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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Not all sushi stacks up as healthy fare

By Charles Stuart Platkin

The typical California roll has 266 calories, 8.5 grams of fat and 36 grams of carbs. Check out a few lower-calorie, healthier sushi options.

Gannett News Service

I was out with some friends last weekend and amazed to find that many people at our table thought sushi was basically calorie-free. Sure, research has found that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids (abundant in fish) can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and even ease arthritis pain. But while traditional, raw-fish sushi is nutritionally impressive, it's a mistake to think it's a dietary bargain.

For the record, sushi does not mean raw fish. It refers to vinegared rice dishes that traditionally include fish (often raw) and/or vegetables, wrapped in seaweed. The basic ingredients make sushi healthy and light, but not when you take American eating habits into account.

Fortunately, most sushi restaurants don't serve very large portions. The bad news is that we are a nation of "super-sizers," so we compensate by over-ordering. I don't know about you, but a single spider roll just doesn't cut it for me. Add a Philadelphia roll and a taste of my friend's eel-and-avocado roll, plus the vegetable tempura appetizer, a few dumplings, the miso soup, two or three glasses of sake, and of course, fried ice cream: Now I'm on my way to getting into shape — the shape of a sumo wrestler, that is.

To make matters worse, the trend in sushi is away from traditional, healthier rolls and dishes to more "interesting" choices that meet the demand for innovative treats. This generally means adding more good-tasting, bad-for-you ingredients at the expense of healthful ones.

"These less-traditional rolls contain some amazing flavors and new ideas, although that doesn't necessarily mean fish or other standard ingredients are involved," said Takanori Wada, executive chef at Sushi Samba, a high-end chain. "Some of our most popular rolls contain ingredients such as smoked duck, braised short rib, and even fried onion and mozzarella cheese."

A smoked-duck sushi roll could contain 350 calories and 12 grams of fat, and most folks wouldn't be satisfied with one roll. (Leave it to us to take a relatively healthy cuisine and turn it into a delicious high-calorie, high-fat food!)

Here are tips to keep sushi healthy:

Watch what you eat. Steer clear of fried or battered foods, such as dumplings, tempura and spider rolls. There's no sense in making fish unhealthy. When ordering at a Japanese restaurant, look for broiled, grilled or steamed items. Typically, soup and sashimi are low in calories.

Avoid new-wave sushi. Be especially careful when it comes to rolls with duck, cheese or other high-fat ingredients. Also stay away from eel, which is high in calories and fat.

Keep sodium down. Use less soy sauce or request the low-sodium kind. Also note that miso is quite high in sodium.

Limit the extras. Mayonnaise, cream cheese and even a creamy Japanese dressing on the green salad can add significant calories to what you're eating.

Avoid the feeding frenzy. Yes, there are many good sushi choices, but try to stick to one or two lower-calorie rolls. Order steamed veggies, hijiki (cooked seaweed) or oshitashi (boiled spinach with soy sauce) to fill you up.

Keep your food safe. Any raw fish or shellfish can contain parasites, their eggs and other disease-causing microorganisms. Moreover, fish accumulate mercury, which at high enough levels can damage the nervous system.

Large deep-sea species such as tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and shark are particularly susceptible to mercury contamination. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration cautions pregnant and nursing women, women of childbearing age, and small children to avoid these types of fish.

Check www.cfsan.fda.gov for regular updates.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist.