6 Healthy Reasons Why Salmon Is a Staple of Practically Every Eating Plan Out There

Photo: Getty Images / Claudia Totir
Salmon has been a healthy go-to for what feels like forever, and it’s a decadent and versatile one at that. It’s the kind of food that’s tasty at all hours of the day: Brunch gets fancy in no time with a classic lox plate or smoked salmon frittata. A take on coconut salmon for weeknight dinner hits differently.

Known for its omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a great protein option that helps improve brain health, protects against inflammation, and can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. No wonder it's a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which prioritizes all of those things. It’s also why the fish comes highly recommended from Amy Shaprio, RD and founder of Real Nutrition. (If you’re not vegan or vegetarian, of course.)

Here are some of the benefits of salmon that prove why it should earn a spot in your weekly meal rotation.

1. It's a key source of brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids

And the gold medal goes to… In all seriousness, salmon is a heavy-hitter in terms of omega-3 fatty acids. We’re not able to produce the essential fatty acids by ourselves, so we have to look to our diet. Specifically, the oily fish contains EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, which help to decrease inflammation, protect your heart and your brain. “It helps to keep the integrity of the fattier areas of the brain,” Shapiro says. Research shows getting 0.45 to 4.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids a day can help decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease; a three-ounce serving of salmon contains 2.6 grams total of fatty acids.

2. It's a great lean protein option

“Depending on activity level, research shows at most meals, we should be getting at least 20 grams of protein,” Shaprio says. Just three ounces of salmon, she says, contains 17 grams—nearly your entire meal's quota. Essential for healing, growth, and maintaining muscle mass and metabolism, salmon is a lean source of protein that helps keep you full for longer. “It’s a really efficient way to get in all the amino acids,” Shapiro adds.

3. It has almost as much potassium as a banana

If you think bananas and avocados when you hear potassium, you’re not alone. Add wild salmon to that group of potassium-rich foods, because a three-ounce serving contains 309 milligrams (12 percent of your recommended daily intake) of the heart-healthy mineral. That's comparable to the potassium you'd get in one small banana. Shapiro adds that potassium is great for bloating, since it helps to negate the effects of too much sodium and flushes out extra water. This helps control blood pressure, too.

4. It's a good source of selenium, too

“When we think of selenium, it’s like, ‘Eat your two brazil nuts a day,’” Shapiro says. But, you guessed it, salmon is a great source at 20 micrograms per serving. Selenium helps support thyroid function and bone health. It’s also a trace mineral so you only need a small amount of it (just 55 micrograms per day) to be well on your way.

5. It's filled with inflammation-fighting B vitamins

Salmon contains nearly the whole spectrum of B vitamins, which contribute to maintaining energy levels, preventing inflammation, protecting the heart, and bolstering brain function. “Getting all those B vitamins in one source is really important, as opposed to piecing them together through many different sources,” Shaprio says. You’ll get around half of your RDI of B12, niacin, and B6 in a serving of salmon.

6. Its astaxanthin content helps combat bad cholesterol

You know how flamingos turn pink because of all the shrimp and algae they eat? Salmon is similar, and the hue has some added health benefits. The fish’s pinkish, red color comes from an antioxidant called astaxanthin, which salmon get from their diet. For you, it helps decrease bad cholesterol and increase the good. Studies show it may even work with omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent inflammation in the nervous system and brain.

Another shining moment: The antioxidant is good for skin thanks to its anti-aging properties. “Everybody likes to talk about how salmon keeps our skin and our hair healthy, and it’s because of that antioxidant,” Shapiro says. It can help combat the signs of UV damage and prevent water loss.

What does a serving size of salmon look like?

Shapiro recommends eating cold water fish or something with omega-3 fatty acids in it (like salmon) two to three times a week to truly maximize the benefits. Aim for serving sizes of three to four ounces. Salmon have lower levels of mercury than other fish like tuna, so you don’t have to be concerned about eating too much unless you’re eating it every day at every meal.

Any tips for buying salmon?

Generally speaking, going for wild-caught salmon is your best bet quality-wise. “Wild salmon will have a little bit more of all of this good stuff,” Shapiro says. Farm salmon is naturally white, so it’s dyed to look like wild salmon with a synthetic version of astaxanthin. This may sound sketchy, but it actually imparts many of the same benefits as the astaxanthin that you'd get from the wild salmon. “If you’re eating farm salmon, think about the antibiotics and what might be added to the feed that you’re going to be ingesting,” Shapiro notes. (Certain stores like Whole Foods only sell farmed salmon that is free of antibiotics and GMOs and was raised with sustainable practices.)

However, fish that's caught rather than farmed isn't always done so sustainably. For example, wild Atlantic salmon were so over-fished that their population levels are at critically low levels (and it's now illegal to fish them in the wild). When buying wild-caught fish, look for a seal from the Marine Stewardship Council, which indicates that the fish was caught in an effective way with minimal impact to the environment.

Fresh wild salmon can also become a pricey habit. Frozen or canned salmon are great options when you’re budgeting or just intimidated by buying fish. If you’re eating cured or salted fish, just keep sodium levels in mind.

Looking for some tasty ways to eat salmon? Try this easy canned salmon recipe from trainer Harley Pasternak, or this chili salmon bowl with homemade mayo. 

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