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Health & Food

Is Tilapia Healthy? (Confused Day Tuesday!)

You’ve probably noticed a couple of tilapia recipes on this blog in the past.  Perhaps you were surprised that a dietitian would choose to eat tilapia.  After all, there have been some not-so-great things in the news over the past couple of years about tilapia, mainly concerning the amount of omega-3 fatty acids it contains (or lacks).  But are any of the cases against tilapia really justified?  Maybe, but in my opinion, there isn’t a enough evidence to compel me to stop buying it and feeding it to my family.  Here are some pros and cons so you can make your own decision.

Cons

  • Many people don’t like the idea that almost all of the tilapia found in the US is farm-raised. This article from the New York Times, for example, paints a slightly disturbing picture of farm-raised tilapia and it’s effect on the environment.  However, I’d like to point out that best practices are taking place in the United States and Latin America. Look for tilapia from these places, according to the article.  Or, get to know your fish department and learn where your fish is coming from so you can better trust it’s origin.
  • If you are watching out for best practices when it comes to raising fish, you’ll want to read this article. As with most species of fish, you may be getting previously frozen fish that claims to be “fresh”.  This means whoever raised and shipped your fish may have added things for “freshness” about which you may not be happy to hear (or put in your body).  Make sure you are aware of where your fish is from, and read the sign to see if it was “previously frozen” (most seafood departments will have this on their point of sale signs).
  • Tilapia is not a significant source of omega-3, with only 135 mg per serving. Compare this to salmon, which contains closer to 1800-200 mg per serving.  That’s quite a difference.
  • Some people say that tilapia is a poor choice because of the “imbalance of omegas”, meaning the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is too high. If you believe this is a problem, avoid tilapia, but read the Pro section below to learn why this many not really be a “con” after all.

Pros

  • Worried about the mercury in tilapia?  You shouldn’t be, it’s one of varieties of fish with the lowest amount of mercury.  Check out appendix 11 in the USDA Dietary Guidelines to see more about mercury and omega-3 in your favorite fish variety.
  • “Why is it that when I was growing up I never heard of tilapia?”; this is what I hear from customers at work, quite often.  It’s a good question, I mean, even Ihadn’t really heard about tilapia until probably ten years ago.  The truth is, it’s been around for thousands and thousands of years, but it’s only become popular lately because it’s become a popular fish to farm. It’s become popular among consumers because many people will eat it because it’s not very fishy tasting.  It’s a mild tasting fish that many people enjoy, and that is very versatile.
  • While tilapia may be low in omega-3s (compared to other fish), it’s also very low in calories, fat, and saturated fat. Four ounces of raw tilapia contains only 120 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 1 grams saturated fat.  Compare that to some of your other favorite animal proteins and all of a sudden tilapia is looking pretty good!
  • Tilapia does have a higher omega-6 content, but why is that so bad? There is really no conclusive evidence that omega-6 is harmful, and in fact, there is much more evidence that it plays a positive role in our health. This section of the American Heart Association website provides a link to an article from Circulation (The AHA’s Journal).  The conclusions are posted below;

Want to choose a more sustainable tilapia?  Check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch guide online.  Here are the best types of tilapia to buy, according to them;

Buy tilapia from the US, which is farmed in a more sustainable manor, with less pollution.  For a good alternative, tilapia from places like Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras are good too.

The bottom line is that you need to get the facts before making a decision that is right for you, and your family.   Right now the evidence suggests that while it may not be the best choice for your “two servings of fish per week” (you’ll need to go elsewhere to get your omega-3s), it still fits into a healthy and balanced diet. And if you’re like me and you live with someone who really despises the taste of “fishy-fish”such as salmon, tilapia can be a nice compromise at the dinner table.  You may still not want to eat tilapia, and that’s fine too, but I hope I cleared up some questions either way.

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