You’ll have a hard time finding a more controversial fish than the tilapia. Once hailed as one of the healthiest, tastiest and least expensive fish, the fish has been criticized for unhealthy claims and scrutinized for its sustainability (absence) and adverse effects on the environment.
A 2008 study on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in fish found that tilapia had a much higher inflammatory rate in omega-6 fatty acids. Researchers noted that the inflammatory effects of tilapia were worse than those of bacon and hamburgers. While this comment was not intended to address the general health of tilapia, it sparked a media backlash that tilapia was harmful to health.
There are also concerns about how tilapia is grown, contamination, and impacts on the environment. But whatever the media has said about tilapia in the past, here’s everything you need to know about the nutrition, health benefits, and risks of this mild-tasting whitefish.
Tilapia is a mild-tasting white fish that includes several different species. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked tilapia contains:
- Calories: 127
- Protein: 26 g
- Carbs: 0 g
- Total Fat: 2.6 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.9 g
- Selenium: 99% daily value (DV)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin): 29% Daily Value
- Vitamin D: 18% DV
Tilapia is a great source of protein, low in fat and high in important nutrients like vitamin D, selenium and vitamin B3. Eating this whitefish is a great way to meet the two servings per week goal of fish, according to the 2020-2025 American Dietary Guidelines.
Although tilapia doesn’t contain as many omega-3 fatty acids as salmon, you can get about 15% of your daily value from a 3.5-ounce serving. Eating tilapia can help you get your omega-3s without the strong “fishy” taste of salmon if you don’t like it.
Omega-6 fatty acids are notorious for causing inflammation, as some of them can convert to arachidonic acid in the body, leading to inflammation that promotes heart disease. However, not all omega-6 fatty acids cause inflammation. In fact, omega-6 fatty acids can help calm inflammation, prevent blood clots from forming, and lower triglycerides in the blood.
Tilapia safety and sustainability
Tilapia has for years brought to mind dirty water farms brimming with sick fish. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, this may only apply to fish farmed from China. Overcrowded environments and polluted water are breeding grounds for disease, and there has been controversy over the illegal use of antibiotics on tilapia farms in China in the past.
Seafood Watch also recommends purchasing tilapias grown in canals in Peru and ponds in Ecuador and approved by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Best Practices or Naturland.
Should you eat tilapia?
Tilapia can be a healthy part of your diet, especially if eating stronger-tasting seafood isn’t all that appetizing. It is budget friendly, easy to prepare and highly nutritious. Make sure you get your tilapia from a reputable source to avoid potential contaminants.
Kelsey Lorencz, RDN
Kelsey Lorencz is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, nutrition consultant, and sustainable food blogger. Read more about Kelsey