Let’s Talk About Tilapia

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According to Seafood Health Facts, the top four seafood choices are tuna, salmon, Alaskan pollock and tilapia. You may be surprised that tilapia is so popular, but its mild flavor and inexpensive cost make it a favorite among consumers. In fact, since 2006 Americans have consumed over 1 pound of tilapia per person each year.

Why consume more seafood?

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, average seafood intake remains below the recommended minimum 8 ounces per week. Seafood contains vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. The Dietary Guidelines recommend 250 mg omega-3 fatty acids per day for overall health (including an important role in brain function as well as reducing inflammation that may lead to chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis). The American Heart Association recommends eating fish — particularly fatty fish — at least two times each week.

Is it safe to eat farmed seafood such as tilapia?

According to 2014 data, six of the top ten seafood products preferred by consumers are farm-raised. Farm-raised shrimp, salmon, and tilapia make up more than half of all the seafood consumed in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration requires the same food safety standards for both wild caught and farm-raised seafood.

Why do some headlines state that tilapia is worse for health than bacon?

A 2008 study showed that tilapia not only has lower amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other types of seafood, it also contains more omega-6 fatty acids, specifically arachidonic acid, than most other types of food, including bacon.

While some types of omega-6 fatty acids are required for good health, playing a crucial role in brain function, skin and hair growth, bone health, normal growth and development and a healthy reproductive system; the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our food choices is key in overall good health.

Historically it’s believed that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids was 1:1. Currently, the American diet contains 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, primarily because we consume more processed foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower and safflower oils. There is much discussion around the optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, with no clear guidelines except to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids we consume.

Further, the study reported that a 3.5 ounce portion of farmed tilapia contains 134mg of arachidonic acid while a 3.5 ounce portion of pork bacon contains 191mg of arachidonic acid. While the science is clear that increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids we consume can promote good health, currently there isn’t a consensus about a healthy amount of arachidonic acid in our food choices.

Is tilapia a good seafood choice?

The primary reason for the recommendation to consume at least two seafood meals per week lies in the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish. Since tilapia has low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, it makes more sense to choose salmon, mackerel, or tuna instead of tilapia. However, tilapia is a good source of protein, niacin, B12, phosphorus, and selenium and can easily fit into our overall weekly food choices. Choose plain, unbreaded tilapia fillets for the most nutritional value.

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Herring, Atlantic salmon (both farmed and wild), wild Pacific mackerel, and Jack mackerel all have at least 1500 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce portion.
  • Canned salmon and bluefin tuna have between 1000 and 1500 mg of omega-3s in the same serving size.
  • Tilapia, cod, haddock, and catfish, on the other hand, all have less than 200 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce portion of fish.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC


  1. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/#callout-seafood   Accessed 9-10-17
  2. University of Maryland Medical Center. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids last reviewed 8-5-2015. Accessed 9-12-17.
  3. Seafood Health Facts. Making Smart Choices. http://www.seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood-nutrition/healthcare-professionals/omega-3-content-frequently-consumed-seafood-products   Accessed 9-10-17
  4. Self Nutrition Data. Tilapia. http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/finfish-and-shellfish-products/9244/2  Accessed 9-11-17
  5. University of Maryland Medical Center. Omega-6 Fatty Acids. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical-reference-guide/complementary-and-alternative-medicine-guide/supplement/omega6-fatty-acids last reviewed 8-5-2015. Accessed 9-12-17.
  6. Weaver, Kelly L. et al. The Content of Favorable and Unfavorable Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Found in Commonly Eaten Fish. JADA, 108 , Issue 7 , 1178 – 1185
  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Aquacultured Seafood. https://www.fda.gov/Food/PopularTopics/ucm518782.htm  last updated 8-15-2017. Accessed 9-12-17

Printable Handout: Tilapia Handout

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