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Diet & Nutrition, Health

Is Tilapia Healthy? 7 Reasons Why Experts Say to Avoid It

Written by Pete Galigher
Reviewed by Zola Johnson
Zola Johnson is a Registered Nutritionist and Cosmetologist.

Fact Checked. Our dedicated editorial team tirelessly evaluates every article we publish to ensure the information is factual, up-to-date and free of bias.

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Fish has always been considered among the healthy sources of protein. Compared to beef and pork, it’s much lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories. At the same time, it’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids that are good for our health.

Unfortunately, not all fish are the same. Some have been contaminated by the high levels of mercury that are farm-bred, meanwhile, pose major health risks that we should definitely stay away from. Tilapia is one such fish, and you should stop eating tilapia immediately because of the health risks it possesses.

Is tilapia healthy? Let’s have a look.

7 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Eating Tilapia

Tilapia, one of the most popular farm-raised fish that many people eat, is much loved for its cheap cost and delicious taste. It is in fact the fourth most consumed seafood in the United States, as reported by the National Institute of Fisheries.[1]

But with every bite, we’re putting our health on the line. Its consumption may lead to severe health issues – some conditions are even life-threatening.

Why is eating tilapia dangerous?[2] Here are the top reasons.

1. Enhances Risk of Inflammation

Fish is the usual go-to seafood of those who want to up their intake of omega 3 fatty acids[3]. Omega 3, as you probably know, benefits health by lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol in the bloodstream, and boosting the immune system. It also prevents arthritis, depression, heart disease, and even cancer.

However, a study conducted at Wake Forest University in 2008 revealed that tilapia contains more omega 6 than omega 3, with a ratio of 11 to 1.[4] Although omega 6 is also needed by the body, the healthy omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is 2 to 4. Higher omega 6 means an increased risk of asthma, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions as it is notorious for causing inflammation inside the body.


The increased amount of omega 6 becomes detrimental to the heart as well. It can raise blood pressure and may form blood clots in the body. The clots can then lead to heart attack and stroke.

2. Increases Risk of Cancer

According to various, Chinese farm-bred tilapia eat animal feces in their feed; mainly the fecal materials of duck, chicken, and pigs.[5] Consuming such fish augments the chance of developing cancer ten times more than the wild fish.

There’s reason to believe that these are not mere speculations. In 2009, the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) examined farm-raised seafood imported from China and revealed that many of the farms and food processors in China are located in industrialized regions where air, water, and soil are contaminated.

Moreover, the study states that “it is common practice…to spread livestock and poultry waste on fields or use it as fish feed.”

News organizations like Bloomberg reported that the practice of feeding animal feces in tilapia farms was indeed rampant in China.[6] This is cause for concern since more than 70 percent of tilapia in the U.S. are imported from China. In 2006, China-imported tilapia was included in the Seafood Watch list of fish to avoid.

3. Augments Ingestion of Antibiotics and Pesticides

Since they are raised in crowded fish pens, tilapia are more prone to diseases. Farm owners give them antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. They’re also given pesticides to treat sea lice, a common problem. These chemicals are effective but are nevertheless harmful to people’s health when ingested.


4. Contains High-Quantity of Toxic Chemicals

Tilapia may contain different toxic chemical compounds. Which compound is found in tilapia depends on which environment they are raised in.

Dibutyltin, a chemical used in creating PVC plastic, can also be found in farm-raised tilapia. This chemical weakens immunity and increases inflammation in the body. Further, it amplifies the risk of asthma, allergies, metabolic disorders, and obesity.

Dioxin, also found in tilapia, is associated with increased cancer risks and other health issues. It’s pretty shocking how long it takes for the body to flush out this chemical–seven to eleven years.

Saxitoxins are potent neurotoxins that can cause the condition called paralytic shellfish poisoning.[7] A study found that freshwater tilapia can accumulate saxitoxins. Therefore, very careful handling of this fish becomes necessary when growing in fresh waters. Any environment that is rich in saxitoxins increases tilapia potency to absorb this severe toxin that can paralyze the consumer and cause other health issues.

5. Exposes Body to Heavy Metals

Tilapia consumption may or may not expose the body to heavy metals including Fe, Cu, Ni, Pb, Cd, and Zn. Tilapia muscles absorb smaller amounts of heavy metals.[8] On the other hand, intestines, livers, and gills absorb the higher and more dangerous amounts of these heavy metals. Toxicological risks of heavy metals increase when humans consume these parts.

As for the tilapia muscles, the heavy metals they absorb are not in dangerous quantities when consumed. However, one research study wasn’t sufficient and data from one pond to another may vary diversely.


According to another study, when tilapia is grown in an environment rich in heavy metals, even tilapia muscles absorb these metals in rich quantities and become unhealthy to consume. It was found to affect the population consuming this fish.[9]

Now with the variation in the results, it is up to the consumer to decide whether it is worthy to take the risk of getting exposed to heavy metals. It is not always possible for the consumer to trace back to the environment in which the food is growing.

When the human body is exposed to heavy metal for a lesser time, it can lead to nausea, vomiting, stomach ache, and diarrhea. However, when the body is continually exposed to heavy metals, the results are devastating. It can lead to permanent damage to body organs along with boosting the risk of cancer. The symptoms vary depending on acute or chronic exposures.

6. Carries Rare Bacteria

One reported case – a rare bacterium present in filter-feeding fish. A King County’s 50-year-old woman contracted this bacterium from tilapia fish purchased from an Asian store in Bellevue showed red tilapia containing Vibrio vulnificus. [10][11] The woman contracted it when she cut her hand while handling the fish.

This bacterium is not very common but may cause illness when it comes in contact with the wound or is ingested. Its infection is serious and leads to diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach ache.

Furthermore, it also causes flesh necrosis and sepsis and is thus named “flesh-eating bacteria”. When the infection spreads, it becomes necessary to remove the tissues or whole infected body parts. The infection can become even lethal.


Other than that, a new biotype of the same bacterium – Vibrio vulnificus – led to hundred of severe infections in the individuals in Israel who handled tilapia. The infection rate was higher in the people with low resistance and the mortality rate was alarming.

Aeromonas hydrophila is also found in tilapia. It is an opportunistic pathogen that causes illness in people who have low immunity due to any reason.

There are reports of commonly occurring streptococcal infections as well in the people who handle tilapia.[12]

7. Leads to Arsenic Consumption

In some countries, arsenic contamination in water becomes a major concern as many fish species including tilapia has the potency to accumulate arsenic in their muscle tissues.[13] Eating fish farmed in an arsenic-rich environment augments the risk of cancer development in the consumer. Chronic arsenic exposure can lead to bladder and lung cancer specifically.

How to Consume Tilapia Safely

Overall, it is safe to eat tilapia because what matters the most is the environment in which it grows. This fish is known to consume algae but eats other products as well. When it lives in a clean environment, it becomes a good food choice for humans. When tilapia is appropriately raised in a clean environment and stored and cooked while keeping all the safety rules in check, it becomes even safer to consume and approved by the FDA.[14]

China is the largest tilapia producer; however, tilapia from China is dangerous, no matter how well it is cooked. Chinese farmers usually use illegal antimicrobials and antibiotics to feed the farm fish. Also, the induced food contains different contaminations. The poor practices make them the worst tilapia to go for.


On the other hand, the USA, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, and the Netherlands use high standards to raise tilapia. If these options are unavailable, you can go for tilapia from Indonesia, Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, and Taiwan.[15]

Final Words

Tilapia is not expensive and easily available everywhere, which makes it a very common fish to consume. People eat it because of its low price and also consider it to be a rich source of nutrients. It is somewhat right to assume as it obviously provides protein but other nutrient imbalance is not very healthy for the body.

Moreover, the most concerning thing about tilapia consumption is its potency to accumulate unhealthy and unwanted substances from its surroundings. This fish type can easily get contaminated and may pass the unwanted substances to its consumers which in turn can create illness or other health issues.

Whether tilapia are raised on farms or found in the wild, both types become dangerous when the conditions are not optimal. Therefore, it is always riskier to eat this fish. But, don’t worry! Tilapia is not the only fish in the world. Many others are safe to consume, and won’t put your health in danger.

However, if you are still not convinced to stop eating tilapia immediately, you should always see the source of origin for the fish you choose. The US and Canada have strict regulations regarding fish farming. Thus, tilapia from these countries have lower chances of contamination.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

Is Tilapia Healthy? 7 Reasons Why Experts Say to Avoid It

Tilapia is an inexpensive fish type and is consumed widely; however, it may lead to many diseases.

It may carry rare bacteria that can lead to life-threatening conditions.

How severe could the diseases be? It depends on the tilapia environment.

It may cause cancer because it has the potential to accumulate carcinogens in the muscle tissues.

Tilapia from US and Canada farms are only safe when farms are regulated as per the rules and regulations set by these countries.


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