Is Sushi Healthy—Or Could It Be Hurting Your Performance?
So we turned to Cara Harbstreet, R.D., owner of Street Smart Nutrition, to figure out what athletes need to know for their next sushi night.
Sushi rolls are a healthy meal packed with nutrients, including protein, good-for-you fats, and carbohydrates.
Open up any sushi menu, and you’ll realize that you have more than few options to choose from. Sashimi, for example, is raw fish served on its own, making it a healthy option for high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids but little to no carbohydrates. Nigiri is raw fish served atop of rice, and maki or hand rolls are traditional sushi rolls consisting of raw or cooked fish, and/or veggies, and rice, rolled up in seaweed.
In general most of these sushi offerings are well-rounded from a nutrition perspective, Harbstreet says.
Nutritionally speaking, it’s hard to lump all rolls together because there’s so much variety. But popular rolls—such as avocado, California, spicy tuna, and shrimp tempura—range from 140 to 500 calories, with the tempura options being much higher in calories and fat.
The amount of protein, fat, and carbs will also differ slightly depending on the fish choice and other “add-ons,” including soy sauce and spicy mayo, Harbstreet says.
Salmon rolls, for example, stand out as a nourishing option for athletes with an endurance focus, says Harbstreet. They not only provide protein, fat, and carbs (from the rice), but they are also one of the only food sources that offer vitamin D, which is crucial for bone health. A quick refresher: Protein helps build muscle, healthy fats are good for your heart, and carbs are your body’s main source of fuel—all-important for your performance on the bike.
While eating large amounts of bigger fish—like swordfish—may be cause for concern due to high levels of mercury, Harbstreet points out that Americans don’t eat nearly enough fish to truly worry about mercury toxicity.
“Instead of encouraging people to avoid certain types of fish because they’re higher in mercury, I’d advocate for more consumption of seafood across the board,” she says.
Plus, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one to three servings per week of most fish—such as salmon, albacore and yellowfin tuna (not bigeye), and shrimp—is recommended for your health and won’t put you at risk of mercury poisoning.
One of the biggest nutritional watch-outs for sushi lovers is actually sodium, thanks to soy sauce and other miso-based dishes the accompany a sushi roll. A tablespoon of traditional soy sauce contains nearly 1,000 mg of sodium. According to the American Heart Association, the daily recommended limit is 2,300 mg, with a push toward 1,500 mg.
“Even low-sodium soy sauce can pack quite a punch,” Harbstreet says. A tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce has nearly 600 mg of sodium.
It is worth noting, however, that endurance athletes like cyclists tend to lose a lot of sodium through sweat and need to replace the electrolyte after their workout. Therefore, they have a bit more wiggle room. In fact, a small study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that athletes who consumed salt capsules plus a sports drink (that also contained sodium) during a half Ironman completed the race 26 minutes faster than athletes who only consumed a sports drink. Additionally, the same group who consumed extra salt also replaced a higher amount of the sodium lost in their sweat than those who only consumed the sports drink. Still, going overboard—more than 4,000 mg per day—can spell trouble for your heart and overall health.
One of the best strategies to ensure your sushi meal stays healthy is to focus on portion size, paying extra attention to store-bought sushi, which tend to have larger portions than rolls from a traditional restaurant, Harbstreet says. Stick to one to two rolls as a meal and limit the amount of high-caloric “extras” like spicy mayo.
While people may be hesitant to order tempura dishes, Harbstreet says if you’re not eating it every night, it’s a good way for picky eaters to eat more vegetables or fish. Plus, it tastes good, and that’s important. “It is a lighter batter than fried chicken or other fried foods,” she says. “But the cooking method is the same. Enjoy it, but don’t make it the default if you eat a lot of sushi.”
It’s hard to make sushi truly bad for you, especially if you’re enjoying it on occasion. Most rolls—thanks to the rice (white or brown)—offer all the macronutrients you need as an athlete to fuel and recover, and you can easily enhance a sushi roll with healthy side dishes, Harbstreet says.
For example, it’s easy to add fresh vegetables to a sushi roll meal with a side salad. (The seaweed that keeps your roll together tastes great, but you’re not getting much nutritional bang for it, Harbstreet says.) A salad will offer more volume of food for hungry athletes and, because sushi gets expensive, can help fill you up without ordering an extra roll.
Fresh produce, Harbstreet says, is also one of the best sources of the electrolyte potassium, which can actually help counteract the effects of a high-sodium diet. And while soy sauce is extremely high in sodium, in the summer months, endurance athletes who lose electrolytes in their sweat may actually benefit from a little sodium boost, Harbstreet says.
For endurance athletes, a sushi meal is probably best for recovery—hello, protein!—or during the off season, in case you’re worried about foodborne illness.
“Because of the higher amounts of protein and fatty acids, sushi is a denser meal,” Harbstreet says. “You want to avoid feeling lethargic, so it’s recommended you have sushi for a dinner the night before a big workout or race.”