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Your 101 Guide To Salmon: Health Benefits, Environmental Impact & Cooking Tips

Emma Loewe
Author: Expert reviewer:
August 03, 2023
Emma Loewe
By Emma Loewe
mbg Contributor
Emma Loewe is the former Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen. She is the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us" and the co-author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care." Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,500 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes.
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, M.S., RD
Expert review by
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, M.S., RD
Registered Dietitian
Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, chef, and writer with a love of science and passion for helping people create life-long healthy habits. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Media Studies from Fordham University, a Grand Diplôme in Culinary Arts from the French Culinary Institute, and master's degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from New York University.
August 03, 2023
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Salmon start their lives in freshwater and migrate to the ocean before eventually returning to their home waters to spawn and die. Along the way of this epic journey, they take in nutrients that make them one of the healthiest fish you can eat. Here's a deep dive into why salmon is so good for you, how to pick a sustainable piece, and how to prepare it.

Types of salmon

Most salmon on grocery store shelves is either farmed Atlantic salmon or wild-caught Pacific salmon (of which there are a few different varieties). Here's what to know about each:

  • Atlantic salmon: Most Atlantic salmon is from fish farms in the U.S., Chile, or Norway. Since it's raised in tighter conditions and fed a diet of fish meal and soy, farmed salmon tends to be higher in calories and fat (both saturated and unsaturated fat). Compared to wild Pacific salmon, farmed Atlantic salmon is usually slightly lower in protein and key nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B12.
  • Sockeye (Pacific salmon): Sockeye is an abundant type of Pacific salmon that has a firm feel, deep red flesh, and a strong, rich flavor. Most Sockeye salmon is caught in Alaska. State laws prohibit fin fish farming, so Alaska sockeye is always wild-caught. This type of salmon is very high in vitamin D and vitamin B12.
  • Coho (Pacific salmon): Coho has a slightly milder flavor than sockeye, and it's a bit lighter in color. It's also usually caught in Alaska, and price-wise, it tends to be a bit more expensive than sockeye.
  • Chum salmon (Pacific salmon): Chum salmon has a milder flavor and lighter color than sockeye or coho. It's a smaller, less nutrient-dense fish that is often used for salmon jerky or smoked salmon products.
  • Pink salmon (Pacific salmon): Like chum salmon, pink salmon is lower value and used for canning or other fish products. The small fish is abundant and lower in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other salmon varieties.
  • King salmon (Pacific): Dubbed royalty for a reason, king (also known as chinook) is the most premium salmon you can find. Wild king salmon is fatty with a rich flavor. The high demand for king salmon has caused it to be overfished in some areas, though there are strict catch limits on Alaska king salmon.

Here's how one 3-oz. serving of Atlantic farmed1, coho2, and sockeye3 salmon fare nutritionally, according to the USDA:

Salmon typeAtlantic (farmed) Sockeye (wild)Coho (wild)
Protein 17.3 grams18.9 grams18.4 grams
Fat 11.4 grams3.99 grams5.04 grams
Calcium7.65 milligrams7.65 milligrams30.6 milligrams
Magnesium 23 milligrams25.5 milligrams26.4 milligrams
Potassium309 milligrams312 milligrams360 milligrams
Vitamin B122.74 micrograms3.99 micrograms3.54 micrograms
Vitamin D9.35 micrograms12 micrograms7.66 micrograms

Salmon nutrition

There are plenty of healthy types of fish out there, but salmon's unique array of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants put it a cut above the rest. Here are a few reasons nutritionists recommend eating it:


It's high in heart-healthy omega-3s

"Compared to other popular fishes like tuna, tilapia, and herring, salmon has a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids," Huma Chaudhry, R.D., LDN, a clinical dietitian, tells mindbodygreen.

Most Americans don't get adequate amounts of this fatty acid4 through diet, but Chaudhry notes that one serving of salmon provides enough to meet the NIH's daily recommendations5—1.6 grams for adult men and 1.1 grams for adult women.

As for why they're important: "There is a lot of evidence, especially for heart health, that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial. People who have higher omega-3 intakes have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases6, basically, across the board," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., RDN, LDN, FAHA, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State and past chair of the AHA Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.

EPA and DHA are two types of polyunsaturated omega-3s you'll find in oily fish. They seem to protect against heart disease and stroke due to the way they positively impact blood lipids, blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability7.


The healthy fats in salmon could also be good for cognition

"Omega-3 fatty acids also seem to play an important role in cognition, especially in the young," notes Kris-Etherton. According to one study on Swedish teenagers, those who ate more fish tended to score higher on intelligence tests8 three years later.

However, the research on high fish consumption and higher IQ scores is mixed (some studies have only found a super-small relationship or no relationship at all9), so there's still more to learn about how omega-3s impact cognition.


It contains vitamin D for bone health, mood support, and more

"All species of wild salmon are considered to be excellent sources of vitamin D," says registered dietitian nutritionist Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., CSSD, LDN. Vitamin D plays a key role in bone health10, hormone regulation11, immune function12, and gut health13. It's also been shown to promote a healthy mood. Most Americans don't get enough vitamin D from diet alone, making food sources of the vitamin, like salmon, extra important.


It fills your daily vitamin B12 needs

Ehsani notes that one 3-ounce serving of salmon also meets daily B12 needs (2.4 micrograms for most adults14). "Research has shown that being low in B12 can lead to depression15, memory problems, and dementia, so it's a really important nutrient," she adds.

Since B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that's only present in animal products, plant-based eaters need to be extra diligent about consuming it daily. Signs of a B12 deficiency include fatigue, trouble concentrating, and tingly hands and feet.


It contains potassium for healthy blood pressure

Kris-Etherton notes that the typical American diet is low in potassium, which is present in many fruits and vegetables, as well as in seafood. "[Potassium] is a really important nutrient for the management of normal blood pressure and blood pressure control," she notes, thanks to the way it counteracts the effects of sodium.

Research shows that increasing your dietary potassium intake can reduce your blood pressure16—especially if you're someone who consumes a lot of sodium. One serving of salmon can fill around 10% of your daily potassium needs17.


It's a decent source of astaxanthin for skin health

Salmon feed on astaxanthin-rich microalgae, which give the fish its reddish-orange shade. The richer its color, the higher salmon is in astaxanthin—a pigment with powerful antioxidant properties. Lab studies show that astaxanthin is even better absorbed in the presence of dietary fat18, such as the omega-3s found in salmon, dietitian Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN, previously reported on mindbodygreen.

Some suspect that astaxanthin could also play a role in the healthy aging process20, but we need more research to be sure.


It's a complete protein source

Eating protein with each meal can help with blood sugar control21, muscle growth, and bone health22. Since it's such a satiating macronutrient, protein can also help keep you full for longer, potentially contributing to fat loss. Experts recommend eating at least 25 to 30 grams of high-quality protein in each meal to reap these benefits, which is easy to do with high-protein foods like salmon.

Since salmon is a complete protein, it has the right amounts of the amino acids your body needs to function, giving it a leg up on plant proteins. A serving of salmon tends to have a similar amount of protein to a serving of beef (but it's much leaner).


It may help improve pregnancy outcomes

Consuming polyunsaturated omega-3s (the type present in salmon) during pregnancy can increase gestation time23. "The longer the infant is in utero, the less the risk there is of neonatal problems," explains Kris-Etherton, and research shows that increasing one's omega-3 intake can reduce the risk of preterm birth by up to 11%.

"Eating more seafood during pregnancy can also be better for a child's IQ and development," adds Ehsani. She points to one 2007 study that collected food journal information from 11,875 pregnant women. That study, published in the Lancet, concluded that pregnant women who ate less than 12 ounces (340 grams) of seafood a week were more likely to give birth to children with lower IQ scores and developmental delays24.

Finally, salmon also contains folate, which can reduce the risk of neural tube defects25 when consumed during pregnancy.


It can improve overall metabolic health over time

Making salmon a regular part of your rotation can improve markers of metabolic health for the long haul, per research. "Regularly eating salmon has been linked to lower cholesterol26, regulated blood pressure27, and even reducing the effects of inflammation28," says Chaudhry.

It's no wonder that salmon is a staple fish (along with sardines and anchovies) in the Mediterranean diet, which is consistently considered one of the best eating plans for metabolic health and longevity.

In short, Kris-Etherton concludes, "People really should, across the board, eat more seafood for overall health."


Thanks to its wide array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy omega-3 fats, salmon is good for your cardiovascular health, immunity, brain function and mood, and more. It's also a complete protein source that will keep you full and fueled for hours. Eating salmon may also have special benefits during pregnancy.

Health concerns 

Overall, salmon is a very healthy and safe fish to eat, though there are some risks to know about. Here's how to navigate its pros and cons:


Mercury exposure

Salmon is lower in the neurotoxin mercury than other fish like swordfish and tuna. This makes it a safer option for those at higher risk of mercury poisoning29, such as children, those with kidney disease, and those who are pregnant.

Since salmon has benefits for childhood development, eating it during pregnancy is actually a good idea—not something to fear. "'It's a message we've got to get out to not just pregnant women but women who want to become pregnant because it does take up to two to three months to build up omega-3 fatty acids in cell membranes. It doesn't happen immediately," Kris-Etherton notes.

If you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the EPA and FDA30 recommend limiting yourself to 2 to 3 servings of fish per week, just to be safe.



Wild salmon that swim in heavily polluted waters can contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other industrial contaminants, though the risk these pose to human health is not well understood. In one risk assessment on herring and salmon conducted across four countries in 2020, though, the benefits of the fatty fish outweighed their potential for contamination31.

Still, if you're concerned about pollutants, you can buy your fish from areas that have strict clean water regulations in place, like Alaska and the North Pacific.


Bacteria and parasites

In rare cases, raw fish can be a source of parasites and dangerous bacteria32. To reduce your risk, limit your raw fish intake to one or two times a week and buy from reputable suppliers.

Farmed salmon can also harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria when grown on a farm that uses antibiotics33. Look for farmed filets that are certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or Monterey Bay Seafood Watch to ensure they were responsibly raised (more on these certifications below).


Overall, salmon is very safe to eat, though it can contain mercury, parasites, unhealthy bacteria, and industrial contaminants depending on how and where it was raised. To reduce the (already negligible) risks of eating salmon, buy from providers you trust and limit your raw fish intake to one or two times a week.

How often should you eat salmon?

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish34 a week to support cardiovascular health. This includes salmon, as well as fish like mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (SMASH fish for short!).

While two servings a week is a good baseline, Kris-Etherton notes that for most people, there's no reason not to eat more than that—especially if you're using fish to replace less healthy proteins like processed meats.

Environmental concerns 

Depending on where it comes from, salmon can be a very sustainable protein source.

Since salmon follow a pretty predictable migration pattern and travel in large schools, fishers will simply drop a "passive net" in a bay and wait for fish to swim through. Ray Hilborn, Ph.D., a marine biologist and fisheries science professor at the University of Washington, explains that this means the industry has a lower carbon footprint than other fisheries.

Bycatch also isn't as much of a concern with salmon fishing. Most bycatch happens when nets are released deep into offshore waters, scooping up a variety of species (some of which might be threatened or endangered) in the process. Since salmon nets are usually deployed closer to the surface—and further inland—the risk of catching other species is much lower.

Alaska, where most wild salmon is caught in the U.S., also has strict rules around how much fishing can occur each season. Researchers across the state monitor salmon populations year-round to determine the health of various stocks. They use these observations to set catch limits, ensuring that fishers don't take more salmon in one season than can naturally reproduce.

Because of this strict monitoring, Hilborn says that "there are more salmon in the ocean now than at any time in history, as far as we know."

First-person insights

Earlier this summer, I visited Alaska to learn about the salmon fishing industry firsthand. On a rare clear June afternoon off the coast of Juneau, I watched boats deploy long, thin rows of nets just below the water's surface to catch chum salmon. After an hour of waiting, nets were reeled back in to reveal dozens of fish that had swum through. Aside from the occasional piece of seaweed, salmon were the only thing that got caught. Police boats patrolled the area to ensure nobody was fishing out of turn. The hours that fisheries were open were strictly regulated, and commercial fishing could be shut down at any minute if not enough salmon were making it back upstream to spawn.

That said, overfishing is still a possibility where salmon stocks aren't as closely monitored. Salmon farms can also come with their own set of environmental issues. For example, sea lice can quickly spread in crowded salmon farms and pose a major threat to juvenile salmon if it seeps to wild populations. Fish feed can also be resource-intensive to produce, potentially contributing to land clearing and deforestation.

To avoid these environmental pitfalls, look out for the following when shopping for salmon:

  • MSC certified (wild): The MSC certification (a dark blue label with a white fish on it) signifies salmon that has come from a certified fishery. To be MSC-certified, a fishery has to pass certain standards related to stock condition and environmental impact. Hilborn notes that the MSC certification, while not perfect, is a good indication that seafood has been caught in a way that will leave no trace on the environment. "One of the points I always make when talking about MSC is that if you apply their standard to other foods in a grocery store, none will pass," he says. "Principle 2 says that the production of this will not alter the structure and function of the ecosystem. No form of agriculture doesn't alter the ecosystem... Anything that involves plowing a field does not maintain the structure of the natural ecosystem."
  • ASC certified (farmed): The ASC certification (a light blue label with a white fish on it) certifies fish farms that have passed third-party testing for safety and sustainability standards.

To quickly compare the environmental impact of different types of salmon when shopping, you can also refer to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, which compiles this information into an easy-to-skim guide.

How to choose the best type of salmon

These insider tips will help you choose the most delicious and nutritious cut or can of salmon at the store:


  • If you have the chance to smell salmon before purchasing, take a whiff! Fresh fish should smell salty but not too fishy, Ehsani says.
  • Look for a piece of salmon that is moist and taut. Salmon that looks dry, soft, or slack may have been thawed and frozen multiple times.
  • You can usually tell wild-caught salmon from fresh salmon by its fat lines. Farmed salmon will have thicker white lines of fat running through it.
  • The deeper the color of salmon, the richer it is in antioxidants like astaxanthin. Deeper red cuts will also likely be richer and more flavorful.

Store fresh salmon in the fridge as soon as you get home and use it within a few days.


  • Summer is peak salmon season, meaning you're probably better off buying frozen for the rest of the year. Salmon is typically frozen within a few hours of catching to retain its flavor and nutrition.
  • Avoid frozen salmon that has frost or ice crystals; this could indicate the fish has been improperly stored or thawed and then re-frozen.
  • Like with fresh salmon, go with cuts that look moist, taut, and rich in color.

Store frozen salmon in the freezer and eat it within a few months. You can either thaw it in the fridge before cooking or cook it straight from frozen. Don't refreeze your salmon once it's thawed; it'll affect the taste and quality.

Smoked or canned:

  • Canned and smoked salmon tends to be higher in salt due to the curing process. That doesn't necessarily make it unhealthy, but it's something to consider if you're watching your sodium intake.
  • If you can tolerate it, choose canned salmon with intact skin and bones. It'll be even higher in calcium and omega-3 fats.

Canned salmon can typically last in a cool, dark place for two years or more.

How to eat more salmon

Now for the fun part: cooking tips! While some people find preparing fish intimidating, it really doesn't need to be.

"[Salmon] is truly one of the easiest (and quickest) foods to cook," say Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton, aka The Salmon Sisters. "Preparing it can be as easy as turning the oven on, placing salmon portions in a baking dish, sprinkling with your favorite seasoning, topping with a little olive oil or butter, and baking for 10 minutes while you prepare the rest of your meal."

You'll know your fish is done when it flakes when touched with a fork and is slightly translucent at its thickest part, they add. "Salmon is delicate and keeps cooking once it's taken away from the heat, so we like to err on the side of undercooking," Laukitis and Neaton say.

How long should you cook it for?

A general rule is to cook salmon for 10 minutes per inch of thickness at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here are a few more quick ways to get salmon on the table:

  1. Mash canned salmon with avocado and serve it on toast with greens.
  2. Toss canned salmon into your salads or grain bowls for some extra protein.
  3. Wrap salmon (skin-on!) in tin foil and allow it to steam in the oven to retain its natural juices. Feel free to throw some garlic, lemon, and spices for extra flavor.
  4. Make a quick sheet pan dinner by placing potatoes and/or vegetables on the baking dish with your salmon.
  5. Sizzle your salmon in a pan with a bit of olive oil before placing it in the oven to cook the rest of the way. This will give it a crispy crust and soft interior.
  6. Throw a whole fillet of salmon on the grill with olive oil and lemon until the skin gets nice and crispy.
  7. Whip up some salmon lettuce wraps.
  8. Make your own cured salmon (gravlax).
  9. Incorporate fresh or canned salmon into fish burgers.
  10. Cook along with the following recipe, from Laukitis and Neaton's upcoming book Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage.

Smoky Citrus, Soy & Herb Cedar-Plank-Grilled Salmon

Makes 4 to 6 servings

salmon on wood board with lemon on top
Image by Dawn Huemann / Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage


  • 1 untreated cedar grilling plank

For the glaze:

  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • Pinch of white pepper
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the fish:

  • 1 wild salmon fillet (about 24 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • Finely chopped fresh herbs, such as dill, chives, or parsley


  1. Soak the cedar plank in water for at least 30 minutes.
  2. To make the glaze, in a small saucepan, combine the orange and lemon juice, vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and white pepper. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue cooking at a low boil until the mixture has thickened and reduced to a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and whisk in the oil.
  3. To prepare the salmon, leave the fillet whole or cut it into 4 to 6 portions. Drizzle salmon with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. You do not need to remove the skin; it will be easy to remove once it's cooked.
  4. Preheat a gas grill on medium heat. If you are cooking over an open fire, light the coal and let the flames burn down to a hot, glowing bed of coals. Drain the cedar plank and place the fish, skin side down, on the plank.
  5. Brush each piece of fish generously with the glaze and top with sliced lemons. Place the plank on the grill rack. Cook the fish just until the salmon flakes when tested with a fork and is slightly translucent at its thickest part, 10 to 15 minutes. (Another sign of doneness: when you see the first little spots of white liquid begin to ooze from the flesh of the fish.) Top generously with fresh herbs and serve immediately.


Is it good to eat salmon every day?

Eating oily fish like salmon at least twice a week is recommended. While there is probably no harm in eating salmon every day (as long as it's properly cooked and well sourced), eating more than one type of fish will be more nutritious in the long run. Try throwing some sardines or anchovies in there every once in a while too. Pregnant women should limit their salmon intake to two or three times a week.

Can you eat salmon skin?

Yes! Salmon skin is a good source of healthy fats and proteins, and it helps lock in the nutritional value of your filet. Leave it on when you can (and peep some delicious ways to crisp it up here).

Does salmon have benefits for skin?

Yep, salmon is a source of omega-3 fatty acids that can help improve and protect the skin. It also gets its pink color from astaxanthin—an antioxidant that's been shown to protect skin cells from UV light.

The takeaway

Salmon is a healthy source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy omega-3 fats that make it a great fish for supporting cardiovascular health, immunity, brain function and mood, and more. Whether you bake it in the oven or toss it on the grill, salmon makes for a healthy protein source that's hard to beat.

Salmon recipe excerpted from The Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage © 2023 by Claire Neaton and Emma Privat by permission of Sasquatch Books. All rights reserved.

34 Sources


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