Is Tilapia Healthy or Bad for You?

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Fish is considered a healthy source of protein because it is lean, easy to digest and full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other important minerals.

However, the dark side of the story is that about 50% of the fish we eat is from fish farms, and tilapia account for a large portion of that percentage. According to Seafood Health Facts, it was the fourth most consumed fish in the United States in 2017.

Not surprisingly, tilapia is also one of the cheapest types of fish on the market. Which, of course, made the video an overnight sensation.

What is Tilapia?

The tilapia is a tropical fish and a member of the scallop family. This fish is from Africa and the Middle East, although most of the tilapia you find in stores come from fish farms. In fact, more than 135 countries have tilapia farms, with China leading the pack (and supplying directly to the United States).

Many people enjoy eating tilapia because it is such a light smooth white fish. It’s easy to cook and works great in tacos and other simple recipes.

The tilapia is an easy fish to farm because it eats a cheap diet, grows fast, and is extraordinarily difficult. Unfortunately, this makes the tilapia an easy fish to cultivate in poor ways.

Why is tilapia cultivated?

It’s amazing how adaptable the tilapia can be. It can tolerate different concentrations of salt, and higher concentrations of pesticides, drug residues and fertilizers. Such conditions usually lead to algae overgrowth, which significantly reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. This is often a problem for other fish, but tilapia can avoid these difficult situations.

The tilapia feeds mostly on algae and sea urchins, although it can eat almost anything, including corn and soy. This can be a problem, as their diet can easily include GMOs or pesticides.

Because it is a tropical freshwater fish, tilapia cannot survive in cold water. Therefore, the majority of tilapia found in the United States is cultivated in Asia.

Dangers of tilapia farming

China is the largest exporter of farmed fish, a problem caused by water pollution. These farms also make extensive use of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals to keep fish alive and maximize profits.

Unfortunately, the FDA does more to ensure that tilapia is safe. They only sample imported seafood that is on the screen for illegal chemicals banned in the United States. In testing fish deliveries, the rejection rate for tilapia is higher: up to 82% in 2014.

The tilapia fish that undergoes FDA testing (or escapes) may still contain questionable drugs or other residues, even if it is not from China. A study of tilapia from South America found that two out of three samples contained malachite green and gentian violet, both of which are known to cause cancer. All samples contained at least one heavy metal, such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic or lead.

Although levels are below the FDA’s safety threshold, they can be harmful in the long run. I suggest avoiding imported tilapia as you may not yet know what is in them.

Are there reliable sources of tilapia?

in a sense. If you really want to eat tilapia, stick to the type taken in the United States.

Domestic fishing is a much better condition because they are more strict for cleaning. On the downside, they are more expensive than imported tilapia.

Properly covered, it will withstand a great deal of adverse conditions. They are fed a vegetarian diet and are cultivated for a relatively short period of time, which means that there is less scope for biomagnification (a process in which toxic pollutants accumulate). If the fish is properly cultivated and fed a standard feed, then it should be less polluted than the fish that other fish eat.

However, we know that this is not always the case! If you want to use Tilapia from time to time, you want to source it from well known companies. Make sure they also use third party testing so that the fish is safe for human consumption.

Is tilapia healthy?

Answering this is a complex question. This popular fish has some good health benefits, namely its high protein content and low calorie count. Tilpia is also very low in fat. Per 100 grams, it lasts only two grams of fat per hour. But it is especially low in fat that can lead to problems.

Getting your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a healthy balance is essential. Too much omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation, which can lead to problems such as heart disease. Unfortunately, tilapia has high levels of omega-6s and not enough omega-3s to feel healthy.

In short, it is better to eat grass-fed beef or chicken to get your heart healthy omega-3 fats.

What about Mercury in Tilpia?

Most people are concerned about seafood, especially mercury levels in pregnant women.

Seafood with the highest amounts of mercury usually tops the food chain like swordfish and marlin. However, farmed fish, such as tilapia, also contain mercury due to adverse conditions.

The mercury content in tilapia may not be as high as that found in certain types of wild seafood. One way to meet this risk is to make sure you are getting enough selenium. Methylmercury is bound to selenium in the body, and when the mercury level is higher than the nutrient selenium, all sorts of problems can arise.

Fortunately, most seafood contains plenty of selenium, so it will help your body deal with the effects of mercury.

You may also want to include plenty of wild-caught salmon in your diet, which is an incredible source of selenium, among other nutrients.

Listen to this podcast where I sit down with the president of Vital Choice Seafood and talk about mercury concerns raised in the field and in wild seafood.

Better alternative to tilapia

Fortunately, there are plenty of fish in the ocean that have better nutritional profiles than tilapia.

Here are some seafood choices that beat tilapia nutritionally.

  • Sardines. If you are looking for a type of fish that competes with tilapia in protein, grab a box of sardines. They are a great source of omega-3s and are rich in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, calcium, and vitamin D. If you are sensitive to their pungent odor, how can they taste better? I get mine from the seller market.
  • Wild catch salmon. If you are looking for a nutritious alternative to sardines, Alaska salmon is a great choice. With Vital Choice we get our own (with the two types in stock below).
  • Red snapper Like tilapia, red snapper is a low-calorie, protein-rich choice. Just limit your month to a few months, as it may contain mercury which can be harmful to pregnant women or children.
  • Charter of Democracy This is a great alternative if you are looking for a light, light fish like this. Try using the code files in the homemade gluten-free fish stick recipe!

Bottom line

Because of its unhealthy farming practices, it is best to avoid tilapia, which also has the potential to cause inflammation and disrupt your fatty acid balance. Because it is a tasting fish rather than a white fish, it has been replaced by a more nutritious, preferably wild-caught and salty fish-like salmon.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Walker, an internal medicine specialist. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk to your doctor or work with a doctor at Study MD.

Do you eat tilapia Are there better alternatives to cheaper fish? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Babu, B., and Uzbe, G. (2013). Screening of imported tilapia fillets for heavy metals and veterinary drug reserves in the Mid-Atlantic region, USA. J Food Process Tech, 4 (9), 1-7.
  2. Barboza, D. (2007) In China, fish farmed in toxic waters. New York Times
  3. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (2014) Global Fisheries and Aquaculture State.
  4. Seafood Health Facts (2017) Overview of American Seafood Supplies
  5. Young, K. (2009). Omega 6 (N-6) and Omega 3 (N-3) fatty acids in tilapia and human health: a review. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 60 (Soup 5), 203-211.

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