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A Fish Tale: Making a Case for Tilapia

Contrary to media reports, tilapia is a low-fat protein source that plays a vital role in muscle-building.

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A Fish Tale: Making a Case for Tilapia

Interested in building a lean, muscular physique? We suggest you eat plenty of lean protein every day. Although chicken breast has been the protein staple most bodybuilders reach for, fish is often next on the list. So when we hear the mass media warn the public that a study suggests they should avoid tilapia due to the fat content - no, not the mercury - our first response is, “Huh?” And that’s still our response even after analyzing all the data.

The study that caused all the hype came from Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), and researchers actually claimed that tilapia was more unhealthy than bacon. In the report published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, these scientists examined the amounts of different fats such as saturated, omega-3s and omega-6s in several types of fish, including tilapia, salmon, trout and catfish.

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Because tilapia’s ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids is between 2:1 and 3:1, the researchers concluded that it’s a very unhealthy food. After all, a healthy diet should contain a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats of 1:1 or less. When the ratio is too high, the omega-6s compete with the omega-3s, causing inflammation in the body along with a host of health consequences like cardiovascular disease.

Tilapia, however, is a very low-fat fish. According to the USDA, 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of tilapia supplies less than 2 grams of total fat. Out of that total, the Wake Forest researchers say, there’s only about 300 mg of omega-3 fats along with 600-900 mg of omega-6 fats. So even when you eat a typical 7-ounce serving of fish, you get just 1,200-1,800 mg of omega-6 fats - far too little to knock your diet into the unhealthy range, especially if you supplement with fish oil as m&f recommends. In fact, in a research editorial in a 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, William Harris, PhD, director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Center at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine (Sioux Falls), says we shouldn’t avoid eating omega-6s - which could actually increase the risk for coronary heart disease - but rather increase omega-3 fat intake.

So don’t listen to the media sensationalism that warns against eating tilapia. It’s still a good, low-fat fish. Sure, it doesn’t have the fantastic omega-6:omega-3 ratio that salmon does, but there’s so little fat in tilapia that it’s a nonissue. If you currently supplement with 1-2 grams of fish oil 2-3 times per day with meals, you’ll be almost certain to consume a 1:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fats.

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