If you ever studied a Romance language, you may recall the word you learned for fish: piscis in Latin, pesce in Italian, pescado in Spanish. This Latinate term has a familiar sound even in English, from the astrological sign of the fish Pisces to the coastal fishing town of Pescadero, California to a pattern of eating called the Pescetarian diet. You’d probably assume from this linguistic root that this diet has something to do with fish—and you’d be right.
The Pescetarian diet is essentially a vegetarian pattern of eating that also allows for all kinds of seafood. According to official definitions, some pescetarians actually consider themselves vegetarians, since they define meat “only as mammalian flesh” (1). The gist is that as long as it grew in the ground or under the sea (and didn’t drink milk from its mama), it’s fair game for eating.
In recent years research has shown that a pescetarian diet has significant health benefits, from improved success with weight loss to reduction of risk for conditions like cancer and heart disease. Many proponents find its allowance of seafood easier and more convenient for meal planning and in social situations than pure vegetarianism. Because of these established benefits, interest in the diet is rapidly growing. Many notable celebrities, like Steve Jobs, Ben Stiller, and Alyssa Milano tout it as their diet of choice. With its numerous pros (and a few cons), let’s explore whether this “plant-based plus fish” diet is right for you.
A Little Background
Though the formal term “pescetarian” only appeared in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 1993, the concept of eating seafood with a vegetarian diet goes back a long way. Hindu Brahmin communities in India have adhered to lacto-vegetarian diet including fish for thousands of years. Interestingly, this approach to eating stems from the Brahmin understanding of seafood as “vegetables from the sea.” (Sounds like a good comeback for any naysayers: “It’s not meat, it’s vegetables from the sea!”)
In many traditional cultures near a coastline, vegetarianism with added seafood only comes naturally. People in the so-called “Blue Zones” (“blue” for their proximity to water), where a disproportionate amount of residents live to advanced ages, often follow this eating pattern (2). The famous population of Okinawa, Japan, for example, which boasts more centenarians than any other culture on earth, eats seafood at least three times a week, plus copious amounts of vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based protein like tofu. In addition to living longer than Americans, these fortunate members of the 100-plus club also enjoy dramatically reduced incidence of cancer, heart disease, and dementia (3).
The pescetarian diet also bears striking similarity to the primary elements of the Mediterranean diet: whole grains, vegetables, some dairy, and high intake of seafood. This isn’t surprising when you know that people in many areas of the Mediterranean also experience low rates of “Western” diseases and live to remarkably old age. (Particularly true in the island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy, another Blue Zone.) (4)
Health Benefits of a Pescetarian Diet
Fortunately, the health benefits of a pescetarian diet aren’t confined to people who live near water. Anyone who removes meat in favor of seafood and plant-based protein can expect to see improved measures of health. Here’s a look at some of the evidence-based outcomes…
Extra Nutrients for General Health
Did you know seafood is a nutrient powerhouse? Vitamins and minerals abound in many ocean-dwelling animals. Shellfish pack more iron than just about any other food. A four-ounce serving of oysters contains over seven times your daily value of zinc (both important minerals for your immune system and general health). Salmon and other fatty fish supply plenty of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. (The “good fats” we all want more of in our diet). Selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are just a few of the other nutrients various sea-foods provide. It’s not a stretch to say that upping your intake of fish may lead to improved overall health.
Time and again, vegetarian diets link to lower risk of heart disease. Their abundance of high-fiber, lower saturated fat foods helps keep the arteries clear of harmful buildup of plaque (aka the “gunk” that clogs blood vessels and cause heart attacks). One study found that a vegetarian diet can reduce heart disease risk by a staggering 42 percent (5). Yet we also know that the omega-3 fatty acids in many fish have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. Thus, they lower heart rate and blood pressure, so removing them altogether doesn’t seem smart. (6, 7) Pescetarianism provides the perfect solution.
Reduced Cancer Risk
Back to those signs of the Zodiac for a sec—not Pisces, this time, but Cancer. It’s a little ironic that the star sign Cancer is represented by a crab, because a vegetarian diet including seafood actually combats cancer. One study that followed about 78,000 pescetarians for seven years revealed that they had a 43 percent reduced likelihood of developing colon cancer than omnivores (8).
Diabetes and Weight Management
While limited research has been conducted specifically on a pescetarian diet and diabetes, an enormous body of evidence shows that a well-balanced plant-based diet can prevent and manage type two diabetes (9). In fact, more and more nutrition professionals advise diabetic patients to adopt some form of vegetarianism. In our professional opinion, there’s no reason to believe the addition of healthful seafood would counteract these already-established benefits for diabetes. If anything, their abundance of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids only further mitigate diabetes risk.
Likewise, following a vegetarian eating plan is associated with healthy weight and effective weight loss. One study found that diabetics on a vegetarian diet lost twice as much weight over six months as people who merely counted calories (10). Clearly, cutting out meat makes a difference, perhaps due to more complex reasons than just reducing calories. And again, though this research was based on vegetarianism, adding seafood (depending on how it’s prepared— is not likely to undo the weight loss benefits of a plant-based diet.
DHA, one component of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, has a pretty incredible effect on the brain. As a matter of fact, DHA is essential for the development of the brain in infancy, and even the adult brain needs DHA to function (11).
Numerous studies have shown a link between intake of this particular acid and improved memory. High levels of DHA in the diet may actually prevent cognitive decline (12). Depression has also been correlated with DHA in the brain. A 2010 research review showed that people with depression were more likely to have lower levels of DHA and its “sister” fatty acid EPA (12). Another revealed that, compared with mothers who ate little fish, moms who consumed at least 12 ounces of fish a week during their pregnancies had children with higher IQs and communication skills (13). Sounds like including fish in your vegetarian diet is a smart idea in more ways than one.
Other Advantages of Pescetarianism
Beyond its clear benefits for health, a pescetarian diet has other strong points in its favor. With its inclusion of fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs, it offers a far more accessible eating pattern than a straight vegetarian diet. This means that not only do you have more options for meal planning and dining out, but you’re less limited in social situations. We’ve all probably run into the awkward necessity of having to cook something separate for a strict vegan friend, or finding meatless restaurants to accommodate a vegetarian friend. As a pescetarian, you’re less likely to impose any such inconvenience on others.
Many people also find the pescetarian diet favorable because it eliminates some of the environmental concerns associated with commercially raised livestock. If you’re not eating meat, you’re not supporting unsanitary or inhumane conditions for land animals. The land degradation linked to mass meat production, or the methane emissions from cows that contribute to global warming also aren’t problems.
And a few Drawbacks
Despite the preponderance of excellent reasons to become a “fishy vegetarian,” there are of course some drawbacks. Though pescetarianism may allow you to leave some environmental concerns behind, others rear their ugly heads. Sustainability is a major issue when it comes to selecting fish. Eating more seafood could mean you’ll need to do some research about where to purchase it conscientiously. If you’d like to experiment with some of the more exotic types of underwater edibles, getting educated about which varieties contain potentially toxic levels of mercury may also be necessary.
In addition to these disadvantages, some people find it difficult to navigate meatless dining, especially at first. Though, as mentioned above, pescetarianism is certainly less prohibitive than vegetarianism or veganism, it still poses some social challenges. Maybe that diner or truck stop on your road trip only serves meat-heavy meals, or your friend hosting a dinner party was planning beef bourguignon. You (and others) may have to make certain accommodations for your pescetarian diet.
And finally—let’s be honest—you just might miss meat.
How to Become Pescetarian
Unlike many other guided diets that offer prescribed weekly steps and proprietary recipes, no one standard approach exists for becoming pescetarian. While there is a Pescetarian Society in the UK, it’s more of a fan club and less of an organizing body. And any pescetarian diet cookbooks you see have come from individual authors’ own creativity. No overarching entity makes all the rules for how to adopt or abide by this eating plan—which can be kind of a nice change of pace from rule-bound diets with a founder and an entire enterprise of accompanying products.
Before you try pescetarianism, you might want to assess the diet you’ve already been eating to see how ready you might be for a change. We don’t often consider thinking about diet a form of soul-searching, but for most of us, food has strong emotional ties, and it’s worth thoughtful consideration before launching into something new. Questions to ask include:
- What are my motivations to go pescetarian, and what health benefits do I hope to achieve? On a scale of 1-10, how motivated am I to make this dietary change?
- Do I currently eat a lot of meat?
- How difficult would it be for me to give up meat? Am I ready to do so in all my daily life scenarios?
- Do I know where to purchase sustainably sourced seafood?
- Do I need to get educated about how to meal plan and cook other sources of protein besides meat? How do I plan to do so?
To ensure long-term success, transition slowly. Gradually eliminate meat over time as you learn the ropes of a vegetarian plus seafood diet.
Once you feel everything is in order, it’s time to get started!
So What Do I Actually Eat if I Go Pescetarian?
Though it’s refreshing that pescetarianism has no official rules, it also means that, on this diet, you blaze your own eating trail. Thankfully, a pescetarian diet essentially comes with only one restriction: don’t consume meat. Red meat, lamb, pork, and poultry are all off-limits, along with any less traditional mammalian meats. (We’re looking at you, alligator). Dairy and eggs, on the other hand? Totally cool. And absolutely any kind of fish or seafood is of course welcome on your plate. As a pescetarian, you may find you experiment more broadly with seafood than you had ever done as an omnivore. Soon you could expand your horizons with octopus, squid, crab, lobster, or eel.
In addition to its many seafood options, of course other food groups comprise the remainder of a pescetarian diet. Like traditional vegetarianism or the Mediterranean diet, this eating plan wouldn’t be complete without hefty amounts of fruits and vegetables, grains (whole versus refined as often as possible), legumes, and nuts.
Wondering how to make it happen? We’ve got you covered with several tasty plant-based and seafood recipes! (Sorry, no eel.) Here are some options to get you started on your pescetarian journey.
Pescetarian Meals inside the 131 Method :
Fish and Pasta: This dead-easy weeknight meal serves up wild-caught fish over a bed of pasta of your choice.
Macadamia Salsa Fish: Macadamia nuts add a unique flavor and crunch to the salsa that tops this light fish entrée.
Indian Spiced Tempeh Bowl: Tried tempeh yet? This soy-based protein source marinates in flavor in this Indian-inspired dish.
Lisa’s Roasted Vegetable Bowl with Herb Oil: It doesn’t get much healthier than this! Herb-infused olive oil adds its richness to roasted veggies over spiralized beet noodles.
131 Sushi: Sushi’s not just for restaurant dining! This homemade sushi features cucumber, avocado, and smoked salmon for a perfectly pescetarian meal.
Foil-Baked Fish: Sometimes the best meals are the simplest ones. Salmon or cod baked with garlic and lemon in a foil packet for zero cleanup.
Lentil Tacos: Packed with fiber and nutrients from their lentil base, these tacos make Taco Tuesday an actually healthy event.
Grilled Mushroom Pesto Salad: Grilled mushrooms make a hearty replacement for meat. Try them in this intriguing salad for lunch or dinner.
If you feel you’re ready to leave meat behind in favor of a pescetarian diet, we say dive in! For your health, you won’t regret it.