As a pregnancy and postpartum nutritionist, I love nerding out about the power food has in our lives. After all, as women, we have the power to create and sustain life!
But no matter if you're a man, woman, or child, it's been proven over and over again that certain foods do more for our bodies than others. The easiest way to remember is that less ingredients and/or processing usually means it's more nourishing for your body.
Fish is a great example of a natural whole food that has lots of nutritional benefits, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Of all the fish, salmon and tilapia are two of the most popular fish in the United States, and they're two of the fish I recommend the most to my clients and social media followers.
But is one fish better than the other? Which fish is a good choice for your body's needs? This article compares the nutritional content of tilapia and salmon and gives you an in depth look into the benefits of each fish. We'll also talk about sources, taste and texture, cooking methods, mercury levels, and special considerations for pregnancy.
If you're short on time, here's the simple answer: both tilapia and salmon are a healthy choice to include in your diet. They are great sources of key vitamins and minerals, they have high protein content, and they are versatile to cook with.
I'm sure you're familiar with all the different marketing buzz words on your food products like "cage-free," "wild-caught," "farm-raised," and "independently sourced." But do those words mean anything? And does the source of your food matter?
Yes and yes.
Let's explore the differences between where tilapia and salmon are grown and harvested:
Both fish can be found at the grocery store in the meat section and the frozen aisle. Fresh is usually just as nutritious as frozen, but frozen is easier to keep on hand.
Both fish are a good source of protein, amino acids, zinc, and iron, but there are some key differences in their overall nutrient level, including macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Is there a better option just based on essential nutrients alone? Well, it depends on what nutrients you want most.
(Keep reading to see a graphic with a brief overview of the similarities and differences between the two fish.)
Now let's go in depth on some of the key nutrients found in larger quantities in each fish.
There are two main types of heart healthy fats that come from our diet: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (mono- meaning "one" and poly- meaning "many"). Both types of essential fatty acids affect our overall brain health, nervous system, immune system, hormones, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Sources of monounsaturated fats include:
Sources of polyunsaturated fats include:
You've probably heard of omega-3s; these are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat that can only come from our diet. Hence the reason why they're a priority when choosing a variety of foods!
When comparing overall fatty acid content, salmon is a better source of omega-3 fats and tilapia is a better source of omega-6 fatty acids. While both contain fat, tilapia is considered a leaner fish because it has less omega-3 fats and fewer calories than salmon.
It's also important to note that different types of salmon and where they were caught affect the omega-3 content in the fish. There are five main types of wild salmon, and the salmon that spend the most time migrating in cold water will have the highest omega-3 content. Those species are the king salmon and sockeye salmon; pink salmon have less omega-3s.
Overall, salmon has more than seven times more fat than tilapia, where salmon has on average 15 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces and tilapia has 2 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces.
Protein is important for building and maintaining muscle, balancing blood sugar levels, and producing hormones. It also helps reduce the risk of heart disease.
Both salmon and tilapia are great sources of protein. Salmon has about 23 grams of protein in one 3.5 ounce serving, and tilapia has about 21 grams of protein per 3.5 ounce serving.
There are lots of essential vitamins in both salmon and tilapia, but each fish has different amounts of different vitamins. Vitamins are critical for maintaining the immune system, including fighting off infection, wound healing, and blood clotting.
The most prevalent vitamins in salmon are:
The most prevalent vitamins in tilapia are vitamin B12 and vitamin K.
If your primary concern is vitamins, salmon might be the better choice.
There are also lots of essential minerals in both salmon and tilapia. Minerals are vital for bone health, heart health, controlling fluid levels inside and outside your cells, and helping convert nutrients into usable energy in your body.
The minerals present in large quantities in tilapia are selenium, calcium, and choline.
Both fish are great sources of:
If your primary concern is minerals, tilapia might be the better choice.
Dietary mercury is a known toxic metal that can be found in fish. Fish contain trace amounts of mercury due to industrialization and air pollutants coming in contact with natural water sources.
Mercury levels are highest in large, predatory fish, and salmon and tilapia both are not predatory fish. As such, your chances of high mercury exposure or mercury poisoning are low!
That being said, there was a survey published by the National Institute of Medicine that found that mercury levels were "significantly higher in farmed than in wild salmon... [but] none of the contaminants exceeded federal standards or guidance levels." This is a great reason to opt for wild-caught salmon instead of farmed salmon!
Tilapia is one of the fish lowest in mercury, so no need to worry about tilapia, including where it was sourced.
Your body can naturally detox and excrete mercury in very small amounts, but too much mercury over time may take over a year for the levels to drop "significantly," according to an article from WebMD.
These guidelines apply to women who are thinking about becoming or trying to become pregnant, too. The aforementioned article from WebMD goes on to say that high mercury levels that haven't been removed from the body naturally over time "may be present in a person even before they become pregnant," so it's something to consider about your diet if you are planning to become pregnant in the next 12 months.
According to WebMD and Healthline, too much mercury can cause significant neurological damage and behavioral effects, which are much more dramatic in fetuses and newborns. Possible symptoms of mercury poisoning include:
If you consume more than 8 ounces of low mercury fish or 4 ounces of moderate to high mercury fish per week, you might be at risk for mercury poisoning. Contact your doctor immediately if you have a sudden onset of acute poisoning symptoms or if you believe you might have high levels of mercury.
Heavy metals found in almost all fish include copper, cadmium, and lead. Possible side affects from toxic heavy metals found in food include "impaired liver function, decreased cognitive function, impaired reproductive capacity, hypertension... and cancers" (read cited study here).
Just like mercury levels in fish, higher levels of heavy metals are found in predatory fish and shellfish, which means the risk of heavy metal exposure or toxicity is low in salmon and tilapia.
Furthermore, you are more likely to develop high levels of heavy metals with increased fish consumption, especially large predatory fish. Follow the USDA guidelines for weekly servings of fish and you shouldn't have to worry about heavy metal exposure from fish.
Because tilapia is a white fish, it has a mild flavor and mild taste. This also means it's less fishy and can be seasoned or marinated in a variety of ways.
Salmon is a fatty fish, which gives it a more buttery flavor and oily texture. This also means it yields stronger flavors when seasoned or marinated well.
If you struggle with fish because of the "fishy" taste or smell, tilapia is a better option for you. However, if you don't mind a bit of a fishy smell, salmon is a great choice!
Note: if either fish has a lack of flavor in your meal, that's just bad cooking, not bad fish!
Both fish can be cooked in a variety of ways, but depending on the recipe or dish, some methods might be better than others.
Let's explore the different cooking methods for each fish and whether or not you can eat them raw.
For salmon, the most common cooking methods are baking and pan-searing. And, according to this article from The Kitchn, baking [in parchment paper] and pan-searing are the two best ways to cook salmon!
Other cooking methods for cooking salmon are air frying, grilled, sous vide, and slow roasting.
Salmon is unique from tilapia in that you can safely eat it raw. Raw salmon is most common in sushi recipes like sushi nigiri and salmon rolls.
Keep reading for some delicious salmon recipes!
Sushi Roll in a Bowl (from my cookbook)
Salmon Coconut Curry (from Salt and Lavender)
Blackened Salmon with Mango Salsa (from The Modern Proper)
Teriyaki Salmon Bowls (from The Real Food Dietitians)
Sheet Pan Lemon Dill Salmon (from Eat Well 101)
On the other hand, it is not recommended to eat raw tilapia, even though it is sometimes used in sushi as a replacement for red snapper. The main reason is because the fish from overcrowded tilapia farms are much more likely to be contaminated with bacteria or parasites.
If you do want to eat raw tilapia, it's a good idea to choose sustainably sourced tilapia (wild-caught fish) that has been properly prepared or, according to Go Cook Yummy, either freeze it at -4°F for 7 days or marinate in an acidic solution for at least 30 minutes.
In my opinion, the health risks of raw tilapia outweigh the possible benefits of consuming raw tilapia, so I would refrain from eating it. Besides, there are lots of different fish that you can safely eat raw that taste much better anyway!
Now, if you're looking for the best way to cook tilapia, tilapia is most often baked in the oven. Almost all of the recipes on Google and Pinterest that pulled up when I typed in "best way to cook tilapia" were baked tilapia recipes.
That being said, just like salmon, tilapia can also be pan-seared, grilled, and air fried.
Keep reading for some delicious tilapia recipes you can try!
Cacio e Pepe (replace shrimp with tilapia)
Instant Pot Salsa Verde Tacos (replace chicken with tilapia)
Zesty Tilapia with Charred Green Beans (from Garden in the Kitchen)
Parmesan Crusted Tilapia (from Taste and Tell)
Sheet Pan Chili Lime Tilapia (from Eat Well 101)
Yes, as long as it is cooked! The higher fat content (specifically the high omega-3 ratio) and vitamin E levels make salmon a great option for pregnancy because both mom and baby need those heart healthy fats to grow and develop. (For reference, one 3.5 ounce serving of salmon has about 2300 mg of omega-3s.)
In addition, one 3.5 ounce serving of wild salmon has around 23 grams of protein, which is great for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and reducing cravings.
Yes, as long as it is cooked! Tilapia is a great source of protein, with about 21 grams of protein per serving, and it's an inexpensive, mild-tasting fish to keep on hand for quick, delicious meals.
Tilapia is also a great source of vitamin B12, selenium, and choline, which are all essential nutrients for pregnant women.
So which is better, salmon or tilapia?
As a certified nutritionist, I argue that both are an excellent choice for a healthy diet. However, depending on your health goals, whether it's weight loss, weight gain, or just getting lots of nutrients, one type of fish might be a better option than the other.
If I absolutely had to choose, though, I would choose salmon every time. The flaky, buttery texture paired with all the amazing nutrients like vitamin D, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B is an unbeatable combination!
Salmon and tilapia are two types of fish that both have tons of nutritional value, but which is the better choice? Learn about the health benefits and key differences of each and how to decide which fish is the best choice for you and your needs.
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