Is ramen unhealthy? Coming from someone who's eaten thousands of bowls, the answer may surprise you. Sodium amount, calories - we're covering it all!
I (Frank from 5 AM Ramen) literally grew up on ramen and proudly eat it for a living. Therefore you will find a little ramen bias here.
However, I can also provide some insight that only a regular ramen eater could. I'll even talk about ramen's effect on my personal health.
Without further ado, let's dive in!
Is Ramen Unhealthy? Calorie Count
Most ramen from restaurants in Japan are about 450 - 600 calories. This is when you drink all the soup. If you're not drinking all the soup, the total is around 400 - 550 calories (shaving off 50+ calories).
But ramen is extremely diverse. No bowl is the same. The below three ramen styles and their differing calorie count illustrate this.
1. Shio (Salt-Seasoned) Ramen - Lighter
Soup: 150 Calories
Noodles: 225 Calories
Toppings: 75 Calories
TOTAL: 450 Calories
2. Miso Ramen - Heavier
Soup: 200 Calories
Noodles: 280 Calories
Toppings: 100 Calories
TOTAL: 580 Calories
3. Jiro Style Ramen - Even Heavier
Soup: 800 calories
Noodles: 600 calories
Toppings: 200 calories
TOTAL: 1,600+ Calories*
* some Jiro bowls go well past 2,000 calories
In summary, depending on the ramen style, calories can vary a great deal. In terms of soup, light and clear soups (e.g. shio) are not as calorific as murky, fatty soups (e.g. miso or tonkotsu).
A cloudy pork bone soup will naturally have more calories than a transparent chicken bone and vegetable based one. Excluding the third example above, most of the calories in ramen actually come from the noodles!
It's all in the Noodles
A regular portion of ramen noodles in Japan is around 130-180 grams. But it does depend. The noodles in tsukemen (dipping ramen), for example, usually start at 250 grams. But on average, we're still looking at 130-180 grams.
But this weight is BEFORE the noodles are boiled. After you boil 130 grams of fresh noodles, they balloon to about 203 grams. What I'm trying to say is that the noodles in ramen are the heftiest part of the meal.
Furthermore, what makes ramen noodles so calorific is their sugar content. For every 100 grams of boiled noodles there's roughly 27 grams of carbs. This translates to 9 cubes of sugar (each 3 grams) for every 100 grams of noodles.
In other words, this is 20+ cubes of sugar coming from just the noodles every time you eat ramen. Note: pasta noodles have more calories (and sugar) than ramen noodles.
Furthermore, pasta or ramen noodles don't have much nutritional value. In this sense, they're the most dangerous element in ramen. But what about sodium in ramen soup? We're also going to talk about my yearly health checkup at the very end!
The Evils of Sodium?
In Western countries (especially in the US), people tend to focus on the sodium content in food. Since I eat ramen every day, people often ask, "aren't you worried your sodium levels"? In short, I'm not.
Japanese food is quite salty - this includes ramen. Yet Japanese don't talk about salt content in the same cautionary way they do in the West. This is the same when it comes to MSG. Despite this lack of concern surrounding sodium, Japanese are among the healthiest people in the world.
In Korea, it's a similar story. Kimchi, psangem, you name it...a lot of Korean foods are high in sodium. Yet Koreans have a long life expectancy. The point is that sodium isn't as evil as its made out to be. Sugar (via ramen noodles) takes the crown in terms of heart disease risk and other issues.
In the same regard, there are many foods that have a ton of sodium in them that are unhealthier than ramen. This includes burritos and pizza, for example.
With this in mind, the sodium in ramen soup is the least of my concerns.
Is Ramen Greasy Fast Food? Not in Japan
A burger is approximately 375 calories or more. But if you toss French fries into the mix, you're adding another 325 calories. This said, a burger meal at a fast food restaurant puts you in 700 calorie territory.
The great thing about proper ramen is that it's a full meal. You don't need sides. In addition, there are again worse things you could be putting into your body than ramen.
But ramen is sometimes considered part of the "greasy fast food" category outside of Japan.
This is because:
1) Heavier, higher calorie styles like Tonkotsu Ramen and Spicy Miso Ramen dominate overseas menus (these flavors are easy to understand)
2) Restaurant marketing in other countries pushes the idea that you should order fried dumplings or some side with your ramen (it's a dining experience)
In Japan, it's a different story. Lighter ramen styles are most common. Moreover, fried rice or fried dumplings are sometimes available as sides...but ramen shops aren't pushing combo meals as aggressively. They don't need to. Ramen shops in Japan are smaller and have less overhead costs.
Again, ramen by itself should be a full meal. While there are some heavy styles in Japan, lighter styles are most dominant. Take someone like me - I'd be in a lot more trouble if I ate burgers every day...
Any Nutritional Value in Ramen?
This ties into the calorie discussion earlier. First off, ramen soup can be nutritious. Many ramen shops don't just use chicken and pork bones. They often incorporate a lot of vegetables too. So ramen soup can have fiber, vitamin K1, vitamin C, vitamin B6, etc.
We already talked about noodles. There's unfortunately not much nutrition there.
When it comes to toppings, pork slices and/or egg are normally the source of protein. Pork is often the fattier side and is therefore something to watch out for.
Bamboo shoots (menma) and spring onions (negi) usually make up the vegetable toppings. They're good for you! Spring onions have a ton of Vitamin C and Calcium. Bamboo shoots have little calories but have a lot of fiber.
While ramen isn't a plate of vegetables, there are some styles that feature a lot of vegetable toppings. In conclusion, ramen soup and toppings do have plenty of nutritional value.
Lastly, My Personal Health
I do a health checkup every single year. Last year I ate about 500 bowls (more than normal). I still passed my health checkup with flying colors.
I'm not encouraging anyone to eat as much ramen as I do. I'm just stating that ramen isn't the devil that it's sometimes made out to be.
Also, I've found that doing these things have helped me a lot:
Occasional breaks from meals - if I eat 8 bowls of ramen over two days, I might eat only a salad the following day
Staying super active - I walk and bike everywhere
Not drinking all the soup in ramen and drinking a lot of water
Not drinking soda often (I get plenty of sugar already from ramen noodles)
These things are not exactly revolutionary. But they work. I'm not some freak of nature who can eat anything without consequences.
Like many people, my weight has fluctuated over the years. When I used to work in finance I basically didn't move all day. I was HUGE. I would exercise but nothing would seem to come off. But I definitely wasn't heeding the above things. Balance is everything - especially knowing how much sugar is in ramen noodles!
To sum it all up, there are certain types of ramen that aren't the best for you. But looking at calories and nutritional value, there are definitely much worse foods out there. I'm living proof that regular ramen eating is doable with a balanced lifestyle. Just ask my doctor!