If light, simply prepared food is what you’re after, look no further than Japanese cuisine, where a variety of thin slabs of raw fish (sashimi) topped with wasabi and pickled ginger can make a meal. Add in heart-healthy avocado, fiber-rich brown rice, and antioxidant-rich green tea and it sounds like you can’t go wrong with a sushi lunch. However, it is also possible to end up eating salt- and oil-laden dishes that can make a triple bacon cheeseburger seem benign.
Sushi has soared in popularity in the United States. The very first sushi restaurants appeared in the 1960s; now, there are about 4,000. But this popularity has also resulted in the “Americanization” of Japanese food, which translates to “monster” sushi rolls and less-than-healthy ingredients (think Philly Cheesesteak sushi rolls).
Here's what to order—and what to skip—to maximize the healthfulness of your next Japanese dining experience. Hint: look beyond the sushi roll menu.
Five worst Japanese dishes:
1. Miso soup: Miso soup sounds quite benign: broth, tofu, seaweed, and, sometimes, a handful of vegetables. However, miso soup is a sodium bomb: A single cup contains 700 to 900 milligrams of sodium, or one-third to one-half the amount you should have in a day. Considering that most Japanese entrées are cooked in or accompanied by soy sauce, which is also high in sodium, it's best to skip this one.
2. Spicy rolls: The sauce that comes on spicy sushi rolls is almost always mayonnaise-based, so the calories add up quickly. If that spicy tuna or spicy salmon roll is a must, order one and split it with a dinner companion.
3. Tempura: Although tempura batter is a much lighter batter than what you get with, say, fried chicken, it's nevertheless deep fried flour. And, yes, this is still a “worst” pick even if you opt for tempura vegetables.
4. Udon: Like miso soup, udon contributes significant amounts of sodium to your day. (The broth is made from soy sauce.) Additionally, this soup contains udon noodles, which are made from refined flour and less healthful than some other Asian noodles. (An exception is if the restaurant uses whole-grain udon noodles; ask your server.)
5. Hibachi: In theory, cooking vegetables and fish on a hot flat grill sounds like a gold-star nutrition choice. However, chefs often go overboard with the oil and sauces, easily turning a habachi-style meal into a 1,000+-calorie affair.
Five best Japanese dishes:
1. Edamame: One of the healthiest appetizers offered in any cuisine, these baby soybeans start you off with a nice hit of filling fiber and protein. But watch out for offerings that stir-fry the edamame in copious amounts of oil, such as garlic ginger edamame.
2. Sashimi: Whereas sushi rolls can include mayonnaise, cream cheese, and sugary sauces, sashimi simply consists of plain, thin-sliced pieces of fish.
3. Shishito peppers: Part of the fun of eating shishito peppers is that you never know which ones deliver a super spicy kick. As a bonus, shishito peppers deliver many nutrients in a low-calorie package.
4. Hiyayakko: This cold and refreshing appetizer pairs chilled tofu with toppings like daikon, grated ginger, or mustard.
5. Spinach ohitashi: Leafy greens are scarce at most Japanese restaurants, but this blanched spinach salad saves the day. A nice plus: spinach is a great source of vitamin K, which is crucial for healthy bones.