Sometimes finding the eating plan that’s right for you feels like a game of “Go Fish.” You ask the vegetarian about your beloved salmon nigiri. Go fish. You ask the ketotarian about your go-to comfort food, potato wedges. Go fish. Enter the heart-healthy pescatarian diet, which offers the benefits of a plant-based diet with extra flexibility. It’s a way of eating that’s much more than just an easy answer when a friend asks, “but I thought you were vegetarian?” while you chow down bagel and lox at brunch.
What is the pescatarian diet?
While there’s not a hard-and-fast definition, “one of the easiest ways to describe the pescatarian diet would be a vegetarian diet with the addition of fish and seafood,” says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, RD. “That means you’re able to eat virtually any and everything you want, except poultry items and meat.”
Beyond fish and seafood, the diet’s main protein source, pescatarians fill their plant-forward menu out with things like grains, legumes, produce, and nuts. You might follow the recommended two servings of fish a week, or put a fork to fillet a couple times a month. Eggs and dairy are fair game too, if you choose. The beauty of it? It’s up to the diner.
While this fish-centric stance might remind you of the ever-popular Mediterranean diet, Moore says it’s not necessarily similar. “Even though there’s a lot of seafood, the Mediterranean diet does include other animal proteins,” she says.
What are the benefits of a pescatarian diet?
1. It’s good for the heart
Fish is a power player when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, which can decrease inflammation, slow blood clotting, and boost overall heart health. Moore recommends opting for fatty, oily fish like sardines and salmon, which are low in saturated fat and high in omega-3s.
2. It includes complete proteins
With a vegetarian or fully plant-based diet, it can be tough to get enough protein beyond packing plates with beans and lentils. Adding fish and seafood gives you that source of complete protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids.
3. It can help boost brain health
Seafood’s coveted omega-3s also promote brain health, possibly helping to reduce anxiety and boost cognition. Moore notes that vegans and vegetarians often have to look to supplements or microalgae to get their fix. This also goes for other brain-boosting nutrients like vitamin B12 and D, found in seafood like clams, salmon, and sardines.
3. It offers similar benefits vegetarians get
The pescatarian diet packs a one-two punch of nutrients, first from whole foods and second from fish. “There’s evidence that people who follow a vegetarian diet tend to have lower blood pressure, reduced risk for certain types of chronic illnesses like diabetes, and lower body mass index,” Moore says. “It seems as if people who follow a pescatarian diet might also reap some of those same benefits.”
4. It’s sustainable
If your way of eating is motivated by its environmental impact, a pescatarian diet checks that box. Research shows a pescatarian diet greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to a meat-heavy plan. Need more persuading to get onboard with sardines? They’re one of the more sustainable fish, for the record.
Risks and potential obstacles of the pescatarian diet
1. Mercury levels
If you’re eating fish on a regular basis, do you have to be worried about getting mercury poisoning like Janelle Monáe? It depends on the fish, Moore says. She suggests the fish you regularly incorporate should be low in mercury, especially for children and pregnant women. Switching it up is key. “Try not to eat the exact same type of fish from the same source of water everyday,” Moore says. Think less big fish like swordfish and mahi-mahi, and more smaller fish like anchovies or salmon.
2. Cost of a pescatarian diet
Okay, so you’re not into the idea of jacking up your grocery bill with two servings of fish (more or less) a week, or it’s just not possible. Thankfully, Moore says a pescatarian diet doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. “Don’t be afraid of the wild caught Alaskan salmon in the can or pouches of tuna,” she says. It’s affordable, convenient, and packs that protein and omega-3s you look for. Toss ‘em in salads and quick lunches, and you’re good to go.
Why do people choose the pescatarian diet?
Beyond its nutrition perks and sustainability, the pescatarian diet is also a great way to transition into a fully plant-based or vegetarian diet—or out of one. Tossing in fish and seafood brings flexibility, something so desired (and deserved) in our diet. But when it comes down to it, no worries if you choose to label your eating plan or not. “Focus on getting what’s right for your body, and in a way that’s satisfying for you,” Moore says.