When we think about eating Japanese food, we typically think “healthy” with lean, protein-rich fish, seaweed and tofu.
Depending on how we order, however, we can easily consume a meal- even a sushi lunch or dinner — that’s anything but nutritious, and that packs in 1,500-plus calories and two days’ worth of sodium.
Ginormous sushi rolls are a great example: Those with fried ingredients and/or topped with sweet or creamy sauces can quickly top 500 calories per roll.
Even a seemingly light California roll really isn’t the best option: It’s basically a carb roll with rice and seaweed with a bit of veggies, imitation crab meat and roe. (California rolls are so low in protein, fiber and fat that they’re likely to leave you hungry again in no time.)
Still, don’t push away from the sushi bar just yet. The key is to learn how to order well. Japanese cuisine gives us ample opportunity to eat fresh fish, vegetables and heart-smart fats.
Check out our guide below, which offers menu cues and ordering suggestions, so you can avoid common nutrition pitfalls and eat deliciously well.
WHAT TO ORDER: Our top three picks for both taste and nutrition include the following.
KEY WORDS: When scanning the menu, there are certain cues to look for to determine if a dish is nutritious.
Look for items made with lean protein. Seafood or tofu with add-ins like vegetables and avocado are your best bets.
Protein up with sashimi and tataki. Proteins fill us up, so look for creative uses. For example, two of my local Eat Fit favorites that are a little bit different include Tsunami’s Truffle Salmon and Ninja Sushi’s Cajun Tuna Tataki, with their New Orleans spin on a traditional Asian favorite.
Ask about vegetables. They won’t always be obvious, and they may not even be listed on the menu. Most sushi restaurants, however, offer a version of steamed broccoli, oshitashi (steamed spinach), and sunomuno (thinly sliced cucumber with rice vinegar).
ROLLS: Rolls, among the most popular items on the Japanese menu, can be healthful with a few tips.
A “big” sushi roll like the Spider Roll, Tempura Roll or Dynamite Roll typically has 500-plus calories, mostly from oils and white carbs.
Rice-less rolls with fish, avocado and veggies are generally a much more moderate 200-250 calories, with quality calories from lean protein, heart-smart fats and veggies.
Making smart choices and mixing better-for-you rolls with a splurge roll that you split, can make a difference.
Rice. Most sushi rolls are made with 3 to 4 ounces of white rice per roll, adding about 140 calories and 30 grams of carb to every roll, with little protein and almost no fiber. Switching to brown rice adds fiber, but still packs in nearly the same carbs and calories.
Instead, opt for no rice. Just try it, you might be surprised that you like it. You’ll get the full flavor of the fish, vegetables and other add-ins. Options for wrapping the roll include seaweed, cucumber, rice paper or soy paper.
Nix the fried stuff. A a little bit of tempura crunchies might be OK, but if you’re ordering a fried softshell crab or fried shrimp roll, at least split it among friends. And restaurants will often accommodate “not fried” requests. The original version of the Balance roll (salmon, yellowtail, salmon and avocado wrapped with rice paper) at Uchi Sushi on Causeway, for example, was deep-fried. The Eat Fit Balance roll stemmed from popular requests to not deep-fry it.
Sauces. Eel sauce and spicy mayo ratchet up the calories, so request either sauce on the side, or no sauce. Sauces can add calories, carbs and sugar faster than you might think. For example, a spoonful of eel sauce contains 5 grams for sugar. Instead, try a light dip of ponzu or reduced sodium soy sauce.
Added bonus: Without rice, tempura and heavier sauces, you’ll actually taste more of the flavors of the roll itself.
SODIUM ALERT: Japanese food can be high on sodium, so, if that’s a dietary issue, here are a few tips:
Miso soup vs. edamame
sounds nutritious: broth, tofu and seaweed – and it can be, as long as you’re not watching your sodium. A single cup easily contains 800-900 mg sodium – for those following a lower-sodium diet, that’s more than half a day’s upper limit in one little bowl. If sodium is
an issue, however (and some people, like athletes, can actually benefit from the extra sodium), miso soup is a low-calorie, filling start to a meal.
Start with edamame. Low in calories with a good dose of fiber and protein, these steamed soybeans are the perfect grab-and-go snack or pre-meal nibble. Even with the usual bit of sea salt, an order of edamame typically has about 350 mg sodium, and can also be served with no salt added upon request.
Sauce vs. no sauce
(920 mg per tablespoon),
“low sodium” soy sauc
e (575 mg per tablespoon), and
(400 mg per tablespoon) can all pack on sodium.
“It’s not uncommon for the average sushi patron to use about 2 ounces of soy sauce,” said Fred Nonato of
sushi restaurant. That’s four tablespoons, which translates to nearly 4,000 mg sodium from just the soy sauce alone.
If you have high blood pressure or are watching your salt intake, request no sauce or sauce on the side. And be aware that “low sodium” or “reduced sodium” soy sauce is only about 25 to 40 percent less sodium, but still isn’t “low” in sodium.
: Add flavor with fresh ginger, wasabi or chili sauce. And follow the “rules” of sushi etiquette and just lightly dip the edge of fish into the soy sauce.
Imitation crab vs. fresh seafood
are loaded with sodium, typically 235 mg per ounce. (Side note that we learned from Ricky Toy, executive chef and co-owner of
: Many varieties of imitation crabmeat also contain gluten.)
Opt for fresh fish for a 95 percent savings, with about 10-15 mg sodium per ounce.
Seaweed salad vs. bean sprouts
Depending on how it’s made, the sodium in seaweed salad can be as high as 700-900 mg per serving. And some varieties of seaweed are made with artificial food dyes, as well. Most variations of seaweed salad also contain a hefty dose of added sugar.
: Opt for a bean sprout salad, which is just fresh bean sprouts, or steamed vegetables. You also have much more control over sodium with requests like no sauce, or sauce on the side.
BEVERAGES: Consider that sake is made from rice before indulging, so think before you drink.
Sake is a Japanese liquor made from fermented rice. Ounce for ounce, it has about 50 percent more calories and twice the carbs of wine. A 6-ounce serving of sake is about 230 calories and 36 grams of carbs, for example, compared to 150 calories and 18 grams of carb for the same amount of wine.
Green tea. Loaded with antioxidants and essentially calorie-free, green tea is an obvious addition to any healthful sushi dinner.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns offer advice and guidance for finding the most healthful dishes when eating out. If you have questions or want to suggest a specific style of food, write to her at [email protected].
Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. She can be reached at [email protected]. Comment and read more atNOLA.com/eat-drink. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/mollykimballrd and Twitter: twitter.com/mollykimballrd.