Most conversations about healthy eating come back to fish sooner or later. After all, fish contain omega 3 fatty acids, which have been linked to many different benefits, along with plenty of other features. Salmon is more interesting than most, which brings us to the question of the day, is salmon good for you?
The obvious answer here is yes. Of course salmon is healthy. We all know that, right?
While there are plenty of benefits, salmon comes with its share of controversies too. You also need to watch the amount you consume, as eating salmon every day would be seriously risky (not to mention expensive).
For those who already love salmon, why not check out our list of must-try recipes for salmon lovers, suggestions for baked salmon wine pairing, or details about what to serve with salmon. After all, salmon tastes simply amazing when it’s been cooked well. If you want more nutritional information, read on as we take a close look at the benefits and risks of salmon.
Is Salmon Good For You?
- Salmon Nutrition Facts
- Types Of Salmon
- Benefits Of Salmon
- The Risks Of Salmon
- Is Salmon A Low Mercury Fish?
- Wild Caught Salmon Versus Farmed Salmon
- Can You Eat Salmon Skin?
- Is Canned Salmon A Good Choice?
- How Much Salmon Should You Eat?
- Final Thoughts
Salmon Nutrition Facts
Salmon is naturally free from carbs, including both fiber and sugar. Most of the calories come from protein and fat instead. As such, salmon ends up being filling and a rich source of protein.
The following nutritional details are for a 3-ounce serving of wild Atlantic salmon (raw).
- Calories: 121
- Fat: 5.4 g
- Protein: 17 g
- Carbohydrates: 0 g
- Sodium: 37.4 mg
Notable vitamins and minerals in salmon include various B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium zinc, and selenium.
Types Of Salmon
The nutritional details given above are a useful guide, but the information doesn’t tell you everything. Many things can influence the nutritional profile of salmon, including the type of salmon, where it was caught, and whether it was wild caught or farmed.
These are some of the main types:
- King (Chinook) Salmon. This salmon is the largest type in the world. It’s also thought to taste the best, especially if you choose wild caught over farmed salmon. The flesh is rich and can range in color all the way from white to a deep red.
- Coho (Silver) Salmon. This type of salmon tastes similar to the king salmon and gets its name from its red skin.
- Sockeye (Red) Salmon. Not surprisingly, this type of salmon is also named for the color of its skin. The flesh has a strong flavor and a rich texture. While sockeye is the perfect choice for salmon lovers, the flavor intensity could be too much for beginners.
- Chum (Dog) Salmon. This type of Pacific salmon isn’t well-known. It has a milder taste and less fat than some of the other types, making it excellent if you normally find salmon to be too intense.
- Pink (Humpback) Salmon. Here’s a more common type of salmon. The flesh is lighter than other species. The flavor is milder too and the fat content is relatively low. Pink salmon is often canned, although you can purchase it fresh too.
- Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar). This type of salmon comes from the Atlantic Ocean and is always farmed, rather than being wild caught.
The differences are significant enough that you might need to try a few types of salmon to discover your favorite.
Benefits Of Salmon
The Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Let’s dive right in with the omega 3 fatty acids. These are often why people eat fish or take fish oil supplements. It’s easy to see why too, as so many studies have found links between omega 3s and improved health.
Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats that your body cannot make itself. These fats play many roles, acting as an energy source, keeping your immune system functioning well, and providing structure to your cell walls.
There are three main types: EPA, DHA, and ALA. EPA and DHA are the most powerful ones and they’re both found in fish. ALA, on the other hand, is much more common in plant-based foods, including nuts and seeds.
As for benefits, well, where do we begin?
Omega 3s have been linked to a decreased risk of depression, less inflammation, a lower risk of dementia, decreased triglycerides in the blood, better eye health, improvements to heart disease risk factors, and the list goes on.
Honestly, few foods or compounds have been studied as extensively as omega 3 fatty acids.
Source Of Quality Protein
When talking about salmon, it’s easy to get carried away with the omega 3 content and all the benefits from omega 3 fatty acids. As we’ve already seen, those benefits are important.
Salmon has other appealing features too, including the protein content. For example, a 3-ounce serving of raw wild Atlantic salmon gives you 17 grams of protein.
Salmon is also a complete source of protein, meaning it gives you all the amino acids that you need. In contrast, most plant-based proteins are considered incomplete and have low levels of at least one important amino acid.
The importance of protein can’t be understated. Protein is needed throughout your body, including in your muscles. It is also filling, which is why a protein-packed meal keeps you satisfied for much longer than one that’s low in protein and high in carbs.
There Are Plenty Of Nutrients
As we mentioned earlier, salmon is a nutrient-dense food. It’s a particularly good source of B vitamins, with a 3.5-ounce serving giving you more than 100% of your daily intake for vitamin B12, more than 60% for vitamin B3, and more than 50% for vitamin B6.
Collectively, the B vitamins play a variety of roles, including helping your brain to function well and creating energy. It’s always fantastic when you find a food like salmon that offers all the B vitamins in one place.
There’s potassium present too, which helps to lower your blood pressure and regulate fluids in your body. In fact, each vitamin and mineral present in salmon has some role in promoting your health.
Some of the nutrients even work synergistically with the omega 3s, helping to promote some of the same effects, like reduced heart disease risk and less inflammation.
Features In Many Healthy Diets
Humans have been eating fish for a long time. Indeed, fish continues to be popular in diets that we know are healthy, like the Mediterranean diet. It would be too much to say that fish is the reason that the Mediterranean diet is so good for you, but the fish certainly doesn’t hurt.
Salmon can also be enjoyed on many modern diets, including paleo and keto. There are even pescatarians, who avoid red meat and poultry, while still enjoying fish regularly. Indeed, a pescatarian diet has some notable benefits, as you still get plenty of vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids, which are hard to get on a vegan diet.
Has Been Linked To Health Benefits
Research hasn’t just focused on the benefits of omega 3s. There have also been plenty of studies that look at how eating fresh regularly can help to promote health.
For example, some studies show that eating fish at least once per week decreases the risk of some chronic conditions, including depression and stroke. Such research proves that the benefits of fish far outweigh the risks.
We could write a full post just talking about the studies linking fish to health benefits, but we’re not going to (or, at least, not today). There’s no shortage of evidence out there.
The Flavor And Texture
Health benefits aren’t the only reason for eating salmon. Many people love the fish for its flavor and texture. The flavor is subtle, more like mildly flavored meat than like fish.
In fact, some people enjoy salmon even when they don’t like any other type of fish. That’s how good it is.
The flavor and texture do vary somewhat depending on how the salmon is cooked, along with the herbs and spices that you use. Oven roasting is a popular choice, as you don’t need to flip the fish or do much to it at all. Frying salmon is another option. Why not experiment and see which approaches taste the best to you?
The Risks Of Salmon
Is High In Fat And Calories
Salmon might not seem like a great choice for your waistline, as it’s relatively high in calories. The calorie content can be even higher if you’re frying the salmon in fat.
Even without factoring in cooking oil, you’re getting 5.4 grams of fat in a 3-ounce serving of salmon. Roughly 1.5 grams of this fat are the heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, but there are other fats present too, including some saturated fat.
If you’re worried about the fat, look for wild caught salmon rather than farmed salmon. This tends to be leaner and contains significantly less saturated fat.
It isn’t all bad news though. Fat isn’t the dietary villain that we often see it as. It’s simply a source of energy – and isn’t a problem when you get it from nutritious foods like salmon. Fat can also be satisfying, which is why you might find salmon more filling than some lower fat types of fish.
Plus, the fat content is still lower than plenty of other protein sources, including red meat.
Can Be Contaminated
Salmon can be contaminated from its environment and we’re not just talking about mercury either. There are also polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are industrial chemicals that were used extensively until 1979. Other contaminants may be present too.
Levels of contamination tend to be higher in farmed salmon compared to wild caught salmon, although the salmon farming industry is doing all it can to minimize contamination levels. If you are eating farmed salmon, cutting off the skin before cooking the fish can help minimize your risk, as this allows some of the fat and contaminates to drain away during cooking (although, you do lose nutrients from the skin by doing so).
The frustrating thing is that contamination isn’t like food spoilage – it’s not something you can detect. The best way to protect yourself is to focus on reputable suppliers that don’t fish in contaminated waters.
Is Salmon A Low Mercury Fish?
Mercury is an area of significant concern, as fish accumulate mercury throughout their lives. This mercury can be dangerous for humans, especially in high doses.
Even so, you don’t need to avoid fish entirely. Health recommendations continue to focus on two to three servings of fish per week. To keep yourself safer still, it’s best to avoid fish that are high in mercury, including fresh tuna, king mackerel, swordfish, and shark.
Mercury levels are measured in parts per million (ppm), with swordfish reaching a whopping 0.995 ppm and king mackerel reaching 0.730 ppm. The mercury content of salmon is much lower, averaging just 0.022 ppm. This figure makes salmon a low mercury choice.
Wild Caught Salmon Versus Farmed Salmon
The difference between wild caught salmon and farmed salmon is pretty simple. Farmed salmon are raised, fed, and caught in salmon farms, while farmed salmon come from the wild.
It’s easy to assume that wild caught salmon is healthier, better for the environment, and tastier than farmed salmon, even if it does happen to be more expensive. However, that’s a simplistic view. Indeed, the debate about wild salmon versus farmed salmon has been going on for decades and we’re no closer to an answer.
While catching salmon in the wild might seem more environmentally friendly, this isn’t always the case. Instead, there’s a significant risk of overfishing and of other environmental harm.
Farmed salmon poses different challenges, including the way that waste from the farms can contaminate the marine environment and how escaped farm fish can breed and compete with local fish for resources. Many companies are working to decrease their environmental impacts as much as possible, but even so, this is far from a zero-harm industry.
Fish can be contaminated by pollutants from their environment. This is a particular problem for farmed salmon, which often has much higher levels of contaminants than wild caught salmon.
That being said, there’s significant variation between locations and individual farms, so there’s no guarantee that wild caught salmon will always be less contaminated.
Some salmon farms rely on antibiotics, which could be a problem for human health. After all, high exposure to antibiotics increases the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
This effect could theoretically happen for the antibiotics used on salmon, not just the ones we consume ourselves. Consuming antibiotic contaminated foods could have other negative effects on our health too.
There are rules around antibiotic use and the amount of antibiotics used appears to be decreasing. Even so, there are always some companies that don’t play by the rules.
If you’re concerned about this effect, then stick with wild salmon, as there’s no chance that antibiotics will have been used.
Farmed salmon and wild salmon have quite different diets, so it’s not surprising that there are differences in their nutrient balance.
Interestingly, farmed salmon tends to be a little higher in omega 3 fatty acid content. This increased omega 3 comes at a price though, as farmed salmon also contain more saturated fat and more calories.
Because the variation in omega 3 levels isn’t dramatic, wild caught salmon ends up being the healthiest type.
Farmed salmon is the clear winner here and tends to be much cheaper than wild caught salmon. The price difference is dramatic enough to make the decision for many people.
After all, it doesn’t matter whether wild salmon is healthier or not, if farmed salmon is the only type that you can afford.
Some research suggests that wild salmon has much higher levels of mercury than farmed salmon, although both types of salmon do contain some mercury. Thankfully, in both cases, levels tend to be well within safe limits (and lower than in many other types of fish).
There’s Plenty Of Variation
Whether salmon are caught wild or farmed is only part of the equation. Other factors can influence the nutritional profile too, including where in the world the salmon came from and their local conditions.
Because of this, the wild versus farmed debate is only ever a guide. Some pieces of farmed fish could easily be healthier than some pieces of wild caught salmon.
What Should You Do?
The best thing you can do is to pay close attention to where your salmon comes from. Look for suppliers that provide details about how the salmon was raised and caught. Companies that are transparent like this tend to have a stronger focus on quality, which decreases the risk of any issues.
Remember too that nutrition isn’t an all or nothing game. You don’t need to make sure that every single food you eat is as good as it can be. So, if farmed salmon is all you have access too, don’t worry about it. You can still enjoy the salmon and get many benefits from it.
Can You Eat Salmon Skin?
While many people avoid the salmon skin, it is generally safe to eat. It even offers some benefits, due to its protein content and the various nutrients it contains.
In fact, salmon skin contains a higher concentration of omega 3 fatty acids than the flesh of salmon itself.
There is one issue – contaminants. As we mentioned earlier, salmon can easily be contaminated, regardless of whether it is wild caught or farmed. Some of those contaminants accumulate in the skin, making the skin riskier than other parts of the fish.
Even if you’re not planning to eat the skin, try to leave it on while you cook the fish. This way fewer nutrients get lost during the cooking process.
Is Canned Salmon A Good Choice?
It’s easy to assume that canned salmon is less healthy than fresh salmon. After all, the canned version hasn’t been freshly caught and there has been some processing involved.
Canned salmon does have some advantages though, as it’s less expensive and lasts longer than fresh salmon. The nutritional profile is surprisingly similar too.
There’s even the chance that canned salmon contains less mercury, as small salmon are used.
Canned salmon often includes bones too. While those bones can seem frustrating, you don’t need to pick them out before you use the salmon. They’re soft enough to eat and will provide you with some calcium.
Of course, canned salmon doesn’t taste quite the same as the fresh stuff. Whether this is an issue will depend on your preferences. Who knows? You might even prefer the flavor of canned salmon to fresh salmon.
How Much Salmon Should You Eat?
Most recommendations suggest eating between two and three servings of fish per week, with one of those being an oily fish like salmon. However, if the fish is high in mercury, you may be safer with just one serving per week instead.
Because salmon is relatively low in mercury, two to three servings per week is safe and beneficial for most people. More than this isn’t a good idea, as you’re likely to consume too much mercury. In fact, fish is one healthy food that would be dangerous to eat every day.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to talk to your doctor before eating fish regularly. That way you can get an accurate recommendation for your needs.
Fish is always complex – and salmon is no exception to that rule. On one hand, we know that omega 3s are incredibly important for health, especially these days, when we’re consuming so many omega 6 fatty acids through our food. Salmon also tastes amazing and is an excellent source of protein.
On the other hand, there are the mercury levels in fish to think about, along with the potential for contamination, and all the environmental debates that go with salmon fishing and salmon farming.
The best balance between those perspectives is what we’re already told – focus on two to three servings of fish per week. No more than that. Salmon is a great choice here, as it’s relatively low in mercury and is high in omega 3 fatty acids.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you might try for one serving of salmon and one of a leaner white fish. This way you’re still getting plenty of benefits, while your fat intake is a bit lower.