I was 30 years old the first time I tried the amazing, life changing nuggets of awesome that is sushi. My good friends and neighbors at the time Jeremy & Heather Free took my wife and I out for sushi in Vancouver, WA. I can remember looking at the menu being completely confused. Unagi, Toro, Uni, Sake….was I suppose to know this stuff? It seems like ignorance to this could highly dictate how I like this meal I thought. I ended up just telling them to pick for us, that I would try anything once. I was weirdly nervous when the waitress brought all the small plates of rolls and pieces of fish on rice. Spicy tuna, Shrimp tempura, salmon sashimi there was a wide variety of colors and flavors in front of me, and I fell in love.
Since then I have spent many years adoring my sushi meals and learning a ton about the nutrition aspect of one of my favorite food styles.
I commonly get asked where sushi lies in regards to peoples fat loss or muscle building goals. Let’s assume for the rest of this blog post that I’m talking to the vast majority who want to either lose fat and/or gain muscle without massively “bulking” and having fat-gain in the process. In short, I’m not writing this for the competitive off-season bodybuilder, but rather the other 99.5% of the population. The answer of the question of “can I eat sushi and get to my goals” is not a yes or no answer when you lump all sushi into one group. It’s an entire “style” of food. It’s like saying “can I eat at a restaurant and get to my goals?” Well, yes, but you probably can’t just eat anything on the menu and still get there.
The use of condiments in sushi rolls is enormous. Most north American and European sushi house will have rolls filled with spicy mayo, sugary sweet sauces and many are even deep fried (tempura style, it’s amazing, but so bad for you). Secondly the use of rice is highly used. Rice is good, I’m a huge fan of rice and what might not look like an threatening amount of rice in your rolls is actually significant and when your meal consists of more than one roll it can add up very quickly.
Let’s break down for simplicity the 3 major types you’ll find at your local sushi place. There may be others but most of what you’ll find on the menu will fall under one of these three categories:
Sashimi – This is the cleanest and most pure form of sushi. It is literally just pieces of raw fish, that’s it. No rice, no sauces (in most cases), no fillers, just cuts of A-grade fish. Definitely can be fit into nearly any “clean” and healthy eating plan depending on your macros and fish selection.
Rolls – Rolls can come in both “cut” and “hand” styles which contain the same ingredients but are very different to eat. Rolls usually make up a majority of the menu and can span from good for your goals to horrible for your goals (we’ll get into this more in a bit)
Nigiri – This is a small bunch of rice with a fillet of fish on top. Usually does not contain sauce or fillers, it is a pure form of sushi but does contain a startling amount of carbs from the rice. Although it doesn’t look like much per piece it adds up quick then you’re eating 3,6,9, 30 pieces in a meal. I have easily taken down 40 pieces of salmon nigiri many times before. I look back now and shake my head but ignorance was bliss at the time, also my abs were nowhere to be seen.
Before I dive into the benefits, let’s talk about the reality. Most people will order rolls or nigiri at a restaurant. Just look around when you’re in there, it makes up nearly all the orders. Once in a while you’ll see a person chop-sticking a pure, carb free slice of fish in their mouth but that is few and far between compared to the average.
Sushi can be crazy carb heavy when you look at the average person consuming multiple servings per sitting (more than one roll, more than 2 pieces of nigiri). In a majority of the cases there are 3x-10x the amount of carbs compared to protein. So if you’re going to sushi thinking you’re taking in a high protein, low carb, “healthy” meal, you need to be careful. Sushi grade fish is expensive, like really expensive so restaurants use it sparingly and what looks like a large amount of fish on your plate is actually only 2-8 bites of fish, which isn’t a whole lot. When you’re stuffing your mouth with even a large piece of sushi, a majority of that is carbs.
According to several online nutrition sites the average roll of sushi will contain 300-350+ (some of them much more) calories per roll. Rolls that have mayo, sweet sauces added or are tempura style can contain double or triple that amount. Your healthy meal could now be in the realm of fast food burger and fries caloric values. Sad, I know.
But before you get discouraged, here are some tips for navigating your next sushi trip:
1. Special order! Since a majority of sushi places are made to order, or can be made to order, don’t be afraid to put in a special request. Skip the added sauces on your rolls, ask for brown rice instead of white (this can be done at many places even if they don’t advertise it, just ask), even ask them to use half the normal amount of rice and it will be done! The above combination can save you literally hundreds of calories from that meal and still be delicious.
2. Mix and match! If your meal plan calls for carbs, order one roll, light brown rice, skip the sauce and then order some sashimi as well. The combination of the roll with carbs and the pure protein (and some cases fat) from the sashimi(pure fish) can be a great way to get “more” in your meal while still keeping to the high protein, moderate carb lifestyle.
3. Soy & Wasabi! That little dish in front of you and that bottle of soy sauce is there for a reason. Flavor city! Ask for reduced sodium soy sauce and mix in some wasabi for a spicy kick. Dip a little of each piece in there for a blast of salty, spicy flavor which really “makes” the meal in my opinion. Some people freak out about the sodium in doing this. In my opinion, unless you have high blood pressure or have been told by your doctor to go on a low sodium diet, the higher than average sodium at one meal is fine. If you’re drinking a lot of water and working out regularly (sweating) your body will regulate and flush out excess water just fine. Enjoy your food and move on.
4. Order as you go or plan your meal! I used to go into my local spot and put in a huge order all at once. I essentially committed in one order to over eating. In reality, had I put in small orders as I went or made up my mind exactly what I was going to order based on my macro/calorie needs I could have saved myself from feeling the need to devour all 40 pieces of sushi in-front of me. Preferably, know what you’re putting in your body, go in there knowing what you’re going to order, set that as a limit and call it good, but if you’re unaware of what you’re going for macro/calorie wise, then start small and only order more if you feel you truly need it. Start with a roll, enjoy it, wait a couple minutes, if you need more, order one serving of sashimi and go from there.
5. Save tempura for your birthday! We all know deep-frying makes everything better, sushi is no exception but the hundreds of added calories from fry oil and batter/breadcrumbs is pointless toward your goals. Save that for a formal cheat meal where larger amounts of calories is planned and approved. Tempura rolls are not for your average healthy meal.
As far as fish selection, I will save that for another blog post (this one is already long enough). Fatty tuna, salmon, etc. will be calorie dense options because they contain a larger amount of natural fats where shrimp, yellow fin, etc. will be leaner selections of fish. Do a simply Google search and you can find numerous references for nutrition facts. Start there and get a better understanding of what you’re taking in.
To wrap this up, can sushi get me to my goals? Yes, maybe, it highly depends on what you order and in what quantities you consume. You know I’m a big fan of this style of food but even I have to limit myself and be selective on what and how I order my meal at a sushi restaurant.
Your partner in health,