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Salmon
The Redder the Better

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Quick Summary tl;dr

Salmon are a rich source of bioavailable protein, healthy omega-3 fats, and micronutrients like B12, selenium, niacin, choline, and potassium.

The omega-3 fat, DHA, is critical for brain development and function.

Salmon are pink-red because they contain astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant. Wild Alaskan sockeye salmon have the most astaxanthin. The redder the better.

Salmon is the canonical healthy protein, and for good reason. While we could quibble about whether certain proteins are healthier, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, there is little dispute that salmon is a powerhouse mixture of bioavailable protein, healthy omega-3 fats, and micronutrients.

1. Salmon Has the Most Bioavailable Protein

Salmon, like most fish, have an excellent DIAAS score. DIASS stands for Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, and it’s a protein quality metric that’s replacing the older PDCASS system.

DIASS is a measure of how amino acids — protein’s building blocks — are absorbed in the small intestine. DIASS therefore gives the most accurate known measure of how much protein your body can actually use for healing and muscle building.

For reference, grains and legumes mostly score around 40-60% or less. This does not mean they are low in protein, per se, but that the quality of the protein that is present is poor. By comparison salmon scores 100%, making it definitionally an “excellent quality” protein.

2. Salmon is High in Omega-3 Fats

If you’re a fat-head like us, then you’ll want to check out this longer blog, accompanied by a short video, on omega-3 fats.

But the short of it is as follows: salmon is an incredible source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. DHA in particular is critical for the brain. DHA promotes brain development in fetuses and young people, and low levels of DHA are associated with cognitive decline and dementia.( Lauritzen et al, 2016,  Crawford et al, 2009)

It’s a little dark, but I like to say that DHA is good for the brain from “womb to tomb.”

In fact, Oxford professor Michael Crawford has hypothesized that the human brain grew in size when inland Africans moved to coastlines and started eating DHA-rich fish. ( Crawford et al, 1999) This migration and change in nutrition fueled a step in our cognitive evolution.

The omega-3 fat, DHA, is important for brain development, function, and preventing cognitive decline. DHA is good for the brain From Womb to Tomb.

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3. Salmon is High in Micronutrients

A 5-ounces (142 gram) of sockeye salmon has 300% of the RDA for vitamin B12, 80% for selenium, 80% for niacin, 25% for choline, and more potassium than a banana!

B12 is not only an essential vitamin in its own right, but a series of rat studies ( Rathod et al, 2014,  Rathod et at, 2015,  Rathod et at, 2016) demonstrated B12 synergizes with DHA! In other words, the animal model suggests that B12 and DHA together are more potent than either is alone at (i) improving the DHA composition of the brain’s cortex and hippocampus, (ii) boosting levels of brain cell growth factors (BDNF and NGF), and (iii) improving memory performance.

Selenium is critical for healthy thyroid function and a healthy metabolism. It’s also a core component of important antioxidant proteins called selenoproteins, a family of enzymes that includes five different glutathione peroxidases and three thioredoxin reductases! ( Labunskyy et al, 2013)

Niacin, also called vitamin B3, is a precursor to coenzymes involved in metabolism, including NAD(H) and NADP(H). ( Veech et al, 2019) NAD(H) is the key to how mitochondria turn food into energy, and NADP(H) is the antioxidant that supports all antioxidants, from the body’s own glutathione to the vitamin C in that cauliflower you might be having alongside your salmon. Check out this Low-Carb Ginger & Lime Grilled Salmon served with cauliflower rice!

Choline is the building block used to make the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Along with both B12 and selenium, choline is also important in the methylation cycle, a metabolic process required to properly repair and regulate DNA.

Potassium is, of course, a critical electrolyte, along with sodium and magnesium. Potassium sodium and magnesium are the big three when it comes to low-carb living. Complementing your salmon dinner, some dark chocolate for dessert — another one of the seven New Mediterranean superfoods — is high in magnesium.

Sockeye salmon has 300% of the RDA for vitamin B12, 80% for selenium, 80% for niacin, 25% for choline, and more potassium than a banana!

Salmon: The Redder the Better

4. Salmon is High in Astaxanthin

Salmon is packed with protein, healthy fat, and micronutrients. But what really makes salmon a superfood is its unique possession of a pigment called “astaxanthin.” ( Galasso et al, 2018)

Astaxanthin is why salmon are pink-red and it also happens to be a potent antioxidant with some exceptional properties.

Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant, with a free radical scavenging capacity ranging from 100 – 6000-fold stronger than Vitamins C, E, or CoQ10.

Astaxanthin is also a multitasker. Using electron dislocation resonance, which is like a chemical forcefield, astaxanthin can simultaneously neutralize up to 20 different free radicals at the same time! Most other antioxidants can’t do this.

And astaxanthin is both water and fat soluble. This means it goes everywhere in the body, every nook and cranny, including outside cells, inside cells, inside membranes and mitochondria, and inside the brain.

With respect to different types of salmon, the astaxanthin hierarchy goes as follows: Sockeye > Coho > Atlantic > Pink > Chinook > Chum. In general, because astaxanthin is the pink-red pigment in salmon, “the redder the better.” ( Ambati et al, 2014)

Astaxanthin in salmon is a powerful antioxidant. Different salmon have different amounts. Sockeye > Coho > Atlantic > Pink > Chinook > Chum.

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Dr. Nicholas Norwitz
PhD in Ketogenics and Metabolism, Oxford University

Nicholas Notwitz

Dr. Nicholas Norwitz is a new shining star in nutrition science. This 25-year-old Ivy League Valedictorian obtained his PhD at Oxford University in just two years and is now pursing his MD at Harvard Medical School. His research expertise is ketosis and brain aging; however, he has published scientific papers on topics ranging from neuroscience to heart disease to gastrointestinal health to genetics to bone health to diabetes.

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Comments (22)

Martina, Nick : Off topic but could you please give some ideas/recipes to quickly meal prep BF/Lunch/Dinner for the whole day within an hour if possible? The food provided to me at office is filled with unhealthy cheese, sunflower oil, so I want to avoid it and take my home cooked food instead. I guess it resonates with many others who prefer to eat healthy and are limited with their time in preparing food.

Hi Ray, I think these would be my top picks if you need to prep everything within 1 hour. But you'll need help if you can get someone to help in the kitchen 😊 Of if you give it 2-3 hours on let's say Sunday, you can prep food for the whole week. Soups, stews, casseroles - all these are great for batch cooking. If you use the recipe filter and set it to pick, easy, few ingredients etc, you'll find more 😊 There's over 1.5K recipes to choose from. Here are some examples...
Breakfast options:
Air Fryer Spinach & Feta Egg Cups
Any frittatas: ketodietapp.com/Blog/searchFilter
Any chia pudding: ketodietapp.com/Blog/searchFilter (apart from the tiramisu)
Any granola: ketodietapp.com/Blog/searchFilter
Any smoothies: ketodietapp.com/Blog/searchFilter (on the day, not meal prep)
Lunch options:
Savory Keto Protein Waffles
Any fish cakes: Keto Fish Cakes with Aioli, Salmon Patties with Avocado Lime Dip, Low-Carb Salmon Broccoli Cakes or Low-Carb Tuna Cakes
Meatballs: Easy Low-Carb Marinara Meatballs or Keto Turkey Meatballs with Dairy-Free Pesto or Make-Ahead Cheesy Sausage Liver Meatballs (more available)
Quick lunchbox options: ketodietapp.com/Blog/searchFilter
Ham & Cheese Unwich with Sriracha Mayo
Dinner options:
Keto Butterflied Chicken with Garlic Spinach
Keto Yum Yum Chicken Slaw
Creamy Low-Carb Cajun Chicken
Keto Crack Slaw - Egg Roll in a Bowl
Keto Creamy Mushroom Chicken Skillet

Where do you get your salmon from?

If you have a local fish monger or local supermarket that should be sufficient. Occasionally I'll order from Vital Choice seafood.

Is wild Keta salmon good too?

In a word, yes. I wouldn't want to discourage wild salmon intake. That said, if one is to be very particular keta (also known as chum) is among the lowest in astaxanthin (Figure 1: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3917265/). I honestly don't think that's a big deal, but note it because it was alluded to above. If you enjoy chum for some particular reason, eat it and be happy and healthy.

First I would like to say I love the food - information - stories... Thank you all for this. But feel the urge to respond to this - not to the story about the health benefits of salmon but why always salmon.
I'm sorry to say that I really really dislike salmon. My opinion...the most overated piece of fish in the world. I know but it is how I feel. There are so many more types of fish that are good for you. You should not want fish that is born in captivity.....wild salmon is not widely available (and there is not enough wild salmon in the world to feed the salmon lovers ). Why not try 'butterfish' (Lepidocubium Flavobrunneum) in small portions, herring, mackrel - for example. I know...it is not red, but it has a lot of good stuff as well. Just like all the other types of fish...it is all very healty and I sometimes miss it in the receipes - it is mostly tuna and salmon.
love
Yvonne

Thank you for your insight Yvonne. In terms of health benefits, salmon is a fantastic option although it's certainly not the only fatty fish to consider. Mackerel, sardines, herring - all these have a similar fat profile and are a great option. The truth is that many people dislike strong tasting fatty fish... apart from salmon. I personally love sardines, mackerel, herring - not too keen on tuna and I don't believe tuna is a good option to eat frequently. In the end it's all about balance - including a variety of highly nutritious foods we enjoy eating.

Is canned fish in a BPO tin unhealthy to consume?

Do you mean (Bisphenol A) BPA tin? I'm not an expert on the topic, but I'd avoid it if possible. For any food product I can think of, there should be BPA-free options. BPA is an endocrine disrupter, which means it can disrupt certain hormonal signaling pathways. In fact, there is even animal model research that BPA may have transgenerational effects through altering epigenetics.

Hey Nick, do you have any suggestions for salmon caviar (can I call it caviar?) I want to add it as a supplement to get more omega 3 but I'm not sure how to eat it. Do you put it in salads? I can google a few ideas but most are not low carb.

Salmon caviar deviled eggs! Super delicious. Link: Salmon Caviar Deviled Eggs . Also, hot tip, if you buy it in bulk and freeze it tastes (like me) like keto ice cream. I love vital choice (https://www.vitalchoice.com/v/wild-salmon/ikura-wild-salmon-caviar) . Martina might have more brilliant ideas.

You can freeze it? Awesome! Thanks for the tips! I'm new to salmon roe but would like to try it.

Hi Mike, I love salmon caviar! I've been using it a lot in the last few months as a prenatal supplement together with regular omega 3 fish oil. I add some as salad topping (works well with vegetables, chicken, salmon or tuna) or on top of my breakfast scrambled eggs (not hot). Or I just eat it straight from the jar. It's delicious!

Nick I feel Iike I've been living under a rock!😅 I had no idea there was a difference between different types of salmon. I knew wild was better but I didn't know sockeye was so much better than other options. I have always been concerned about mercury levels so we don't eat tuna and only occasionally salmon. Sardines are still our go to for omega 3s and luckily my family likes them. I may need to reconsider salmon and including more of it, especially sockeye.

Sardines are wonderful. I love taking them wild frozen and frying them up with avocado oil capers, garlic, olives, and them eating with buffalo mozz and EVOO. But in terms of "social" fatty fish, i.e. that which is more publicly accepted and for which there are more recipes, salmon is pretty awesome. Martina has many excellent salmon recipes. As for mercury, see my other reply below.

I have a similar question. Is canned fish ok? If it's BPA-free?

Yes, I think so. While some express concern about oxidized lipids, and fresh is certainly better, I’d consider tinned sardines or other fish great bioavailable protein and a decent source of omega 3 provided it hasn’t been drained of fat. Also, whole sardines in the tin have all the micronutrients that come with eating a whole organism.

How does a canned salmon fare in comparison to a fresh one in nutrition?

Usually canned salmon has very little fat. I don’t have a reference on the exact micro breakdown, but if you prefer canned for convenience, that’s reasonable to me. Wild Planet has some I like with skin and bones. www.amazon.com/.../Filter

Excellent blog! I learned so much! One question I have is are you worried about your mercury levels? How much salmon is too much? Thanks in advance!

Great question. It’s a valid concern. Personally, I think what fish you eats matters more than how much total fish or seafood. Here’s a good reference table to check out: https://www.fda.gov/food/metals-and-your-food/mercury-levels-commercial-fish-and-shellfish-1990-2012. You can see salmon (and some other fatty fish, like sardines, anchovies, trout, and North Atlantic Mackerel) have pretty low mercury. Fresh salmon has about 0.022 PPM mercury. By comparison, big eye tuna, king mackerel, shark, or swordfish have 0.689 – 0.995 PPM. Thus, the concentration of mercury in swordfish is ~ 45 times greater in swordfish than salmon (0.995/0.022). If you like eating seafood frequently, try to eat low on the food chain. FWIW, I eat salmon and/or sardines every day and run a normal mercury. Additionally, I know some people consume fish with chlorella, which can help chelate some of the mercury so it doesn’t get into your body. Just get ready for your tongue to turn green, haha. Thanks for the question.