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Tilapia: The fish that is as bad for you as bacon

Wednesday - 10/5/2011, 1:58pm  ET

Evan Haning,

WASHINGTON -- If fish don't eat well, they won't be healthy for you to eat. And when tilapia are fed on corn and soy pellets, they can have higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids than doughnuts, hamburgers and pork bacon.

Tilapia also have low levels of beneficial omega-3s, and a 2008 study by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine warns that the ratio of these two nutrients could be dangerous for cardiac patients and others who should be following an anti-inflammatory diet.

Dr. Ski Chilton, senior author of the Wake Forest University study, says our ancestors appear to have had an omega-6 omega-3 ratio of two to one. Today, a 15 to one ratio is more common and a major cause of the rise of heart disease.

Fried and processed foods in our Western diet give us an overabundance of soybean, corn and vegetable oils. Soybean oil extends the shelf life of foods and is the main source of the omega-6s we consume.

In his Anti-Inflammatory Diet Guide, Chilton recommends mackerel, salmon, trout and canned albacore tuna as "great omega-3 choices."

Chilton advises minimizing consumption of farm-raised tilapia and farm-raised catfish for those following an anti-inflammatory diet.

Still, many people who don't like fishy tasting food enjoy tilapia. If you are among them, Seafood Watch recommends eating fish raised in environmentally friendly systems in the U.S.

Tilapia that is farmed in Central and South America is the next best choice. Seafood Watch recommends avoiding frozen tilapia imported from China.

After the Wake Forest study was released, the National Fisheries Institute took issue with its findings and published an open letter that was signed by 16 doctors disputing Chilton's recommendation that tilapia should not be part of a heart-healthy diet.

The American Heart Association also defended omega-6 fatty acids and recommended that they should total 5 to 10 percent of daily caloric intake.

Chilton stands by his research, however. Omega-6 acids are already abundant in American diets and lowering the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio to four to one is associated with a 70 percent drop in mortality, Chilton says.

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