Original illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Sushi is a popular option when dining out, and for good reason. Most people think of it as a reasonably healthy choice, so it’s a no-brainer for anyone trying to be mindful about what they’re eating. The truth is, sushi is quite healthy overall—especially compared to other popular picks like pizza and burgers. But as with most types of cuisine, there are certain items on the menu that are great for health-conscious eaters, while others leave a lot to be desired in the nutrition department. That’s where some expert help comes in handy. By strategically picking certain items (and skipping others), you can optimize your order without ditching dinner plans altogether.
With a little help from some nutrition pros, we’ve ranked the most common Japanese restaurant dishes from healthiest to least healthy. The results might surprise you.
Okay, it’s not technically sushi, but did you know that this often-ordered appetizer is the healthiest thing on the menu? “Edamame has the perfect balance of fiber, protein, and healthy fats that make it satiating and good for stabilizing blood sugar,” explains Rachel Goodman, RD and founder of Rachel Good Nutrition. Plus, “it also provides isoflavones that have anticancer properties,” she says. It’s pretty safe to say you should add this one to your order next time you visit your favorite sushi spot.
Sashimi is a great alternative to a sushi roll because you’re getting all protein and no rice, meaning you get more protein and fewer simple carbohydrates. Salmon is an especially good choice since it “provides protein and healthy fats (omega-3s!), vitamin B12, selenium, and more,” according to Goodman. And if it’s an option, she recommends swapping out the white rice that often comes on the side for brown for some added fiber.
In fact, switching out your rice is one of the healthiest things you can do for your sushi order, says Thumbtack nutritionist Courtney Baron. “White sushi rice is mixed with sugar, salt, and vinegar,” she explains. What’s more, “while it may not seem like a lot in one piece of sushi, 15 pieces later, you just ate the equivalent of a hefty bowl of white sushi rice.” Even better, skip the rice altogether if possible.
Not big on fish? Good news: Vegetable rolls are pretty healthy. One area where these rolls are lacking, though, is protein. “They won’t be as filling as sushi that has fish, so make sure when you order one that it at least includes some healthy fat, like avocado,” Goodman advises. Or just have some edamame on the side, and you’ll be set.
In general, Goodman recommends choosing rolls that include all components of a satisfying meal: protein (fish), healthy fat (avocado), and fiber (vegetables or brown rice), which will keep you satiated and prevent overeating.
“Miso soup is brimming with gut-healthy probiotics that give your immune system a boost,” notes Baron. The only potential drawback? Goodman cautions that restaurant-made miso soup is often super high in sodium, so be careful with how often you order it. If you’re a fan of this dish, try making it at home for maximum benefits.
“I wouldn’t call California rolls unhealthy, but they’re sometimes made with imitation crab that can include fillers, additives, and coloring,” Goodman says. But,“this still can be a balanced meal since it contains protein, healthy fat, and fiber.” And if you can find a version with real crab meat, then it’s quite healthy.
Now we’re venturing into unhealthy territory. “Tuna can be a very healthy fish choice when eaten in moderation (hint: mercury!) because it contains tons of beneficial vitamins and minerals,” says Baron. However, the “spicy” part of the roll is the problem. Usually, any roll with the word “spicy” in the name is made with spicy mayo, which adds a ton of calories to your meal and doesn’t offer much nutritionally.
As for the least healthy item on the menu, we can’t say we’re that surprised. “Anything deep fried in oil will likely contain trans fat due to the chemical changes that happen to the oil from the high heat,” Goodman explains. “A tempura roll basically ruins what can be a perfectly healthy meal, as trans fat has been shown to contribute to cardiovascular disease,” she adds.
Generally, Goodman’s advice is to pass on anything with “tempura” or “spicy” in the name. Additionally, “go light on the sweet and sour sauces that are heavy on the sugar, and better yet, swap them for classic soy sauce (preferably low sodium),” she suggests. If you want some added crunch in your roll, ask them to add cucumber instead of tempura.
The Bottom Line
While there are definitely some ingredients to stay away from if you’re trying to eat clean, experts emphasize that overall, sushi is a pretty healthy choice. “The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to eat at least two servings of fatty fish a week to help you meet essential fatty acid needs, which many Americans are not meeting,” Goodman says. “So if eating sushi is your way to eat more fish, then, by all means, go for it.” One important thing to note, though, is that you should limit your intake of high-mercury fish, like tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—especially if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.
Lastly, Goodman emphasizes that all kinds of food—even spicy mayo and tempura—can be part of a healthy diet: “There is no one food that will make you healthy or unhealthy, but rather it is the overall dietary pattern that matters. So if you want to enjoy a tempura roll with creamy spicy mayo sauce once in awhile, you should do so without feeling guilt or remorse.”
Struggle to navigate the menu when you’re trying to be healthy? Tell us which cuisine you’d like help with, and we’ll tap the nutrition experts for you.