Gone Fishing: What You Need To Know About The Pescatarian Diet
Everything labeled a “diet” should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism — trendy diets tend to focus on deprivation, which is a quick detour away from your fit-body or weight-loss goals. But the pescatarian diet opens your eating routine to an entire ecosystem that may not occupy your plate regularly. It also has serious benefits for your heart, brain, weight, and overall health.
What Does a Pescatarian Eat?
A pescatarian does not eat flesh from any animals other than fish and seafood, while loading up on other plant-based foods.
“It’s a vegetarian diet with the inclusion of fish and seafood,” says Jenn Cassetta, CN, MS, master of science in nutrition and certified nutritionist in New York City, who has eaten a pescatarian diet for more than 15 years. “Most pescatarians eat many vegetarian meals and only include fish or seafood a few times per week.”
But some pescatarians modify the diet, particularly for breakfast.
“Some people include dairy and eggs, while others do not,” says Monika Jacobson, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Spokane, Washington. “It isn’t cut and dried, necessarily.”
Benefits of a Pescatarian Diet
The benefits of adding more plants and fish to your diet are well known. But what about fish as your primary protein source? Is the pescatarian diet healthy?
Jacobson says the health benefits can be significant:
- Most seafood is high in protein but low in saturated fat.
- It can be a healthier alternative to red meat.
- Many fish — like salmon, sardines, and mackerel — are high in omega-3s, which are beneficial for cardiovascular and glycemic health and may be supportive of brain health.
Beyond nutrition, some believe that a pescatarian diet is better for the environment than eating meat. Fishing is more sustainable than raising the animals we use for meat. Some researchers say that fishing is more humane than the process that produces meat and pork, as fish lack the neural network responsible for feeling pain.
Risks of a Pescatarian Diet
The pescatarian diet can hit a snag if you consider it an all-you-can-eat pass, as long as you’re consuming fish. According to Cassetta, some common mistakes people make when choosing seafood as their primary protein include:
- Adding too much processed food and sugars.
- Eating too much fried fish and fried seafood.
“Fried shrimp, oysters, cod, and calamari may taste great, but frying food packs on the unhealthy, inflammatory fats and calories,” she says. “Fish and chips is not a healthy meal just because it’s pescatarian. Grilling, baking, or poaching fish is always going to be a healthier option than frying, just like any other type of protein.”
Also, as you phase into the diet, be careful with substitutions — choose healthy options to assuage hunger and meet your daily calorie needs.
“If one is going from a carnivorous diet to a pescatarian diet, they most likely will be reducing the amount of animal protein they eat,” says Cassetta. “This can be very healthy. However, if they add processed carbohydrates to make up for the lost calories, that’s not good. Choosing fish and plant-based protein sources such as legumes, nuts, and seeds will be a better option.”
- Try a lentil salad or hummus as a side dish instead of potatoes and other simple starches.
- Go for a single-serving pack or two tablespoons of almond butter as a midday snack instead of a coffee-shop pastry or raiding the nearest vending machine.
Can You Lose Weight Eating Pescatarian?
“You can!” says Jacobson. “Eating fish or shellfish alongside a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, healthy fats, and whole grains at the appropriate calorie range is very beneficial for weight loss.”
Fish and shellfish tend to be substantially lower in calories and fat than other animal-based proteins, so protein requirements can be met with far fewer calories by eating more fish.
How to Choose Fish for the Pescatarian Diet
Your guiding principle here is to choose wild-caught fish whenever possible, and avoid those that are farm-raised.
“When buying any animal protein, always choose the best quality that you can afford,” says Cassetta. “When it comes to fish and seafood, I like to go to a fish market where I can speak to someone and find out what’s freshest and be able to see where the fish comes from. Wild-caught fish eat what they are naturally meant to eat, and therefore usually have greater ratios of omega-3s. Farm-raised fish eat corn and soy and are fed antibiotics.”
What About Mercury in Fish?
The state of our environment means that nearly every fish contains mercury. But that isn’t a reason to eliminate fish from your diet or avoid the pescatarian diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least two servings of fish a week.
However, Jacobson suggests, “Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and young children, are advised to avoid higher mercury-containing fish.”
As a rule of thumb, larger fish and seafood potentially contain more mercury.
“Avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish, because they contain high levels of mercury,” the AHA advises for children and pregnant women.
Low-mercury options include shrimp, salmon, pollock, and catfish. While canned light tuna is safe for regular consumption, canned albacore tuna is very high in mercury and should be consumed sparingly.
“Mercury content varies with every species of fish,” says Jacobson, who recommends this FDA table as a good resource for keeping track of the latest recommendations about mercury in fish.
Science is clear that there are many health benefits to adding fish and seafood to your diet. Avoid potential risks by choosing wild fish over farm-raised, and selecting seafood with lower mercury levels.