell you a million anecdotal stories about how switching to a fish-based diet has benefited my personal health, but I won’t bore you with the details. Instead, just take my word for it – our bodies really like fish, Japanese sushi is packed full of fish. Win-win.
Depending on where you get your sushi, wasabi might be rolled in with your filling, or might be served on the side as a condiment. Wasabi packs a heady and invigorating punch (similar spice to horse radish), and the health benefits it provides are all the more reason to apply it liberally.
Not only is wasabi rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals – it also has numerous medicinal effects. The presence of allil isothiocyanite in wasabi kills bacteria causing food poisoning, and also acts as an anti-parasitic. If the thought of eating raw fish makes you nervous, then pile on some extra wasabi for reassurance!
Gari refers to pickled ginger, a delicacy generally served with sushi in Japan. Pickled ginger is a low calorie and low sodium food that packs a huge flavour punch – meaning it can add an awful lot to the taste of your sushi, without taking away any of its health benefits.
Moreover though, being liberal with the gari could in fact add health benefits to your sushi eating experience. Studies have proven ginger to be a powerful antioxidant, preventing disease and regulating bodily functions.
Not All Sushi is Created Equal
I hope I’ve outlined why eating sushi can be an excellent health choice – but now I need to throw in a little disclaimer. There are so many different varieties of sushi in Japan, and not all of them are what one would consider a ‘healthy option’. Of course, one unhealthy meal isn’t going to do you any harm, and I would very much subscribe to the culinary school of ‘try absolutely everything’ when traveling. For your information, here are some of the least healthy Japanese sushi choices.
- Tempura anything – as a general rule, once you deep fry something, it ain’t healthy anymore. Just ask your arteries. As far as I’m concerned, this is definitive evidence of the world being a cruel and unmerciful place – if tempura is bad then why is it allowed to taste so good?
- Westernised sushi – ingredients like mayonnaise and cream cheese are often added to Western sushi recipes to bring in more familiar tastes. These are high in calorie content and, more importantly, saturated fat – stick to traditional choices for a more heart-friendly option.
- Inari sushi – this delicious treat comprises of sushi rice and filling in a fried tofu shell. The overall taste is sweet and moreish – probably because it’s packed full of oil and sugar. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Who Shouldn’t Eat Sushi?
In Japan, you will see everyone eating sushi – from young to old, and everything in between. However, Western health advice urges young children, elderly people, immunocompromised people, and pregnant women to steer clear of sashimi.
This is because of the risk of bacterial infection associated with eating raw being heightened for those with weakened immune systems – especially if you aren’t used to being exposed to raw foods. For pregnant women in particular, the levels of mercury in sushi can be harmful.
This should go without saying, but if you have any form of seafood allergy then steer clear from ordering sushi when holidaying in Japan. Even if you manage to order a vegetable roll, the same knife could be used to cut the seafood order of the previous customer – and if you don’t have the language skills to explain your allergy then you are at risk of trace exposure.
Man Cannot Live on Sushi Alone
I have sad news. I know this because I have researched it for my own personal lifestyle choices. If I could live solely on sushi, I absolutely would – but we can’t.
The main reason for this is it is possible to overdose on iodine, the nutrient that nori seaweed is so rich in. Overdosing on iodine is actually pretty serious – it can cause the thyroid gland to malfunction. This means that eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner will cause side effects that pretty drastically outweigh the health benefits of eating sushi as part of a balanced diet.
How and ever, sushi is a fantastic way to include nutrient dense foods like seaweed and seafood in your diet, while having a delicious and authentic Japanese culinary experience.