Is Tilapia Good for You?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 26, 2024
8 min read

Tilapia, the common name for nearly a hundred species of cichlid fish (or fish in the Cichlidae family), are native to only the Middle East and Africa. They are now farm-raised in over 80 countries worldwide. Tilapia is a popular food source due to its low cost and mild taste. 

 The three main tilapia species are:

  • Nile (or black) tilapia
  • Mozambique (or red) tilapia
  • Blue tilapia

Tilapia taste

Tilapia is known for its sweet, mild taste and flaky texture. But the taste can differ greatly, depending on what the fish eat and the quality of the water where they are raised.

What does a tilapia fish look like?

Tilapia are shaped like sunfish or crappie, with bodies that look fairly flat from side to side. They have long, spined fins. Color can vary by species.

Is tilapia a freshwater or saltwater fish?

In the wild, tilapia are found in fresh water, in rivers and lakes. The fish also have been introduced, sometimes unintentionally, into some brackish waters (areas that connect salt and fresh waters).

Like other fish, tilapia can be a healthy source of protein.

It also gives you vitamins and minerals like choline, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, and phosphorus. And it's a good source of healthy fats.

The nutrients in tilapia might provide the following health benefits:

May lower cancer risk

Selenium is a mineral that plays a role in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, decline in thinking skills, and thyroid disease. Although you only need a small amount of selenium, it is essential for various bodily functions. Tilapia is an excellent source of this mineral, with a single fillet providing 88% of your daily value of selenium.

May protect heart health

Many of the health benefits of eating fish are due to their high omega-3 fatty acid content. These unsaturated fats benefit heart health by:

  • Reducing blood clotting
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Decreasing your risk of strokes and heart failure
  • Reducing irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia)

 Omega-3s support the membranes around every cell in your body and also play important roles in the lungs, and immune system – your body's defense against germs.

It's true that tilapia doesn't have as many omega-3 fatty acids as oily fish, like salmon and trout. But it has more than protein choices such as beef, pork, chicken, or turkey.

Tilapia is also high in omega-6 fats, from the vegetarian diet it eats. Omega-6s, which you mostly get from vegetable oils, are another essential fatty acid your body can't make on its own. These fats, in healthy amounts, can help keep your cholesterol and blood sugar under control. But most Americans eat more omega-6 fats and fewer omega-3 fats than is ideal for overall health.

Also, any fish will be less heart-healthy if you fry it, which increases risks for heart disease and stroke.

May improve bone strength

Tilapia has many of the nutrients your body uses to make and maintain bones, such as:

Weight loss

Like other fish, tilapia can make sense as part of an eating plan for weight loss, since it's a lean source of protein. Fish can help you feel full without a lot of calories. In some studies, eating fish has been linked to weight loss. 

Tilapia is high in vitamin B12, which helps your body make DNA, maintain its nervous system, and produce red blood cells. It's also low in fat, saturated fat, calories, carbohydrates, and sodium.

Tilapia is also rich in:

  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Niacin

One fillet (116 grams) of tilapia contains:

  • Protein: 23 grams
  • Vitamin D: 3.51 micrograms
  • Potassium: 338 milligrams
  • Vitamin B12: 1.59 micrograms
  • Calcium: 11.7 milligrams
  • Phosphorous: 191 milligrams
  • Selenium: 46.7 micrograms

Rich in protein

Tilapia's nearly 23 grams of protein per serving fills you up and helps you feel full longer.

Your body uses protein to:

  • Build bones and muscle
  • Heal tissue
  • Move oxygen through your body
  • Digest food
  • Balance hormones

Low in mercury

Because tilapia is farm-raised fish – usually in closed-tank systems – they have less contact with pollution than wild fish. They also don't eat smaller fish, which can lead to a buildup of contaminants in big fish. This means they are lower in mercury than many other fish.

People who are pregnant or breastfeeding are encouraged to eat 8-12 ounces of low-mercury seafood each week. Children should have two servings a week, with serving sizes ranging from 1 ounce for children ages 1-3 to 4 ounces for those 11 or older. 

Although eating tilapia offers many potential health benefits, it also carries some risk. 

Eating large amounts of tilapia and other fish could expose you to certain cancer-causing chemicals. This is especially true in countries where many fisheries are near industrial parks that pollute the water with various heavy metals.

Tilapia allergy

An estimated 1% of people are allergic to some types of finned fish. New fish allergies can develop in adults. The most common problems are with salmon, tuna, and halibut, but tilapia can cause allergic reactions as well. If you are allergic to one kind of finned fish, you may be allergic to others, so it's best to check with a doctor about what's safe for you if you've ever had a reaction to fish, such as hives, stomach cramps, or impaired breathing. 

Tilapia farming

Many concerns about tilapia safety center on farming practices. But these practices vary widely, with the greatest concerns around fish farmed in China, a major source of frozen tilapia in the United States. 

Some reports from the U.S. government and from private seafood monitoring groups have found questionable practices in Chinese fisheries, including heavy use of antibiotics and cases in which farms have fed animal waste to farmed fish, which could lead to bacterial contamination. It's unclear how widespread those practices are. Most farmed tilapia eat corn and soybean meal. 

Farmed tilapia also may be treated with hormones early in their growth, but there's no residue of the hormones in the harvested fish. Such hormones are rarely used in North Americans farms.

The FDA has turned away some shipments of tilapia and other fish from China, but it says imported fish for sale to U.S. consumers must meet the same safety standards as food produced in the U.S.

Is tilapia high in cholesterol?

Tilapia has some cholesterol, about 55 milligrams in a 4-ounce serving. But that doesn't make it a high-cholesterol food, compared with an egg, which has about 200 milligrams, or a small pork chop, which has about 85 milligrams. The cholesterol levels in tilapia are similar to those in other fish, and lower than those in shrimp and lobster.

Is tilapia a fake fish?

Tilapia are real fish. Humans have been catching tilapia in the wild for thousands of years. Farmed fish are a newer addition, bred for efficient food production, but – despite some claims you might find online – they are real and have skin and bones, just like other fish. 

Is tilapia a junk fish?

Tilapia's reputation has suffered from concerns about farming methods and the fact that it's relatively low in omega-3 fats and higher in omega-6 fats. But it wouldn't qualify as a junk food under most standards – because it does have nutritional value. 

Some consumers might want to avoid tilapia from China, because of safety concerns and also because of the environmental impact of tilapia farms there, which are weakly regulated. Roughly three-quarters of frozen tilapia sold in the United States come from China. 

To choose potentially safer tilapia with a lighter environmental impact, carefully read labels and consider:

  • Buying tilapia from Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia, or Taiwan
  • Asking restaurants the source of their tilapia
  • Buying tilapia certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, BAP Certified, or Naturland
  • Buying locally raised tilapia from a farmer's market, where available

Is farmed tilapia healthy?

Almost all tilapia on the market is farmed, and the FDA says fish sold in the U.S. is safe. If you are concerned about farming practices in China or elsewhere, your best bet is to look for fish produced in other countries or, when possible, to buy from local producers. Also, farming practices can change over time, so check for the most current information from watchdog groups.

Tilapia price

One reason tilapia is so popular is that it's generally less expensive than other fish. That's because tilapia are easy to farm, eat a low-cost plant diet, and are widely available worldwide.

When choosing tilapia, it's best to buy filets that are moist and uniform in color, especially around the edges. Keep it in the fridge or freezer until you're ready to cook it.

If possible, you should buy fresh, whole tilapia. Fillets that are frozen lose their texture and taste.

Best way to cook tilapia

Tilapia can be sautéed, poached, baked, grilled, or fried (though that's the least healthy option). It can be paired with many seasonings. Here are some tips for some of the most popular methods.

Baked tilapia

For best results, thaw frozen fillets in the refrigerator. Set the oven to 450 F. Place your fillets on a shallow, oiled baking dish. Brush with olive oil or melted butter. Tilapia fillets are thin, so it's important not to overbake them. The general rule of thumb is to bake for 4-6 minutes for each 1/2 inch of thickness.

Air-fryer tilapia

You can make tilapia with minimal oil, just a little cooking spray, in an air fryer. Set the temperature to 400 F and put the sprayed fillets in the basket in a single layer. Cook 6-8 minutes, flipping once, checking to make sure the fish reaches a safe 145 degrees.

Pan-fried or sautéed tilapia

You can make crispy tilapia in a pan by putting floured, seasoned fillets in about two tablespoons of heated olive oil and browning for about 2-3 minutes per side. 

Tilapia is sometimes referred to as "the chicken of the sea" because of its mild flavor. It's often heavily seasoned or paired with a flavorful sauce to boost tastiness. 

Here are some easy ideas for dressing up tilapia:

  • Grill it for fish tacos.
  • Season it with garlic, butter, and lemon juice before baking it.
  • Sautee it with chili powder, herbs, and pepper.
  • Bake and cover it with a cilantro cream sauce.
  • Stuff it with breadcrumbs, sage, and celery.

Tilapia ceviche

To make a tasty topping for tostadas, mix raw flaked tilapia with lime juice and let it sit in the fridge for 20 minutes or so, until it turns white. Then combine it with chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, cilantro, salt, pepper, and, if you like, hot sauce. 

Tilapia Veracruzana

For this dish, saute tilapia filets in olive oil, then remove them and use the pan to make a sauce with crushed tomatoes, onion, garlic, chilis, olives, and capers. Cover the fish in the sauce and heat for about 5 minutes in the oven.

Blackened tilapia

Combine spices like smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, dried thyme, dried oregano, salt, and pepper and press into fillets. Cook in a skillet with heated oil for 2-3 minutes per side, then sprinkle with lemon juice.

Eating tilapia can be an inexpensive way to enjoy the health benefits of fish. It isn't as high in healthy omega-3 fats as some other fish are, but it's a good source of protein and several other nutrients. And, contrary to some online rumors, it's a real fish – though it does almost always come from farms, not the wild.