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To sushi or not to sushi?

With the move towards raw, natural and unprocessed foods, more and more foodies, chefs and dieticians alike are asking questions around the who, where, what and why’s of the foods that we eat. As a dietician, I sometimes feel like a private investigator, constantly trawling websites and books for information on what the best is for my own health, but ultimately the health of our clients. Today, I would like to share a little around one of my personal favourites: sushi!

The story goes that sushi originated in South-East Asia around the 4th century B.C. Back then, it was more a method of preservation than a cuisine. The fish was placed in between salted rice, which acted as a type of preservative as fermented rice produces lactic acid, which slows the bacterial growth on fish. Catch was, they discarded the rice afterwards, and therefore only ate the fish.

Eventually, the Japanese caught onto this method of preservation, but they preferred to eat the rice with the fish, and realized that vinegar could also be used as a fish preservative. And so, modern day sushi was birthed. Various regions of Japan adapted the sushi to include vegetables and ingredients that were locally produced – something which is still done to this day.

In the 1820’s some wise guy realized fresh fish didn’t need to be preserved, and sushi went from a tedious, drawn out process to a type of “fast food” sold by vendors on the streets of Japan. It was only after an earthquake in Tokyo in 1923 that vendors were able to afford to buy property and move their endeavours indoors.

And so, finally, with the help of nature and globalisation, sushi moved into the Western world in the 1970’s, and has been increasing in popularity since.

So, the question remains: can sushi be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet?

I say yes, most definitely!

Although it is difficult to track the intake and calories, as all sushi differs, keep the following in mind:

  • Sashimi (salmon and tuna, raw) is probably the best form to have sushi in – lean protein high in healthy fats and vitamins
  • Try and steer clear of tempura, or anything deep fried for that matter
  • If you can’t eat with chopsticks, now is the time to learn – chopsticks slow us down!
  • Don’t leave the ginger on the side – the health benefits are endless
  • Wasabi has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory benefits
  • They use rice vinegar in the making of sushi – which is high in sugar. So be aware of this and eat moderate amounts
  • Sushi was never intended to be eaten American-style with mayonnaise and sweet chilli sauce, so where possible, leave these additions off
  • Brown rice is always a better alternative to white, and some restaurants will happily do the swop at no additional charge
  • Order sushi with vegetable fillings, or with cucumber instead of rice. This will help ensure that a sushi meal becomes a balanced one
  • Eat slowly, and stop every few minutes to allow your body to process the food and a feeling of fullness
  • Finally, if you’re pregnant and you’ve been reading this, the bad news is that raw fish is best left until after your pregnancy – there’s concern over parasitic infections harming your baby

And that’s the long and short of it!

What portion is recommended?

I normally recommend a maximum of 8 california rolls/5 fashion sandwiches – salmon or tuna, not crab or prawn (as they are higher fat meats), with an additional 3 pieces of sashimi or edemame beans or a vegertarian miso soup. This is my recommendation for a female client – so you men out there can eat slightly more. As I mentioned before – no mayonnaise, sweet chilli or deep fried batter allowed! Also try and limit sushi to one or twice a week. The rice vinegar does have lots of refined sugars in it – so everything in moderation.

Apart from enjoying this healthy food choice – always remember to keep the environment in mind. There are major concerns over blue-fish tuna, which is often used to make sushi, now becoming endangered. For this reason, the price has gone up tremendously, and some sushi restaurants are even starting to use different types of fish/meat/poultry instead. (Next, the SPCA will be involved). If you’re worried about sustainability, which we all should be, ensure that the sushi you order doesn’t include any fish from the SASSI orange or red list. For more information on this, visit www.wwfsassi.co.za.