Is Salmon Healthy? 5 Benefits You Should Know About
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Want to know all the reasons to fork into a fillet of salmon tonight? Read on for the many health and nutrition benefits.
Is salmon healthy?
I have something to share: I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist, and I absolutely love salmon. After not eating fish for 18 years, I began eating salmon and other seafood a few years ago. And I’ve never looked back. I’m so glad seafood like salmon is part of my plant-based diet now.
“Salmon truly is a superfood,” says fellow registered dietitian nutritionist Mandy Enright, author of 30-Minute Weight Loss Cookbook. “It’s a high-quality protein and is rich in heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. In addition, salmon is a quality source of vitamin D, selenium, and antioxidants like carotenoids.”
Now, let’s look at the nutritional ins and outs of salmon—including all the salmon benefits I can possibly list.
Different types of salmon
When choosing which type of salmon to eat, your head may be spinning with all the options. For starters, you can choose a salmon fillet, canned salmon, or smoked salmon. And then there’s farmed salmon versus wild salmon.
“When shopping for salmon, you may see farmed salmon or wild salmon,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Nicole Stefanow, a culinary nutritionist in the New York City area. “Both farmed salmon and wild salmon are excellent sources of protein—and also provide vitamins, minerals, and omegas-3. And both can be part of a healthy diet.”
Still, you should definitely know the difference between the two.
“Farmed salmon is raised in aqua farms,” Stefanow says. “Because of the dense population in these farms, there is often a need for the use of antibiotics to keep the fish healthy. In some cases, there is an overuse of antibiotics. Although there have been some recent improvements in these practices, in general, it is not well regulated, and many fish farms continue to overuse antibiotics.”
But don’t fret. You can find sustainably farmed fish.
“Look for certified logos or marks on packages that indicate the salmon has been raised or caught in sustainable matters,” Enright says. One easy telltale sign: Look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue label on a product’s package.
Wild and farmed fish can differ in terms of nutrition.
“Since the diets of farmed salmon have shifted from fish meal to more plant-based feed, omega-3 fatty acids in farmed salmon have decreased,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sanna Delmonico, associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California.
Indeed, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found this switch to a more plant-based diet for farmed fish has decreased levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
The fat content of farmed salmon is also three times that of wild fish, according to a study in Foods—but the researchers note that both wild and farmed salmon are valuable sources of EPA and DHA omega-3s. The research also found the protein content of wild salmon is slightly higher.
Where salmon comes from
Salmon can come from a variety of places—from the United States (mainly Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California), Canada, Chile, and Norway. The Environmental Defense Fund provides a useful chart on the origin of salmon and its eco-rating, mercury levels, and omega-3 content.
How to shop for salmon
When shopping for salmon, you’ll want to use your senses to choose the best catch. First, use your sense of touch. “Whether you opt for wild or farmed, look for salmon with firm flesh that springs back when you touch it—and has no gaping or soft flesh,” Delmonico says.
Next comes your sense of smell, so give the fish a sniff! “Salmon should have a mild sea smell,” Delmonico adds. “Avoid fish with a strong fishy or ammonia smell.”
And finally, give the fish a once over with your eyes. “Whole fish should have shiny skin, bright red gills, and clear eyes,” Delmonico says. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at the seafood counter, such as, “where is the seafood from?” or, “how long has the fish been on display?” Enright adds.
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Salmon nutrition facts
Salmon is an incredibly nutritious food. Here are the nutrition facts for salmon, including the recommended daily values (DVs), for a 3-ounce serving.
- Calories: 121
- Total fat: 5 g (6 percent DV)
- Fiber: 0 g (0 percent DV)
- Protein: 17 g (34 percent DV)
- Carbs: 0 g (0 percent DV)
- Sodium: 37 g (2 percent DV)
- Iron: 1 g (6 percent DV)
Salmon health benefits
One of salmon’s biggest benefits is the amount of protein it offers: 17 grams per 3 ounces. And salmon boasts EPA and DHA omega-3s.
“EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients our bodies can’t produce, which means we need to find good sources in our diet,” Stefanow says.
Another benefit of salmon? “It is one of the few excellent sources of naturally occurring vitamin D,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Mary Ellen Phipps, author of The Easy Diabetes Cookbook. “A 4-ounce portion of salmon offers 100 percent of your daily vitamin D needs.”
Plus, salmon is low in saturated fat. “And like other protein foods, [salmon] provides iron, zinc, and many trace minerals,” Delmonico says.
Salmon and disease prevention
Eating salmon can be especially beneficial for heart and brain health. “Salmon is heart-healthy because of its omega-3 fatty acids,” Delmonico says. “As well, if you are eating salmon, you are not eating something higher in saturated fat, like beef or lamb.”
The EPA and DHA omega-3s in salmon are cardioprotective. “Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent arrhythmias, lower blood pressure, and may reduce inflammation,” Delmonico says.
Eating salmon can also help reduce the risk of heart disease. “A 2021 study found that the consumption of at least two servings of fatty fish per week was associated with a lower risk of major cardiovascular disease among patients with prior cardiovascular disease,” Stefanow says.
Omega-3s are super important for brain health, too.
“Omega-3s are critical for brain development in utero and in young children,” Delmonico says. “They may also be associated with reduced risk of depression and improved mood. And newer evidence [published in the BMJ] found a role for omega-3s in preventing migraines.”
Is smoked salmon healthy?
Lox is salt-cured or brined, but not cooked or smoked. Smoked salmon is also salmon that’s been salt-cured or brined—and then smoked. And both are absolutely nutritious. Plus, you can use smoked salmon to make super easy salmon bacon.
But both lox and smoked salmon can be very salty. So aim to shop for a lower-sodium variety. “Smoked salmon provides a quality source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D,” Phipps says.
Is canned salmon healthy?
Canned salmon is especially great for using to make salmon patties or fritters. “When choosing canned salmon, knowing how to read a label is key,” Stefanow says. “Avoid products that have additives or added sodium.”
One great—and odd!—benefit of eating canned salmon is that it can contain bones, which provide calcium. “They are soft enough you may not even know they are there, and they are actually edible and high in nutrients,” Stefanow says.
How much salmon to eat
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise eating at least 8 ounces of seafood per week—and many experts recommend consuming up to 12 ounces per week.
“A serving of fish is about 3.5 ounces to 4 ounces, about the size of your palm,” Stefanow says. “Limiting your number of servings is important when it comes to fish, due to methyl mercury levels.”
All fish have some level of methyl mercury, due to the mercury found in our waters. But some have more than others. Salmon has a relatively low amount of methyl mercury, making it a good choice to help meet the daily recommendation, according to Stefanow.
And of course, most restaurant servings are larger than normal! “A restaurant-size serving of salmon tends to be closer to one-and-a-half to two true servings,” Stefanow says. “So if you are someone who eats out a few times a week, you may end up consuming more than the recommended servings per week.”
(Check out these side dishes to serve with salmon.)
Risks and side effects of salmon
“Eating too much salmon can potentially expose you to elevated levels of environmental toxins,” Phipps says. “However, the benefits associated with eating the recommended amount of salmon outweigh these risks.”
Want to know the exact breakdown of the amount of salmon that would cause a problem?
“You would have to consume about 53 pounds of salmon a week before you would be at risk for mercury poisoning!” says registered dietitian nutritionist Mandy Enright, author of 30-Minute Weight Loss Cookbook.
How to eat salmon
Give these delicious salmon recipes a try:
- Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, author of 30-Minute Weight Loss Cookbook
- Nicole Stefanow, MS, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in the New York City area
- Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California
- The Journal of Experimental Biology: "Are we what we eat? Changes to the feed fatty acid composition of farmed salmon and its effects through the food chain"
- Foods: "An Update on the Content of Fatty Acids, Dioxins, PCBs and Heavy Metals in Farmed, Escaped and Wild Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar L.) in Norway"
- The Environmental Defense Fund: "Salmon"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Fish, salmon, Atlantic, wild, raw"
- Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, author of The Easy Diabetes Cookbook
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Associations of Fish Consumption With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality Among Individuals With or Without Vascular Disease From 58 Countries"
- U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services: "2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"