Nutrition Articles

Best and Worst Sushi Choices

How to Eat Healthy at a Sushi Restaurant

Sushi, in its traditional form, is rice and fish, which makes it a light and lean meal option. However, as sushi's popularity proliferated in the West, some of its health benefits were lost in translation. All-you-can-eat sushi, deep-fried rolls, and fancy mayo-based sauces overtook the artistic simplicity of this iconic Japanese food.

The menus at sushi restaurants are lengthy and, for novices, intimidating. Fun names like "Spider Rolls" and unfamiliar foreign words like "futomaki" only add to the confusion.

To make your sushi experience as stress-free and healthy as possible, we're helping you navigate the menu, highlighting the best and worst choices you're likely to encounter. Plus, we translate the most common Japanese words you'll encounter--and offer our "best practice" tips for leaving the restaurant sated, not stuffed.

Basic Tips:

  • Skip the tempura rolls. "Tempura" is code for "fried"! Plus, the crisp texture becomes mushy when wrapped in a roll.
  • Forgo rice. Some restaurants can create rice-free wraps and instead use cucumber, soy-based wraps or just nori (seaweed). Ask your server if any such alternatives are available.
  • Limit the avocado. Though the fat in avocados is heart-healthy, the calories do add up fast. Also, the avocado flavor is often lost when combined with other ingredients.
  • Choose cucumber, carrots, and scallions. For crunch and flavor for almost no calories, ask for extra veggies in any roll.
  • Stick to two rolls. Though each roll only has 8-10 bites, they contain up to 400 calories each, thanks to the cup of sushi rice in each one. Get one fancy roll and one basic roll, add miso soup or a simple salad, and you'll be plenty full.
  • Ask for hand rolls. Hand rolls (temaki) are cones of seaweed with a bit of rice and all the fillings of a traditional roll. You can save up to 80 calories per roll by asking for hand rolls.
  • Choose brown rice. You won't notice much of a difference in taste, but you'll get a bit of added fiber.
  • Stick with the basics. Fancy rolls tend to pile on caloric extras like cream cheese, tempura coating, and mayonnaise. Choose fish, rice, and vegetables for a lighter meal.
  • Get the appetizer-size sashimi platter. Slices of raw fish are a great choice, but the typical platter has at least three servings. Share with a friend or get the appetizer portion. 
  • For spice, choose wasabi. Spicy sauces are usually mayonnaise based, so choose wasabi instead to save calories.
  • Go easy on the soy sauce. Choose low-sodium soy sauce, but use it sparingly. A tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce still has 25% of your daily sodium.
  • Don't fill your soy sauce cup. Sushi comes to you pre-seasoned, so the added saltiness of soy sauce can mask the delicate taste of the fish. If you really want extra salt on your rolls, don't fill up the dipping cup. Instead, top each bite with a drop or two of soy sauce as you eat.
  • If you're watching your sodium, know where it's hiding. Miso soup is a low-calorie option, but it can be salty. Most brown sauces, including the sweet-and-salty sauce that comes on grilled eel and the dipping sauce for tempura, can also be high in sodium.

Know the Lingo:

  • Futomaki: a thick roll, usually cut into eight pieces. Specialty rolls are usually futomaki.
  • Hosomaki: thin roll with just one type of filling. Single-ingredient rolls such as salmon, tuna, or cucumber rolls are usually hosomaki.
  • Uramaki: a roll with the nori (seaweed) on the inside and rice on the outside. Sometimes called an inside-out roll.
  • Temaki: Also called a hand roll, this is a cone-shaped nori roll with the ingredients and minimal rice inside.
Let's run through a typical sushi menu to highlight the best choices, along with those you should limit.
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About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

Member Comments

  • mmmm, I love sushi, makes me want to go get some now! :) - 8/18/2015 4:06:39 PM
  • Thanks Stephanie for explaining all the different kinds. I'm still not a huge fan but my friends and kids like them so I usually try one or 2 pieces when out. - 8/17/2015 1:30:17 PM
    Really, the ones you say to stay away from are the only ones that taste good, lol!! - 8/16/2015 4:00:09 AM
  • This is a very informative article and clearly written. Thank you for all the tips that will make eating sushi and even more enjoyable experience. - 8/15/2015 4:08:07 AM
    Actually, sashimi, when fresh and from a reputable establishment, is not bad for pregnant women. You would just have to moderate how often you ate it, and like I mentioned, get it from a reputable establishment. - 2/5/2015 5:46:46 PM
  • Disagree about avoiding the avacado. I just have 1 roll and 2-3 pieces of nigiri. That fills me up enough. I also like a poke bowl. The Ahi poke bowl at Yard house off the snack menu is the perfect size portion for lunch for me AND it has avacado, carrot and dikon in it. - 1/25/2015 1:09:42 AM
  • Great little article, Stephanie!

    I usually stick with sashimi with shedded daikon radish or nigri.
    With these two selections you can really appreciate the sublties of taste and texture.

    When I eat out I want something I can't prepare at home, something completely different.
    Otherwise its cheaper and more nutritious for me to stay in and cook.

    Many of the rolls have non traditional ingredients, prolly the worse is cream cheese and mayo, oils that coat the palate and mask the true fresh taste of the ingredients.
    To me mayo and cream cheese on sushi is like putting mustard on icecream.
    They're all good in their own right, but completely inappropriate together.

    : ) - 11/8/2014 12:53:56 PM
  • It's usually considered disrespectful to the Chef to mix in the Wasabi and Soy and use excessive amounts of Soy anyway, as they have already seasoned the Sushi for you. So if if helps you avoid the temptation, say to yourself "I just don't want to disrespect the Chef." ;) Etiquette for Sushi usually involves dabbing a tiny bit of wasabi on, and if you must use soy, dabbing a tiny bit on the rice side only. So if you have to trick yourself into believing you are being respectful by turning down the condiments...well you just saved yourself the sodium. :) - 8/21/2014 3:27:30 PM
  • Spicy tuna is spicy on the inside thanks to wasabi. So this is a perfectly lean (and very flavorful) roll to eat if you leave the spicy mayo sauce off -- and I've never had a chef put it on without asking me first. - 6/22/2014 7:58:02 PM
    I agree with a lot of your statements, but not all. First and foremost, the sushi made fresh at my grocery, the "skinny rolls" made without rice and wrapped in nori or a rice wrapper, have over 1000mg of sodium. I'll take the rice over the sodium any day. I also totally disagree with your statement about avoiding the avocado if you can. Avocado should always be encouraged, not discouraged. That said, I agree with almost everything else. One other thing I want to mention is that the commercially made & packaged sushi has a fair amount of added chemicals (including maltodextrin, which I am allergic to and is an additive some other folks are avoiding in their diet). The best, freshest sushi is that which is made in front of you. - 6/22/2014 7:41:33 PM
  • I LOVE SUSHI! It's such a healthy, delicious, versatile, and fresh tasting food... and Sushi does not have to have any fish whatsoever in it. Often, we make sushi at home with only veggies within the roll of nori and rice. I also got a small roll at a restaurant with Japanese pickled plums and shiso leaves called umeshiso maki sushi. extremely delicious! As for making smart choices, I stay away from tempura, no matter how delicious it is, and limit the soy sauce or use a low sodium variety. - 6/22/2014 1:15:08 PM
    This article is helpful but a bit alarmist - there is no way that one piece of sashimi is 70 calories. The amount of calories is determined by the fat content of the fish. Therefore for a typical piece of yellowtail tuna sashimi that weighs 1 ounce we are looking at 40 calories according to your own Spark people table. I also don't believe the fish is seasoned by the chef - just the sushi rice. - 4/12/2014 3:30:46 PM
  • I don't eat sushi often, but I do enjoy it. I was curious about how much fish was in each piece of sushi, so I weighed a few different pieces - each piece was around .6 to .8 ounce. As far as soy sauce is concerned, I use the reduced sodium sauce. Traditionally, very little soy sauce should be on each piece of sushi. The traditional way is to take the sushi/rice piece, turn it FISH side down, and lightly run the fish over the soy sauce, then eat it fish side down. Sushi is not meant to be dunked in the soy sauce.
    But this is just the traditional way. Far be it for me to tell people how to eat and enjoy sushi. - 3/30/2014 7:57:50 PM
  • Sushi isn't equal to raw fish. Raw fish is called sashimi and is not the same as sushi. Sushi indicates foods that use rice seasoned with rice vinegar. This is a common misconception but sushi can in fact have many other ingredients wrapped around the vinegar seasoned rice. - 3/30/2014 2:53:47 PM
    Oh dear - SparkPeople are trying to ruin Sushi for me. I love Sushi! And I don't eat it often - so sorry - I am going to have to give this a pass. :-) I got some good points though: no tempura, less soy sauce. - 3/30/2014 12:53:04 PM

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