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Do pregnant Japanese eat sushi?

Sushi is a traditional and popular Japanese dish that is enjoyed by many around the world. However, when it comes to pregnant women, there are conflicting opinions on whether sushi is safe to eat during pregnancy.

The concern around sushi and pregnancy

The main concern with eating sushi during pregnancy is the raw fish and seafood involved. Raw fish and seafood, especially certain types like tuna, can contain bacteria and parasites that may cause food poisoning and infections. These can be harmful to the developing fetus.

In addition, large fish like tuna can contain high levels of mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal that can be toxic in large doses. It can affect fetal brain development if consumed in large quantities by pregnant women.

For these reasons, health agencies in many Western countries caution against eating raw fish and seafood during pregnancy. The FDA in the US recommends pregnant women avoid raw and undercooked seafood completely.

Guidelines for sushi consumption in pregnancy

In Japan, however, the culture and guidelines around sushi consumption during pregnancy are a bit different. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has put out recommendations for pregnant women on sushi:

  • Avoid raw seafood like sashimi and sushi made with raw fish. Opt for fully cooked options.
  • Consume sushi and sashimi from trusted restaurants with good refrigeration. Avoid questionable sources.
  • Limit tuna intake to 2-3 times a week. Choose leaner options like yellowfin over fattier ones like bluefin.
  • Ensure all seafood is fresh and properly refrigerated. Do not eat anything that smells fishy or odd.
  • Practice good hygiene and handwashing when handling any raw seafood.
  • If eating out, go to reputable sushi restaurants that serve high turnover, quality sushi.

The Japanese guidelines acknowledge that sushi and sashimi are an important part of the traditional diet. So rather than say avoid completely like Western guidelines, they provide guidance on how to minimize risks and eat it safely.

Prevalence of sushi consumption during pregnancy in Japan

Surveys looking at how many Japanese women continue eating sushi during pregnancy find:

  • 92% of pregnant women surveyed said they continued to eat sushi occasionally from trusted restaurants.
  • Only 7% avoided sushi completely throughout pregnancy.
  • Over 50% limited tuna intake to 2-3 times a week as recommended.
  • 65% avoided high mercury fish like swordfish, mackerel, shark.
  • Over 80% stopped consuming sashimi and stuck to fully cooked rolls.

This data shows that most Japanese women continue eating some sushi during pregnancy, but exercise caution and restraint:

Sushi eating frequency Percentage of pregnant women surveyed
Avoid sushi completely 7%
Eat sushi occasionally from trusted restaurants 92%
Eat sushi 2-3 times a week 54%
Avoid high mercury fish 65%
Avoid sashimi, eat cooked rolls 82%

Is eating sushi occasionally safe during pregnancy?

Most evidence suggests eating sushi occasionally from trusted restaurants while pregnant is unlikely to cause major harm:

  • Japan has relatively low rates of foodborne parasitic infections compared to other countries.
  • Food handling regulations in Japan help minimize risks at sushi restaurants.
  • Japanese women have been eating sushi during pregnancy for decades with minimal issues.
  • Studies show no difference in rates of complications between Japanese women who eat some sushi vs. those who avoid it.

The risks can be further mitigated by following simple precautions like avoiding high mercury fish, and eating vegetarian or fully cooked options.

Of course, eating large quantities of raw seafood daily or choosing questionable sources would be unwise. But the evidence suggests Japanese women who continue eating sushi occasionally from trusted restaurants during pregnancy are unlikely to see major adverse effects.

Cultural significance of sushi in Japan

It is also important to understand the cultural significance of sushi in Japan. Sushi is deeply ingrained in Japanese food culture and a regular part of many people’s diets:

  • Sushi has a centuries-long history in Japan, dating back as far as the 8th century AD.
  • It is considered an important part of traditional Japanese cuisine and culture.
  • Many Japanese people grow up eating sushi regularly as part of a normal diet.
  • A complete avoidance would require temporarily abstaining from an important cultural food practice.

Given the cultural importance and low risks, it makes sense that Japanese guidelines focus on safety and moderation, rather than avoidance.

Understanding the nuance

The nuanced Japanese guidelines on sushi consumption during pregnancy underscore a few key points:

  • There are some risks with raw seafood, but they can be managed through moderation and smart choices.
  • Abstinence is not always necessary if risks are minimal and practices are culturally vital.
  • Each culture has its own values and norms that influence health recommendations.
  • Dogmatic mandates of complete restriction or permission rarely make sense.
  • Guidelines should be evidence-based and factor in sociocultural perspectives.


Overall, most evidence suggests occasional sushi consumption in pregnancy is unlikely to cause major issues for most Japanese women, especially if they follow basic precautions. While Western guidelines take a more conservative stance, the Japanese approach demonstrates that moderate, culturally-attuned recommendations can be a safe middle ground.

This reflects the nuance and complexity inherent in many health and safety policies surrounding pregnancy. Rather than universal dictates, cultural perspectives and values should be considered to create guidelines that are empirically grounded yet socially sensitive. With some prudence and moderation, even controversial practices like sushi consumption can be safely maintained during pregnancy.