Plant-based diets have become more popular in recent years, and for good reason. There’s no question that plant-based diets are associated with many health benefits. But what about diets that are largely plant-based and also include fish and seafood? If you’re a pescatarian or are contemplating following a pescatarian diet, read on!
What is a pescatarian diet?
A pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that also includes fish and seafood. This allows for more flexibility and adaptability to a variety of cuisines. Those who choose to follow a pescatarian diet may experience the same health benefits as with a vegetarian diet. They also have the added bonus of omega-3 fatty acid and protein-rich seafood!
Who should follow a pescatarian diet?
A healthy and balanced diet can include meat and poultry. However, someone may choose to follow a pescatarian diet for many reasons, including:
Some individuals may oppose the slaughter of livestock and poultry for food. Others choose not to support conventional animal agriculture practices. They choose to not support these practices by avoiding meat and poultry.
Other individuals may choose to be pescatarian to reduce their environmental footprint. Fish and seafood release fewer greenhouse gasses compared to land animals. One study in 2014 found that meat eaters had 46-51% higher mean dietary greenhouse gas emissions than pescatarians. But not all fish and seafood are produced in an environmentally-friendly way and some are more sustainable than others. For specific recommendations on which are most sustainable, check out The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Additionally, look out for fish and seafood with Marine Stewardship Council Certification (MSC). This assures that the fishery they are from abides by internationally-recognized environmental sustainability standards.
Diets high in whole plant-based foods, such as the pescatarian diet, are linked to a reduced risk of a variety of chronic illnesses. This is likely because diets that are rich in plant-based foods are high in essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate that helps us feel full and satisfied after meals. The high fiber content of a pescatarian diet can provide several benefits. It helps lower cholesterol by binding to it in our GI tract and ushering it out of the body for excretion. Fiber even stabilizes blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Lastly, fiber promotes healthy digestion and feeds our good gut microbes. A healthy gut microbiome has been linked to reduced risk of depression, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, obesity, and much more.
Those who follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet may be lacking certain nutrients. These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. The fish and seafood in a pescatarian diet are rich in these nutrients. By incorporating fish and seafood into a vegetarian diet, you can reap the benefits of a largely plant-based diet while also reducing your risk for nutrient deficiencies. Fish and seafood also tends to be lower in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol compared to meat, as long as it isn’t fried.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Additionally, the omega-3 fatty acids abundant in fish and seafood have been widely studied for their anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, and brain health-boosting properties. Studies suggest that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and seafood may lower one’s risk of heart attack and heart failure in older adults. Furthermore, numerous studies have found fish intake to be positively correlated with cognitive function. In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology examined the impact of seafood consumption on 2,000 pregnant women. It found that women who ate more servings of seafood per week during pregnancy gave birth to children with higher cognitive scores and fewer incidences of autistic spectrum disorder at 14 months and 5 years of age.
How to follow a pescatarian diet
The pescatarian diet includes:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Dairy products
- Shellfish (such as shrimp, prawns, crab, and lobster)
- Mollusks (such as clams, oysters, mussels, squid, octopus, and snails)
It excludes all meat and poultry as well as products like gelatin, animal fat (such as lard), and broths that are made with meat or poultry.
Helpful tips when starting a pescatarian diet
Following a pescatarian diet is fairly straightforward. However, meat and poultry can hide in a few places. So, as you grocery shop and dine out, keep an eye out for the following:
- Broths made with meat and poultry (including bone broth and french onion soup)
- Gelatin (common in gummy candy, marshmallows and other desserts)
- Stuffing (which can contain chicken broth or sausage)
- Lard (which can hide in pie crusts)
- Shmaltz (chicken or goose fat)
- Tallow (fat from beef or sheep)
- Animal rennet (often used in cheese production)
If this sounds overwhelming to you, just know you are not alone. And that’s why we made Fig! The Fig browser extension and mobile app (still in beta!) can help you easily find pescatarian-friendly foods.
Things to look out for on a pescatarian diet
While a pescatarian diet is generally a very healthy way of eating, there are a few things to keep in mind.
One potential risk with a higher fish and seafood intake is developing high mercury levels in your body. Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally and is also released through pollution. It tends to accumulate in bodies of water, so fish and seafood can accumulate mercury. Mercury may have toxic effects on our nervous system as well as other body systems including the lungs, kidneys, skin, eyes, immune system, and digestive system.
Fish towards the top of the food chain (like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel) tend to accumulate the most mercury. Smaller fish and seafood towards the bottom of the food chain (like sardines, anchovies, salmon, cod, clams, crab, and flounder) tend to be very low in mercury.
Who should limit mercury intake?
For the general population, the risk of developing high mercury levels is not a significant concern. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, those who are nursing, and children under 2 years of age avoid very high mercury fish. The FDA and EPA also recommend that pregnant or nursing women consume 8-12 ounces of lower mercury seafood per week and limit albacore tuna consumption to 6 ounces per week. It is recommended that children under 2 years consume 2-3 one ounce servings of low-mercury seafood per week. Check out the FDA’s list of low, medium, and high mercury fish and seafood.
Focus on whole foods rather than processed meat and poultry alternatives
A pescatarian diet centered around minimally processed, whole foods is associated with significant health benefits. However, a pescatarian diet high in highly-processed foods will not elicit the same health benefits. While it may be tempting to replace meat and poultry with processed meat alternatives, this can lead to health issues over time. Processed convenience foods and meat replacements are perfectly fine to consume in moderation, but it is best to avoid relying on these items as dietary staples. Instead, focus on incorporating mostly whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, and seafood.
Who is a pescatarian diet not for?
A pescatarian diet that emphasizes whole, plant-based foods and incorporates low-mercury fish and seafood is an extremely healthy way of eating and poses no significant health risks. Before making any dietary changes, however, it is best to consult with your doctor or registered dietitian to ensure that you will be meeting all of your nutrition needs.
Photo by Ello via Unsplash.com