What Is a Pescatarian and What Do They Eat?

A pescatarian is someone who adds fish and seafood to a vegetarian diet.

There are many reasons people choose to forgo meat and poultry, but still eat fish.

Some people choose to add fish to a vegetarian diet so they can get the health benefits of a plant-based diet plus heart-healthy fish.

Others might be trying to curb the environmental impact of their diet. For some, it might be simply a matter of taste.

This article explains more about the benefits and drawbacks of a pescatarian diet, including exactly what a pescatarian does and doesn’t eat.

Two Fish on a Yellow Plate

What Is a Pescatarian?

Most simply, a pescatarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat, but does eat fish.

The term pescatarian was coined in the early 1990s and is a combination of the Italian word for fish, “pesce,” and the word “vegetarian.” Sometimes it’s spelled “pescetarian,” but this means the same thing.

In scientific literature, this diet is often described as “pesco-vegetarian,” and is lumped into the spectrum of vegetarianism (1).

By that definition, a pescatarian is someone who chooses to eat a vegetarian diet, but who also eats fish and other seafood.

It’s a largely plant-based diet of whole grains, nuts, legumes, produce and healthy fats, with seafood playing a key role as a main protein source.

Many pescatarians also eat dairy and eggs.

Of course, just as vegetarian diets can vary widely, so can pescatarian ones. It’s possible to eat a meat-free diet that’s full of processed starches, junk food and fish sticks, rather than a healthier one based on whole foods.

Summary: A pescatarian is someone who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but also eats fish and seafood.

Why Do People Choose a Pescatarian Diet?

There are several reasons people may choose to eat a pescatarian diet. Here are some of the main ones.

Health Benefits

Red Heart, Health Concept

There are many proven benefits to plant-based diets, including a lower risk of obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes (2, 3, 4).

According to research, you can get many of those protective benefits from a pescatarian diet too.

One study found that women who were pescatarians gained 2.5 fewer pounds (1.1 kg) each year than women who ate meat (4).

And people who shifted their diet in a more plant-based direction gained the least amount of weight, showing that reducing your animal consumption may be good for you no matter your current eating patterns.

Another study concluded that pescatarians had a lower risk of developing diabetes at 4.8%, compared to omnivores at 7.6% (2).

Additionally, one large study looked at people who ate meat rarely or were pescatarians. They had a 22% lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to regular meat-eaters (3).

Environmental Concerns

Raising livestock comes with a high environmental cost.

According to the United Nations, raising livestock contributes to 15% of all human-made carbon emissions (5).

In contrast, producing fish and seafood has a lower carbon footprint than producing any type of animal meat or cheese (6).

A 2014 study calculated that diets of fish eaters caused 46% less greenhouse gas emissions than the diets of people who ate at least a serving of meat a day (7).

Ethical Reasons

A Hen

Ethics can be a major reason why people choose to go vegetarian. It can be a major reason for pescatarians too.

Some of the ethical reasons people choose not to eat meat include (8, 9):

  • Opposing slaughter: They don’t want to kill animals for food.
  • Inhumane factory practices: They refuse to support factory farms that raise livestock in inhumane conditions.
  • Poor labor conditions: They refuse to support factory farms that have poor conditions for their workers.
  • Humanitarian reasons: They consider producing grain for animal feed an unjust use of land and resources when there’s so much hunger in the world.

Eliminating land animals from your diet addresses some of these ethical concerns. That said, aquaculture and overfishing can also be problematic.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is an excellent resource for finding fish that are caught or farmed in ethical ways.

Summary: There are several reasons people choose a pescatarian diet, including concerns about health, ethics and the environment.

What Do Pescatarians Eat?

A typical pescatarian diet is primarily vegetarian with the addition of seafood.

Pescatarians Do Eat

  • Whole grains and grain products
  • Legumes and their products, including beans, lentils, tofu and hummus
  • Nuts and nut butters, peanuts and seeds
  • Seeds, including help, chia and flaxseeds
  • Dairy, including yogurt, milk and cheese
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Eggs

Pescatarians Don’t Eat

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Turkey
  • Wild game

Summary: A healthy pescatarian diet is largely made up of minimally processed plant foods, plus seafood and possibly dairy and eggs.

Benefits of Adding Fish to a Vegetarian Diet

Fish Fillet Sitting on Top of a Salad

There are many health benefits of adding fish to a vegetarian diet.

Many people are concerned that completely excluding animal products or avoiding animal flesh could lead to a low intake of certain key nutrients (10, 11, 12).

In particular, vitamins B12, zinc, calcium and protein can be somewhat harder to get on a vegan diet (11, 13).

Adding seafood, including fish, crustaceans and mollusks, to a vegetarian diet can provide beneficial nutrients and variety.

Get More Omega-3s

Fish is the best way to get omega-3 fatty acids (14).

Some plant foods, including walnuts and flaxseeds, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fat. However, this type of ALA is not easily converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body (15, 16).

DHA and EPA have additional health benefits, helping not just the heart, but also brain function and mood (17).

In contrast, oily fish, such as salmon and sardines, contains EPA and DHA.

Boost Your Protein Intake

Humans only need about 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of body weight daily to stay healthy. That’s about 54 grams for a 150-pound (68-kg) person.

However, many people prefer to eat more protein than that.

A high-protein diet can be hard to achieve with just plant proteins, especially if you don’t want extra carbs or fat with your protein.

Fish and other seafood offer an excellent source of lean protein.

Seafood Is Packed with Other Nutrients

Beyond omega-3s and protein, seafood is rich in several other nutrients.

For instance, oysters are extremely high in vitamin B12, zinc and selenium. Just one oyster delivers 133% of the RDI for vitamin B12 and 55% of the RDI for zinc and selenium (18).

Mussels are also super rich in vitamin B12 and selenium, as well as manganese and the rest of the B vitamins (19).

White fish varieties such as cod and flounder don’t deliver omega-3 fats, but they are a source of extremely lean protein.

For example, just 3 ounces of cod provide 19 grams of protein and less than a gram of fat. Cod is also an excellent source of selenium and a good source of phosphorus, niacin and vitamins B6 and B12 (20).

You’ll Have Extra Options

Being a vegetarian can be limiting at times.

Eating out at restaurants often leaves you with a not-so-healthy choice, with dishes like cheesy pasta as the main “veggie” option.

If health at least partially motivates your food choices, then becoming pescatarian will give you more options.

And fish is generally a good one, especially if you get it baked, grilled or sautéed, as opposed to deep-fried (21).

Summary: Adding seafood to a vegetarian diet gives you more options and is a good way to get protein, omega-3s and other nutrients.

Drawbacks of the Diet

Plate of Fish, Potatoes and Broccoli

There are not many health drawbacks of this diet.

That said, some people may be more vulnerable to high intakes of fish.

Fish, especially larger species, can contain mercury and other toxins (22, 23).

For this reason, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that young children and women of childbearing age, especially pregnant and nursing women, should avoid tilefish, swordfish, shark and king mackerel (24).

These populations should also limit albacore and yellowfin tuna to one palm-sized serving or less per week. Light tuna is lower in mercury and it’s fine to eat 2–3 servings a week.

Since this diet is primarily vegetarian, it’s subject to some of the other traps that frequently accompany vegetarian diets. For instance, it can be easy to overeat carbs, especially if you rely on lots of processed grains.

Summary: There can be some drawbacks to eating a pescatarian diet. It’s easy to overeat carbs and some fish are high in mercury.

The Bottom Line

A pescatarian diet can be quite healthy.

What’s more, it lets you avoid some of the ethical and environmental issues related to diets that include meat.

Additionally, this way of eating provides more flexibility and some additional nutrition compared to a standard vegetarian diet.

Overall, eating a plant-based diet with some seafood is a healthy choice.

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