What’s So Great About Tilapia

What’s So Great About Tilapia

You practically need a Masters in Nutrition Science to safely navigate the aisles of most grocery stores these days. Is this cereal too high in sugar to count as a good source of fibre? I know I should eat beans but are canned as good as dried? And how can I convince myself that potato chips ARE in fact a serving a vegetables? The fish case is no exception. We know we’re supposed to eat fish but the ones with all the heart healthy Omega 3 fatty acids (like tuna and salmon) seem to also be on the hit list when it comes to the environment. And the ones that make us feel good about choosing something sustainable and non-toxic don’t make the grade on nutrition since they contain more Omega 6’s, which we already eat too many of in a typical North American diet. It’s enough to make a girl turn back to the potato chip aisle… those babies are sustainable! But before we make a rash decision, I decided to check it out and it turns out one fish toes the line nicely between all of these competing goals.

Tilapia is the name commonly used for nearly 100 species of white fish native to fresh water in warm climates, primarily Asia and Africa. Because of their large size, heartiness against disease and mild flavour, which is appealing to a wide population, tilapia has become the 5th most farmed fish in the world. As it is easy to farm and grows to full size quickly compared to other fish it is also relatively inexpensive, which has recently made it a bit of a star in grocery stores and fish markets around the world as more people heed the nutritional call to eat more fish. Tilapia’s appeal is also due to its low levels of mercury. Mercury is stored in the fat of the fish and primarily taken in when large fish feed on smaller fish. Since tilapia is quite lean and primarily vegetarian, the mercury concerns that plague other large fish (like tuna and mackerel) are really a non-issue.

But what about that Omega-3 versus Omega-6 question? Omegas are the essential fatty acids found in food that humans must ingest as our bodies will not naturally produce them. Both are polyunsaturated fats that provide a variety of protection to the body but in recent years, research has focussed on the imbalance of the two in our diets. While we eat many (read: too many) Omega 6’s in things like nuts, seeds and all packaged foods that contain vegetable oils and soy, we get very little Omega 3 (primarily found in cold water fish). According to an article by Dr. Andrew Weil, “The body constructs hormones from omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. In general, hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.”  This thinking led some (lets call them the alarmists!) to suggest that in fact bacon and ground beef have a better ratio of 6:3 omegas so we’re better off swapping our tilapia for a burger. Oh, humans…..leave it to us to find a way to eat more bacon!

Dr. Weil has a better idea. We’ll call it the Fish versus Gold Fish debate. Before the advent of processed food, people ate a pretty perfect balance of essential fatty acids. Ditch the packaged snacks and eat a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet that includes more fish and voila… balance. The Mayo Clinic agrees: “To think that eating catfish or tilapia — because of its high omega-6 content — is more risky in terms of heart disease than eating bacon or hamburger is flawed.” They go on to suggest eating a variety of fish, nuts and seeds and limiting excess omega 6’s in processed and packaged food.

Also on the near horizon to boost tilapia’s appeal is a plan to make feed for the farmed fish out of flax (high is omega 3) as opposed to the current corn-based feed (higher in omega 6). Still, according to the Environmental Defence Fund, tilapia farmed in the US or South America are the most eco-friendly while China’s tilapia farms don’t make the grade. So tilapia is tops in sustainability and provides all the nutrition we expect from fish without any of the contaminant fears. That’s worth easing up on the packaged goodies and crackers for, no?

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  1. […] fish recipes, check out these two interesting posts: What’s So Great About Salmon and What’s So Great About Tilapia. I love these informative posts – now onto the […]

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