Guest post – Denis Faye: “Sushi: The Ultimate Sports Supplement?”

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Denis Faye of Beachbody

Fitness guru Denis Faye of Beachbody

Sushi: The Ultimate Sports Supplement?

By Denis Faye

Everyone loves the idea of fitness, but actually doing it is a different story. It all sounds so wonderful until you realize you need to exercise every day and, even worse, cut all the good stuff out of our diet.

However, it’s not all that bad. In fact, some of the foods you consider indulgent can offer huge health benefits. (The exercising part is a whole other story. You’re on your own for that one.) One perfect example of this is sushi. If done right, it’s not just good for, it’s a great way to get the nutrients you need to propel that active lifestyle. Let’s take a closer look at everyone favorite Japanese culinary contribution.

But before I start, I need to throw down a few caveats. First off, I’m not talking about those Double-Rainbow-Spicy-Crab-Inside-Out-California-Detroit Rolls that many consider crucial to a visit to sushi bar. They’re usually loaded with sodium-rich or fatty sauces and the minute amount of fish within has usually been fried or mayonnaised into nutritional oblivion. I’m talking straight sushi or sashimi: a nice slice of raw fish (sorry, unagi lovers), maybe a little rice, or maybe a simple maki: fish and rice a little nori (seaweed) wrapped around it.

"Soy sauce is not a beverage." -- Chef Hajime Sato

Also, keep the soy sauce to a minimum. Exercise tends to drain the body of sodium, so the physically fit can get away with more salt intake, but there are still limits. Stick to low-sodium sauce and dip the fish part of the sushi instead of saturating the rice part. If the fish is good, you won’t want to drown out the flavor anyway!

Finally, moderation is key. When it comes to eating healthy, if you need to loosen your belt after a meal, no matter how nutrition it was, you blew it. But as long as you don’t get carried away, fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein you can get. The main reason for this is the super-healthy fat that comes with it.

While many people mistakenly avoid all fat when trying to eat right, the truth is, fat is a vital nutrient. It’s crucial that you have it in your diet. Most fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help brain function and act as an anti-inflammatory – a great asset when dealing with bodily stress induced by hard, physical training. Salmon and tuna are both high in omega-3s, as is mackerel, but as you know, the mackerel used in sushi tends to be cured in salt, driving up the sodium count.

As for mercury-in-seafood debate, unless you’re pregnant, nursing, or a small child, you generally don’t need to worry about it. For the rest of us, the omega-3 benefits are worth a little mercury. As long as you limit fish intake to 4 servings a week or so, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.

Renewable energy?

Now, onto the rice. Generally speaking, brown rice is healthier for you. It’s higher in fiber, which slows absorption into the blood stream. That’s a good thing, because absorbing too many carbs too fast can lead to blood sugar spikes, which, in turn, can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity. But there are a couple factors here that make white rice okay. First, while you don’t have the fiber to slow absorption, the fat and protein in the fish can serve the same function; so make sure your chef is generous with the fish. And, in the event that you do overdo the rice, here’s a neat thing about working out: After intense exercise, especially when it involves anaerobic (or weightlifting) activity, your blood sugar drops because you were using it as fuel. So, whereas that influx of carbs (white rice) into your system might be bad at other times, post-workout, it serves to top off your tank and rush other nutrients into your system faster. In the fitness world, we call that kind of timed nutrition a recovery meal.

Finally, seaweed is so good for you on so many levels. For the athlete, it’s packed with minerals, or electrolytes, which are often wicked out in training. It also has antioxidant properties, which strengthen the immune system – something else that can get compromised after intense workouts.

So work hard and eat right, but treat yourself to a sushi meal every now and again. It’s the right thing to do. Who knew eating right could be so much fun?

Starting out as “weight challenged,” Denis Faye dropped 50 pounds following a 5-year jaunt through Australia, a trip that helped him become the extreme fitness and sports enthusiast he is today. He’s been a professional journalist for 20 years, writing for Surfer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Outside, Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, GQ, Surfer, and Pacific Longboarder. His sports include swimming, scuba, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, and — most importantly — surfing. Denis writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular exercise videos including the well known P90x program.

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Apr 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm

This is an extremely interesting piece. I’m always curious about the ins-and-outs of seafood when it comes to human health and nutrition, and I’m certain that you know vastly more than I do when it comes to those issues. That said, I’d like to push back on a few points that you’ve made.

You mention that salmon and tuna are high in omega-3s, but it’s critical to acknowledge that this only partially true. Wild salmon tends to be high in omega-3s, but farmed salmon is actually deceptively high in omega-6s. According to the USDA nutritional database, wild coho salmon has about 6 grams of fat per serving, 27% of which is omega-3s. Farmed Atlantic salmon, however, has about 11 grams of fat per serving, 17% of which is omega-3s – clearly an inferior choice.

Similarly, I need to stress the need for further clarification in your comment about tuna. You mention that the level of omega-3s in tuna makes up for the mercury content (excepting for pregnant women, children, etc.), but again, it is absolutely vital that one distinguishes between various species of tuna. Not only are certain populations of tuna extremely depleted, but the numerous species of tuna found at a sushi bar have vastly different life histories and thus accumulate mercury quite differently. While you’re probably right when it comes to smaller tuna like skipjack and albacore, larger and longer-lived tuna – like bluefin and bigeye – can be mercury magnets.

To illustrate this, consider the EPA’s mercury testing database. They suggest that an adult can consume about eight three-ounce servings of albacore tuna a month without significant mercury concerns. For bluefin, however, the suggested number of three-ounce monthly servings drops to 0.6. That means that there’s a fifteen-fold difference between the two when it comes to mercury. To exacerbate things even further, albacore tuna is generally higher in omega-3s than bluefin. With such a massive and potentially dangerous differential, it becomes critical to clarify species when it comes to tuna.

My final point: in my view, four servings of fish a week is simply too much, especially since the fish you’ve pinpointed are all relatively high on the food chain. Certainly we want people to be healthy and to have access to clean and nutritious food – there’s no denying that the prevalence of unhealthy food is a tremendous problem in our society – but four servings of fish a week is equivalent to someone eating a seafood dinner on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, every week, all year long. We are not at a point where the world’s population can consume seafood at that rate. Our oceans are in a desperate state, with 70% of the world’s fish stocks either fully exploited or already collapsing. I realize sushi can be a great option for those wanting a efficient source of healthy protein, but if we don’t make the resuscitation of our seafood stocks a priority now, none of this will matter in a decade or two… the oceans will be ransacked, and sushi will be a memory.

Denis Faye
Apr 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Casson –

You bring up some great points. I’ll try my best to address them, but I would like to point out two overall things. First, I was writing for brevity, so some facts needed to be omitted. It’s always a tricky thing, deciding what to keep and what to cut. Second, I was writing from a nutritional standpoint, not an environmental one. I wrote this assuming many of the things you pointed out would be covered elsewhere in this wonderfully comprehensive site.

To address your points individually, regarding the omega-3s, you are correct about farmed v. wild. Wild caught salmon, particularly from Alaska, is a vastly superior fish. I should have mentioned that. However, speaking in terms of omega-3s, I don’t think it’s an issue. By your math, 27% of 6 grams of fat is 1.62 grams of omega-3 in the wild coho. In the farmed Atlantic, 17% of 11 grams is 1.87 grams of omega-3s. Technically, the farmed salmon has more omega-3s.

However, there’s plenty of fat in the American diet, so it’s almost always healthier to lean towards leaner proteins, so your point is taken!

As for mercury in tuna, again valid point. I should have been more specific. However, before I comment too much, could you please provide a link to where you got those dietary limit numbers? I have found similar numbers here:

- but they apply to children and nursing or pregnant women or women seeking to become pregnant, not all adults.

And, again, that being said, I agree with you about the overfishing thing. Good point. However I am curious: Are you advocating that the rest of dietary protein come from vegetable sources, or the land-based meat industry? If you’re suggesting the cattle, poultry, or pork industries are in any way more sustainable or ethical than the fishing industry, then no, I don’t agree at all.

Apr 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Hi Denis,

Thanks for the clarification and the questions!

I’ll just bullet-point my responses, for the sake of brevity:

1) Regarding omega-3s: Your math is accurate. But if that’s the road we’re going down, we should take it to the next step and get a more comprehensive picture.

If we’re getting 6 grams of fat per serving from wild salmon and 11 grams of fat from farmed salmon, that means farmed salmon is roughly twice as high in fat as wild. Since the edible portion of a salmon is almost entirely fat and protein, one can then conclude that all this extra fat is taking the place of what would have been protein in a wild salmon… and that 89% of this fat is omega-6s. So even though one may get more omega-3s ounce-per-ounce, the diner is paying a heavy price in nutritional opportunity cost through lost protein and excess omega-6 fatty acids.

To take this further (and this is more environment- than health-oriented), one can then surmise that due to its high fat content, the very act of salmon farming creates a lower-protein fish than wild product, and thus the wild fish protein (sardines, anchovies, etc) that are used to make feed pellets for salmon are being utilized in an even less efficient way than we had originally considered.

2) Regarding tuna: I realize the complexities of this issue make succinct communication challenging. This is one of the reasons that I tend to err on the side of caution and say things like “small is better” when it comes to tuna. Not always accurate, certainly, but more often than not it works.

The powers that be make government testing results on mercury in seafood extremely difficult to find (surprise, surprise.) The best way that I’ve found to access this info is to go through Environmental Defense — they have been doing an excellent job of compiling this data over the last seven years. The test results and recommendations are at, and the methodology used to generate them is at — that’s by far the best source I’ve found.

It’s also important to note that there are two different government agencies involved in mercury testing — the EPA and the FDA. They do not agree.

3) Regarding overfishing and dietary protein: Yeah, you’ve got a good point here. I don’t have a magic bullet answer. I’m certainly not saying “save the oceans, eat more beef” or anything like that. I don’t know enough about terrestrial agriculture to be able to make an argument one way or the other on replacing fish with a particular meat product but I can’t imagine that it’s a better option environmentally to substitute feed-lot cows for fish.

I do believe that we as a society need to eat more plants. It seems to me that there are a lot of ways that we could insert more vegetables into our diets to improve both our own health and that of our planet. You probably know a lot more about this than I do and I would really appreciate your thoughts here.



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