Tilapia is a go-to fish for a lot of people because of its relatively cheap price point, mild flavor, and availability. But as with most animal-based protein sources, quality and sustainability is a main concern with this tasty fish.
This guide covers the basics of tilapia and some things to keep in mind if you want to include it in your diet.
Table of Contents
What is Tilapia?
Tilapia is a name that is used to describe fish from the Cichlid family. This consists of thousands of different species.
The majority of Cichlid fish are freshwater originating from Africa. An estimated 900 to 1,300 species fall under this category.
Certain types also inhabit brackish water, meaning environments that are slightly salty such as river mouths.
Aside from Africa, tilapias are also found in South America, North America, Madagascar and India. Sri Lanka and Madagascar are also home to these fish.
All Cichlid fish were originally classified as “tilapia”. There are now three different sub-families: sarotherodon, oreochromis, and tilapia.
These subtypes are classed according to how they behave when it comes to laying eggs. Nonetheless, most people refer to all three species as “tilapia”.
Both sarotherodon and oreochromis are mouth brooding. These fish hold their eggs in their mouths until they hatch.
The third variation – tilapia – has a more impersonal approach. They simply deposit their eggs on pond and lake bottoms. (Source)
Appearance-wise, tilapias look similar to crappie or sunfish. They can be identified by their distinctive lateral line, which is interrupted.
The lateral line consists of the sense organs that appear down the sides of a fish’s body. Tilapias can also have a multitude of different color patterns and shades. (Source)
Oreochromis niloticus, also known as Nile tilapia, is believed to be one of the earliest fish commercially farmed.
They are portrayed in images painted within Egyptian tombs over 3,000 years ago. This subtype is still farmed throughout regions of Africa to this day.
Another name for oreochromis niloticus is Saint Peter’s fish. This anciently cultivated variation is believed to be the fish multiplied by Jesus in the Bible to provide food for hungry masses.
Tilapias are known primarily for their many commercial advantages. Unlike other some other types of fish species, they grow quickly and are disease resistant.
The diet of a tilapia fish is not high maintenance. They consume zooplankton and algae, both of which are easily available and inexpensive.
Compared to other popular freshwater fish, tilapias are tolerant of conditions that are considered harsh.
For example, they can survive in water that is very salty. They can also survive in high temperatures, and even in water that has high concentrations of ammonia.
For this reason, tilapias have been introduced into new freshwater habitats across the globe. As long as the climate is warm, tilapias can survive and thrive! (Source)
Their ease of harvesting isn’t the only reason tilapia fish has grown increasingly popular. They are also tasty!
The flesh of a tilapia fish is mild, lean and sweet. The texture is flaky and medium firm, colored white or pinkish white when raw.
Once cooked, the flesh will turn pure white. Farmed tilapia is usually more flavorsome than wild tilapia due to their varied diets. (Source)
Is Tilapia Paleo?
Before we cover whether or not tilapia fish is Paleo, let us delve into the workings of the Paleolithic diet.
This diet emerged as a new way of eating not just to lose weight but to improve health in the 1970’s. Gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin published a paper detailing the human diet throughout history.
Voegtlin based the early form of the Paleo diet off his research of how our ancestors used to eat.
He also mentioned his success at alleviating gastric illnesses (e.g. indigestion) with the diet.
The Paleo diet as it is today has been finessed, but operates off the same principles and concepts detailed in Voegelin’s paper.
Subsequent Paleo diet followers published other books and articles advocating the diet. By the 1990’s, nutritionists began to recommend the Paleo lifestyle to promote health and well-being.
The diet is all about eating the same way as we (human beings) used to eat during the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age. (Source)
This is a time period that began approximately three million years ago. It came to an end roughly 12,000 years ago, which is relatively recently historically speaking.
So why was a diet based off this particular era? Well, we share the same DNA today as our Paleolithic predecessors.
However, there is a big difference between the average human being today versus back then. Homo sapiens in the Paleo era tended to be lithe, athletic and lean.
They were a society of hunter-gatherers. This means they subsisted only off what could be hunted or gathered from nature.
Agriculture and animal husbandry (e.g. keeping cattle) had yet to be invented. Processed and manufactured foods such as sugary snacks were nonexistent!
Comparatively, the average human being today is overweight. Obesity is becoming a global health issue.
Many of us eat a diet that is high in grain-based foods. Popular processed foods with artificial ingredients are high in calories but low in nutritional content.
On the Paleo diet, you will eat as our ancestors did. This means you will only be consuming foods that have nutritional value.
This means you will be eating the following:
- Meats (preferably organic and grass-fed)
- Fish and seafood
- Vegetables (preferably fresh, not frozen)
- Healthy oils (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, etc)
You don’t need to count calories or plan your meals in a specific way. However, keep in mind that some foods (e.g. nuts) have a high calorie count, so eat them in moderation.
It is always preferable to purchase organic or fresh whenever you can. If this is not an option, select the least processed version of the food you are buying.
These are the foods you will be avoiding:
- All grain-based foods (e.g. bread, pasta, cereal, etc)
- All dairy products
- Processed foods (e.g. fast food)
- Sugary snacks and beverages
- Tubers (e.g. potatoes)
- Refined oils (e.g. certain vegetable oils)
A rule of thumb if you’re unsure about a food or drink is to ask yourself: did this exist in the Paleolithic era?
(Or you can download the Paleo.io app – the #1 Paleo diet food list app on the market!)
If the answer is no, then the item in question is likely not considered Paleo. As for tilapia, as a type of fish it is an acceptable addition to the Paleo diet.
With a low fat content and high protein content, it definitely has nutritional value. It contains essential vitamins and minerals, such as potassium and phosphorus.
Whenever possible, the Paleo diet recommends purchasing the freshest possible ingredients. Try to select fresh tilapia over frozen tilapia if possible. (Source)
How to Buy Tilapia
Purchasing fish can be a daunting task, especially if you aren’t sure what to look for. Whether you’re buying packaged or fresh tilapia, there are a few guidelines to stick to.
It is important to know how and where the fish was raised. These factors contribute to the health and consequently taste of the fish.
The vast majority of commercially sold tilapia originates from farms. Just as agriculture is the farming of vegetables, aquaculture refers to the farming of fish.
In the wild, you can’t be entirely sure of what the tilapia’s diet and habitat (e.g. water condition) is like.
Contrastingly, on fish farms the entire process from birth onwards is monitored. The condition of the water, the diet, and the fish’s health can all be monitored and controlled.
Firstly, check the country your tilapia originated from. Different countries can have vastly different standards for fish farming.
Tilapia farmed in Canada or the United States are held to high standards. The same is true of tilapia from any country farmed by Regal Springs, a well-known aquaculture company.
Try to select tilapia that is certified by environmental institutions. Examples of renowned organizations are Ocean Wise and Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA)
A seal of approval from an environmental or aquaculture organization is an excellent form of quality assurance.
These certifications guarantee that your tilapia was farmed in an environmentally responsible manner.
They also provide assurance that the fish farm adheres to correct aquaculture practices, following regulations.
If you’re buying fresh tilapia, you can ask your local fishmonger where it came from. If you’re purchasing tilapia from a store, you can check the packaging. (Source)
Now that you’re aware of how to select fish from regulated sources, learn what to look for in the fish itself!
Any fresh fish should be kept at a cool temperature. This is to preserve it and prevent it from rotting.
If the tilapia isn’t refrigerated or being kept on ice, it is best to avoid it. Be wary of a fish that smells of ammonia: this indicates it is starting to spoil.
The tilapia should not smell overwhelmingly fishy or sour in any way. The flesh (scales) should be shiny and clean with no traces of slime.
Checking the eyes of a fish is a good measure of freshness. A fresh fish will have clear, slightly bulging eyes.
Dry, discolored, or darkened flesh is an indication that the fish isn’t particularly fresh. If you handle the fish, it should feel firm and springy rather than soft.
For frozen tilapia, check the package to ensure that it is sealed. If the packaging is torn or damaged, give it a miss.
If you spot a package that is crystallized with ice, it’s possible that the fish has been kept for a long time. Always review the packaging and expiration dates before purchase. (Source)
The Importance of Buying Quality Tilapia
Quality is important when it comes to any food product. A better quality can mean better flavor, ingredients, and purity of the item (e.g. no artificial ingredients).
When it comes to proteins such as meat, poultry and fish you should keep especially high standards.
You can fall sick from eating an animal that is fed low quality food and raised in poor conditions. When it comes to tilapia, there are several criteria to keep in mind.
Be careful when it comes to tilapia that does not have third party certification. The farm it originated from may not follow the best aquaculture practices.
Similarly, you can’t guarantee that farm sourcing the tilapia is environmentally friendly. Fish farms can cause damage to the local ecosystem.
Keep in mind that not all countries have the same regulations when it comes to the quality of fish.
For example, Chinese tilapia farms are not held to the same standards as US tilapia farms.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) discovered that tilapia farms in China did not follow good aquaculture or environmental practices.
Certain Chinese tilapia farms were discovered to be overcrowded. The EDF also noted that antibiotics, chemicals, and low quality feed were being used.
If the source of tilapia is uncertified, do your research on the country it came from beforehand.
You wouldn’t want tilapia from a farm that allows water to grow contaminated with waste, or damages the environment. (Source)
How to Use Tilapia
Tilapia is a versatile fish that can be served in a variety of ways – grilled, fried, roasted and more! Tilapia’s mild flavor and firm flesh suits most cooking methods.
You don’t have to be an expert chef to cook tilapia. Unlike some other fishes, the texture of tilapia tends to maintain its shape even when subjected to heat.
Since the taste of tilapia is not overwhelming, feel free to be creative with your seasoning and marinades!
The majority of ingredients will complement the subtle taste of tilapia. From heavy cream sauces to spicy curry mixes, tilapia lends itself to almost any taste.
You can prepare tilapia as a heavy or light meal. A filet weighing six ounces is worth roughly 125 calories, with only approximately one gram of fat!
Tilapia can be served over rice as a main dish, or with salad as an appetizer. Prepare your favorite stew and add tilapia for a healthy, low-fat protein. (Source)
There are limitless ways this delicious (and economical) fish can be prepared. Recipes using tilapia can range from simple to complex, for chefs both new and experienced. (Source)
A couple of our favorite tilapia recipes
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