I must admit that I love tilapia: It’s more like chicken or turkey, rather than fishy fish, like salmon and tuna. Now I understand why.
If you, like me, are trying to eat two or more servings of fish each week—as health authorities recommend in order to get the right amount of those omega-3 fatty acids—you may have heard recently that not all fish are created equal. And unfortunately, just like us, fish are what they eat.
Choose your fish wisely
A new study by Wake Forest University researchers shows the stark differences between farm-raised tilapia (the second most common farm-raised fish after salmon) versus wild fish varieties in terms of omega-3 fatty acid content.
Fish need to eat algae in order to deposit lots of the beneficial long-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) fatty acids in their tissues. Farmed fish raised on grain-based diets and vegetable oils, as opposed to algae, have less of the good fats and more of the bad saturated fat—much like grain-fed livestock. They also have higher amounts of monounsaturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids compared to their wild counterparts.
Specifically, the Wake Forest study found that farm-raised tilapia and catfish had more than twice as much omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3. While omega-6s are considered heart-healthy when eaten in the correct ratio with omega-3s, they can promote dangerous inflammation when consumed in excess of their healthier counterparts.
While I’m not going to give up my tilapia, I am going to look for more wild sources of the fish I eat. I’m also going to make sure that at least one of my fish meals a week is a real fishy fish, like salmon, trout, or mackerel—recommended for their high omega-3 content.
Add DHA and EPA
In addition, I'm adding some of the new DHA- and EPA-fortified foods and beverages to my diet to boost these beneficial omegas. But if you go this route, make sure to read food labels closely. Don't just look for products that say "omega-3s" on the box; look more closely to see if it contains DHA and EPA specifically, as opposed to the less effective alpha-linolenic acid (ALA is an omega-3 found in plant-based products such as walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil). ALA must be converted to DHA and EPA first to provide specific health benefits, and only about 1% of ALA consumed is converted to the long-chain omegas.
There is no official recommendation for DHA and EPA specifically, but most health organizations recommend two servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish. About eight ounces of cooked fatty fish per week will equal about 500 milligrams per day of omega-3s, a good baseline amount.
The American Heart Association also recommends that individuals with heart disease should add 1 gram per day of EPA and DHA combined, and individuals with high triglycerides need 2 to 4 grams of EPA plus DHA daily.