Is Tilapia Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

This mild-flavored white fish offers some impressive health benefits.

Salmon and tuna may get all the love, but don't forget about tilapia. The mild-tasting white fish is consistently left out of the conversation, and it shouldn't be. A recent market report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicated that tilapia is the fourth most commonly eaten fish variety in the U.S.

Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Garlic Grilled Tilapia Recipe

So, what does tilapia offer in terms of nutrition? If you are looking for other fish varieties to add to your meals, read on to learn more about tilapia and its potential health benefits.

Lemon-Garlic Grilled Tilapia
Photographer / Jennifer Causey, Food Stylist / Karen Rankin, Prop Stylist / Christine Keely

What is tilapia?

Tilapia is a white fish native to the Middle East and Africa. The majority of the tilapia consumed globally is commercially farmed—grown in controlled environments rather than caught in the wild. In the U.S., most of the tilapia available is imported from Asia and Latin America, with a small percentage being harvested domestically. You may be more likely to find locally grown tilapia in specialty grocers, farmers' markets and restaurants, depending on where you live and shop.

Farm-raised tilapia can thrive in saltwater or freshwater, with both offering similar mild flavor profiles. Wild tilapia, on the other hand, may have a muddier taste.

Tilapia Nutrition

One serving (3.9 ounces uncooked, which is about 3 ounces cooked) of tilapia provides:

  • 116 calories
  • 0 g carbohydrate
  • 23 g protein
  • 2 g total fat
  • 60 mg sodium (3% Daily Value)
  • 197 mg phosphorus (28% DV)
  • 350 mg potassium (10% DV)
  • 49 mcg selenium (88% DV)
  • 28 mcg folate (7% DV)
  • 144 IU vitamin D (24% DV)

What are the health benefits of tilapia?

Tilapia, in its natural form, is a low-calorie and low-sodium fish that offers several health benefits, including being a great source of several important nutrients. Here are five benefits worth noting.

1. It has 23 grams of protein per serving

One serving of about 4 ounces of tilapia (that yields about 3 ounces when cooked) provides 23 grams of protein, making it an excellent lean protein choice. Protein is an essential nutrient for the growth, development and repair of body cells. It is also crucial for building hormones and enzymes that help ensure the body functions properly.

2. It's a great source of selenium

Selenium may not be a nutrient that's on your radar, but you can find an abundant amount of it in tilapia. One serving of tilapia has 88% of your daily recommended selenium intake. This essential mineral supports the thyroid and helps make hormones for growth, development and metabolism. Selenium is also an antioxidant that protects body cells against cell damage and may help support your immune system.

3. It has more than 25% of your daily phosphorus needs

Eating one serving of tilapia provides 28% of your daily recommended intake of phosphorus, an essential mineral found mainly in bones and teeth that works with calcium to support their health. Phosphorus also plays additional roles in the body, including maintaining the acid-base balance in our blood, using and storing energy and making cells.

4. It's an excellent source of vitamin D

What makes tilapia stand out from other types of seafood is its content of vitamin D, which can be hard to find in foods. Vitamin D-containing foods like tilapia can help you meet your nutritional needs to support your immune system, nerves and muscles. Additionally, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium to build and maintain healthy bones and teeth.

5. It's a good source of potassium

Finally, tilapia is a good source of the nutrient potassium, which is also found in many fruits and vegetables. Like phosphorus and vitamin D, potassium supports the bones, nerves and muscles. It also works with sodium to maintain fluid balance in the body.

Is farm-raised tilapia safe to eat?

Tilapia may be one of the most commonly consumed fish in the country, but it is notorious for being raised in polluted and overcrowded environments. Its reputation might drive some consumers to choose other fish varieties with similar health benefits.

With more people becoming concerned about the environment and the food ecosystem in recent years, fish farming practices (and their sustainability) is becoming more widely talked about. People want to know where their foods come from, and tilapia is no exception. Programs like Seafood Watch compile information to help make it easier to understand the origin of the fish you choose and how it is raised.

To help ensure that you are purchasing tilapia from a sustainable source, you can also look for the Ocean Wise symbol placed on the menu item in restaurants, on the price tag at the fish counter and on the packaging for frozen varieties.

Tilapia that is farmed and raised in proper conditions and adhering to the farming guidelines is safe to eat, as long as it is also stored and handled properly and thoroughly cooked.

Is salmon or tilapia healthier?

In short, how "healthy" a food is for you depends on the nutrients you're seeking. For example, fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and herring are much higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Despite tilapia typically being lower in omega-3 fats, one study done in 2018 found that farmed tilapia could have higher amounts of this healthy fat if given feeds enriched with omega-3s. The amount of omega-3 fats present in tilapia may differ depending on the type of feed that's offered.

Nevertheless, tilapia offers more omega-3 fats than other animal foods, such as red meat and poultry. This white fish is also lower in mercury and offers many vital nutrients, making it one of the best and safest fish sources for pregnant women and children, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Ways to enjoy tilapia

Tilapia is a mild and flaky fish, making it easy to pair with various herbs, spices and sauces. Because tilapia is generally sold as fillets, it is a great choice for a quick-cooking meal. You can bake, roast or pan-fry it, or stuff it with spinach and Greek yogurt. Tilapia is an excellent protein for chowders, curries and tacos as well.

Give your tilapia a kick of heat by marinating it with cayenne pepper and pairing it with fruit salsa.

Bottom line: Is tilapia healthy?

Tilapia is a lean and nutritious protein source that offers many health benefits. When sustainably farmed, properly handled and cooked well, tilapia is safe to eat. It is perfect for quick and easy meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. Check out our healthy tilapia recipes for more meal ideas and inspirations.

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