What is the “pescatarian diet”?
The pescatarian diet, coming from the Italian pesce meaning “fish,” is a diet that includes fish and shellfish as its only source of meat protein. That means beef, chicken, pork and lamb are out of the question - replaced by fish, shrimp, clams, and lobster instead. Pescatarians may choose to include eggs and dairy (referred to as a “lacto-ovo-pescatarian” diet), but still prioritize plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, and grains. There are no rules on the amount of fish eaten, only that it is permitted.
More than just a modern “fad diet”, pescetarianism has long-standing historical significance. Throughout religious history the pescatarian diet has been followed as both a practice of abstinence and a form of reverence, providing nutrients on sacred days when red meat and poultry were to be abstained from.
Today, motivations for pescetarianism are diverse. Proponents cite environmental and animal welfare as compelling arguments for cutting down their intake of red meat and poultry, noting that it takes a large amount of resources to house, feed, and process livestock. Toxic emissions and waste from livestock rearing are another point of contention for those worried about the wellbeing of the planet (although the fishing industry too can be problematic, with overfishing and fuel emissions from fishing boats damaging marine ecosystems).
Concerns over the health impacts of eating too much meat are considered as well. Some claim that a diet heavy in red meat and poultry is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancers. Fish, it is claimed, can provide the same healthy nutrients while cutting out the bad.
A pescatarian diet is thus touted as an ethical alternative to a meat-heavy diet while still providing the same complete proteins and more. From a gastronomical perspective the inclusion of fish makes the pescatarian diet a more flexible option than a purely plant-focused approach. That certainly makes it easier to eat out, although it can also quickly become expensive especially if you live far from the coast.
And what about the pescatarian vs vegetarian diet? There has been controversy over the categorization of the pescatarian diet as a type of vegetarian diet, and there are definitely ethical similarities. Interestingly, scientific literature often refers to the pescatarian diet as “pesco-vegetarian”, implying a style of vegetarianism with the added bonus of seafood. Indeed, pescatarians will often complement their diet with much of the same foods that vegetarians might eat. Other contemporary sources claim that a vegetarian diet specifically cuts out all animal meat, and that the two are therefore distinct. For some, the pescatarian diet is an intermediary on the way to a full-fledged vegetarian diet, as a method of cutting out animal meat step-by-step.
Pescatarian diet: benefits
One of the main reasons people choose to follow a pescatarian diet is for the purported health benefits. A diet heavy in red meat and poultry is argued to be problematic in several ways and the reason for which many turn to a pescatarian or vegetarian diet. Meats coming from industrial plants are often treated with chemicals and will carry those through to the consumer’s plate. Other studies show that eating less red meat reduces how much cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium you consume, which has been linked to lower blood pressure and lower risk for chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. On the flip-side, it can also result in a lack of iron and protein, leading to fatigue or anemia.
The pescatarian diet brings the nutritional advantages of seafood to a mostly plant-focused diet. While you can obtain all the necessary nutrients and proteins by combining different plant-based foods, they are more readily available in seafood and more easily absorbed by the human body. An unbalanced vegetarian diet can quickly result in a lack of B12 vitamins and amino acids, while seafood can make up for it. Fish is also low in saturated fats and instead has large amounts of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA. These “healthy fats” are anti-inflammatory and touted by the scientific community for lowering the risks of chronic diseases, mental disorders like depression and anxiety, and joint pain. You might also get less protein from fish and shellfish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (certain studies show that most people are probably getting enough protein from other food sources anyway).
Nonetheless, the pescatarian diet isn’t without scrutiny. One of the main criticisms of a fish-heavy diet is the high intake of the heavy metal mercury. Mercury is an environmental toxin that accumulates in sea critters, especially in fish like tuna and swordfish. While the mineral selenium - naturally found in wild-caught fish and shellfish - can counteract the effects of mercury, it is also argued that the high level of toxins in oceans today can make mercury toxicity a genuine problem. And the bigger the fish, the more mercury will have accumulated in their bodies over time. That’s why pregnant women are encouraged to limit their intake of mercury-heavy fish, replacing them with quality fish instead that can support fetal growth. Some claim that wild-caught fish will have less chemicals and toxins than farmed fish, while others prefer to choose sustainably sourced fish, whether they come from a farm or are wild.
At the end of the day, the healthfulness of a pescatarian diet will depend on the nutritional balance and the quality of all the foods you eat. It can be tough to get enough iron on a strict pescatarian diet, and if you’re cutting out dairy and eggs then calcium and choline can be lacking as well. Excess consumption is also a risk. Too much seafood and fish can quickly lead to an excess of protein and buildup of mercury, much as an overly meat-heavy diet would lead to higher cholesterol and hormone levels. Boredom can also hit - restrictions will limit your options, but luckily you can easily switch your recipes up with a bit of time and thought. The widely accepted recommended amount is two to three servings of seafood a week. Just as vegetarian diets can vary greatly, so can the pescatarian diet. The main thing to remember is to eat a well-balanced diet including a range of produce, whole, and nutrient-dense foods.
Preparing fish can sound daunting, and you might be under the impression it’s tricky to get right. Fears of undercooking can lead to overcooking until it’s dry and unpleasant, and a dislike of that strong fishy taste can be off-putting for many.
The good news is that it’s actually much simpler to cook fish and seafood than commonly thought, and often takes less time. In fact, seafood comes in many forms and is versatile to prepare, from fresh Halibut fillets perfect for roasting, to pan-fried Swordfish steaks. Fish can even be prepared “raw” such as in the Peruvian staple dish, ceviche. (Don’t worry, it’s not actually raw. An acid like lemon or lime juice is used to “cook” the fish and makes it safe and delicious to eat). And any leftovers can be perfectly transformed into herby fishcakes.
You can be as elaborate in your prep method, or as simple as you’d like. And if filleting a whole fish isn’t your thing, you can always ask your fishmonger to do it for you.
Personal choice is one of the biggest factors when selecting which fish to prepare. While fattier fishes like salmon and mackerel are touted for having higher levels of omega-3s, they also tend to be oilier and have a stronger taste. That’s why it’s important to choose seafood that matches your tastes and preferences and remember that variety matters, too.