In today’s world, we have a nearly unlimited amount of choices when it comes to food. Every culture on Earth is contributing to our diets – and some of our new options are downright bizarre.
One weird food in particular has spread in popularity around the globe, and especially in the West:
If you’re already a huge fan of sushi, you may be familiar with some of its supposed health benefits. If you can’t stand sushi or have never tried it, you might have heard of some negative effects it can have on our bodies.
So, with all this conflicting information, how could you possibly know the truth about sushi?
Today, we’re going to get to the bottom of this and find out just how healthy this weird raw fish stuff from Japan can really be.
What Exactly Is Sushi?
Sushi is traditionally vinegared rice topped with other ingredients like raw fish or vegetables. For most non-native Japanese people, we think of the term sushi as being interchangeable with raw fish.
In fact, the word “sushi” actually means “it’s sour” in Japanese, which reflects sushi’s origins of being fermented fish preserved in salt.
Sushi is a relatively recent arrival in the United States and the West. It only started gaining ground here after World War II, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a chef in Los Angeles invented the California roll.
A major reason Westerners tend to wrinkle their noses at sushi even today is because some of us simply can’t digest it well. That’s been a major factor in some of the negative press around the dish – and it isn’t entirely incorrect.
One reason the Japanese can digest sushi so easily while some Westerners can’t is actually because of a specific enzyme found in their gut biome called porphyranase.
Porphyran is a polysaccharide present in the cell walls of red algae used in the preparation of sushi that can be easily broken down specifically by porphyranase.
Without enzymes like porphyranase and others in their intestinal flora, human beings wouldn’t be able to break down polysaccharides at all. And because the Japanese have such an abundance of porphyranase, they have no problem at all digesting sushi and other seafood dishes.
As you can see, sushi is vastly different from some of the regular dishes we eat here in the West. And because of these differences, it has lots of different health effects from what we’re used to eating. So, let’s investigate further and uncover some of its health benefits.
Health Benefits of Sushi
First off, let’s mention the rice element of sushi. More than half of the world’s population lives on rice – an excellent source of carbohydrates and protein. It’s also gluten-free, which makes sushi great for anyone with celiac disease!
The seaweed sushi is usually held together by contains iodine, which is great for raising testosterone levels.
Most fish used in sushi (and fish in general) are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which boost circulation and alertness. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know about all the awesome benefits of these healthy fats!
These fish are also some of the healthiest foods in the world because of their high protein, vitamin B12, and essential amino acid content. They contain large amounts of vitamin D, which is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Seafood is among the highest foods in iron, which is crucial for healthy blood cells.
Wasabi is a thick green paste that typically accompanies most sushi dishes. While it might be a little too strong for some people with sensitive palates, wasabi is rich in vitamin C and can help aid digestion. It also has powerful antibacterial properties and is mildly antiseptic.
Because of these health effects, many people who eat these foods regularly are healthier in general. In fact, one study published by The BMJ found that the Japanese diet was linked to greater longevity!
But that doesn’t quite mean you should jump on another diet bandwagon immediately. Before you do, let’s look into some of the negative health effects of sushi.
Negative Health Effects of Sushi
Like most exotic foods, sushi also has some interesting drawbacks.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends you cook seafood to keep foodborne illnesses under control. Because sushi is raw, you’re opting to expose yourself to a wide range of possible viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
One study found that sushi can have “unsatisfactory” levels of bacteria, especially when bought from a store instead of made fresh. It’s seriously important that you get high quality ingredients and ensure proper temperature control for your safety when eating sushi.
Sushi is also notorious for its high mercury content, which can lead to higher blood mercury levels, especially if you eat it regularly with tuna. Mercury poisoning can be pretty nasty, with symptoms like vision impairment, tingling throughout the body, and difficulties with movement, speech, hearing, and walking.
The ginger and wasabi that are commonly paired with sushi can also have some negative health effects.
Pickled ginger can lead to upset stomach, irritation, and heartburn. It also contains food coloring that can cause allergies, hyperactivity, and congestion in people who are sensitive to it. Depending on the recipe, ginger may also contain preservatives and other chemical substances like potassium sorbate, MSG, aspartame, and sodium benzoate – all names that raise eyebrows for sure.
Wasabi can contain chemical additives as well. These include artificial flavorings and colorings, rapeseed oil, citric acid, soy, cornstarch, and corn flour. Some of these can be considered dangerous to people with weaker immune systems. Wasabi can also lead to liver damage if consumed in high amounts.
If you’re a sushi lover, reading these negative effects may not scare you. But if you want to continue eating sushi, here are some tips for staying as healthy as possible:
Tips for the Healthiest Sushi
- Go for brown rice. Any time it’s available, you should always opt for brown rice over white. White rice is made by removing the bran and germ portions of brown rice. Brown rice is a whole grain, and can help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Consider low-calorie sashimi. If you ask for your sushi sashimi style, you’ll only get the raw fish portion of the dish. This cuts back on calories and many of the other possible side-effects of the full sushi dish.
- Don’t order tempura. You may see tempura on the menu at the sushi restaurant, but don’t order it if you want to stick to what’s healthiest. Tempura is battered and deep-fried fish, and considerably more harmful to your diet.
- Say no to cream cheese and mayo. These toppings are entirely unnecessary for enjoying sushi. Even though they’re available on the Philadelphia roll or the spicy tuna roll, say no to cream cheese and mayo to cut back on calories, trans fats, and sodium and much as possible.
- Stick to traditional rolls. If you know your sushi, you probably know the common dishes. These are usually served without all the extra frills and creative toppings found on fancier rolls like the rainbow, dynamite, or spider rolls. Try to stick to rice, seaweed, veggies, and one choice of fish.
- Limit your condiments. Soy sauce and sushi go hand-in-hand, but don’t overdo it. Soy sauce is extremely high in sodium – one tablespoon contains about 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Even low-sodium soy sauce has only 25 percent less sodium content.
- Learn to use chopsticks. You’ll eat more slowly with chopsticks than with a fork or a spoon, which can help you eat less and feel more full!
- Try veggie rolls. Most sushi restaurants offer veggie rolls with spinach, avocado, mushrooms, and sometimes peanuts. If you’re ordering multiple rolls, make at least one a veggie-only roll.
And if you aren’t sure which fish to order to maximize the health benefits and minimize the negative effects of sushi, check out this helpful website full of fish facts.
Is Eating Sushi Worth the Risk?
Now that you’ve seen both the positive and negative effects sushi can have on your body, you may be even more confused.
You may have to ask: should I take the risk of eating sushi at all?
Honestly, sushi can be either a very poor choice or a very smart one in terms of your nutrition. The trick is to ensure that the sushi you eat is prepared properly and with clean ingredients, and is chosen from the healthiest rolls on the menu.
If you aren’t among the elderly or chronically ill, most of the immune system complications of eating raw fish can be avoided. If you do fall into one of these categories, you would be wise to steer clear of such foods and stick to what you know to be safe for your diet.
If you ask me, you don’t have to give up sushi. Just be mindful of what you’re eating, how it was prepared, and where it came from.
And please don’t eat it every single day! Remember: moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle.
What do you think? Will sushi remain one of your favorite foods? Will you finally try it to see if you can gain some of it’s great health benefits, or will you continue saying no to that weird raw fish dish from Japan?
Let me know in the comments below!