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Is Sushi Really as Healthy as Its Reputation Suggests?

Q: It often gets touted as a health food, but is sushi really healthy?

A: This is one of those questions everyone thinks they know the answer to and then, after a belly full of tempura green beans and Alaska rolls, asks me (over and over). Is sushi really healthy?

The short answer is yes, but there are many “buts” and “ifs” to qualify that answer.

The good: It’s generally a low-calorie meal compared to standard Western diet dinners, and the main components are all nutritious foods. Fish is a good source of lean protein and omega-3s, AKA the healthy fats I love. Many rolls contain veggies like cucumbers, carrots, and avocado (okay, I know, it’s a fruit, but it adds even more healthy fat!), and seaweed, especially nori, is packed with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B, C, E, and K and calcium and iron.

RELATED: 3 Overlooked Nutrients to Add to Your Diet Now

Those components come with a few caveats, though, and there are many places on the menu where the idea of a totally healthy meal can start to smell a little fishy.

Here are three important things to keep in mind for the healthiest sushi dinner.

My Sushi Rules

1. Keep Mercury in Mind.

If you’re eating sushi once in a blue moon this won’t be an issue, but if you’re eating it regularly, you should try to choose fish that are lower in mercury, like shrimp, scallops, eel, and salmon and avoid or go lite on those that are highest, like tuna. (I know, tuna rolls are the best! You don’t have to give them up, just aim for variety.) The NRDC has a handy list, here, of which fish in sushi has the highest and lowest levels.

sushi really healthy

2. Know Your Sushi Spot.

There are plenty of foods you can buy without worrying about microbes and bacteria, but this is raw fish, people. Make sure you’re getting your sushi from a spot that has stated standards for sourcing their fish and keeping it fresh and has high marks from the health department. (Note: The USDA dietary guidelines still advise that you avoid sushi entirely when you’re pregnant and only eat cooked fish, because of the risk of infection and mercury contamination.)

RELATED: 9 Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

3. Order Smart.

Many American-style sushi rolls add mayo-based sauces and fried veggies or fish (or come overloaded with rice and in massive, overstuffed sizes).

Skip anything fried, which is often referred to as tempura or “crunchy.” Avoid Spicy Tuna rolls, since the “spicy” sauce is filled with mayo, Philadelphia Rolls, which are packed with cream cheese, and any super-sized options.

Eat rolls that are made with just plain fish and veggies, and ask for brown rice if the place offers it. Better yet, order just a couple of rolls, and then fill the rest of your plate with sashimi, which is just the plain fish. You’ll still get plenty of flavor, especially since you should pile on the wasabi and ginger. Both are filled with antioxidants.

Finally, supplement with other super healthy Japanese foods, like edamame, miso soup (which is great for your gut health), seaweed salad, and other salads with ginger dressing, so you don’t end up going overboard on the rolls.

Now, all you’ve got to do is work on those chopstick skills.