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Is Tilapia Good for You, or Is This Fish Toxic?

While some say tilapia is a "garbage fish," others claim it's very nutritious—but what's the real truth?
FACT CHECKED BY Jordan Powers Willard

You'd be hard-pressed to find a fish more controversial than tilapia. What was once hailed as one of the healthiest, best tasting, and cheapest fish around was slammed with detrimental health claims and scrutinized for its (lack of) sustainability and negative effects on the environment.

A 2008 study on the ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids in fish found that tilapia has an inflammatory ratio much higher in omega-6 fatty acids. Researchers made the remark that the inflammatory effects of tilapia were worse than that of bacon and hamburgers. This comment, while not intended to speak to the general healthfulness of tilapia, sparked the media outcry that tilapia is harmful to health.

There's also the concern with how tilapia is raised, contamination, and its effects on the environment. But, regardless of what the media has said of tilapia in the past, here is all you need to know about the nutrition, health benefits, and risks of this light-tasting white fish.

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Tilapia's nutrition

fresh tilapia, lemons, pepper, and tomatoes

Tilapia is a light-tasting white fish that includes several different species. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked tilapia has:

  • Calories: 127
  • Protein: 26 g
  • Carbohydrates: 0 g
  • Total Fat: 2.6 g
  • Saturated Fat: 0.9 g
  • Selenium: 99% daily value (DV)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): 29% DV
  • Vitamin D: 18% DV

Tilapia is a great source of protein, it's low in fat and high in important nutrients like vitamin D, selenium, and vitamin B3. Eating this white fish is a great way to meet the goal of two servings of fish per week, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

While tilapia doesn't have as many omega-3 fatty acids as salmon, you can get around 15% of your daily value from one 3.5-ounce serving. Eating tilapia can help you get your omega-3s without the strong "fishy" taste of salmon if you don't enjoy it.

Omega-6 fatty acids have a bad rep for causing inflammation since some of them can get converted into arachidonic acid in the body, which leads to inflammation that promotes heart disease. But, not all omega-6 fatty acids lead to inflammation. In fact, omega-6 fatty acids help to calm inflammation, prevent blood clots from forming and can help to lower triglycerides in the blood.

Safety and sustainability of tilapia

For years, tilapia brought to mind farms of dirty water packed to the brim with sick fish. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, this may only be true of farmed fish from China. Overcrowded environments and dirty water is breeding grounds for disease, and there has been controversy in the past over illegal antibiotic use at tilapia farms in China.

The Seafood Watch also recommends buying tilapia that's been farmed in Peru in raceways and Ecuador in ponds and any that's been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Best Aquaculture Practices, or Naturland.

Should you eat tilapia?


Tilapia can be a healthy part of your diet, especially if eating stronger-tasting seafood isn't as appetizing. It's budget-friendly, easy to prepare, and highly nutritious. Just be sure to buy your tilapia from a reputable source to avoid potential contaminants.

Kelsey Kunik, RDN
Kelsey Kunik is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, nutrition consultant, and sustainable food blogger. Read more about Kelsey