What Is the Pescatarian Diet?

pescetarian diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that includes fish or other aquatic animals. The word "pesce" means fish in Italian, so those who include fish in their otherwise vegetarian diet have come to be known by this term. Sometimes people who follow this eating plan are also called pesco-vegetarians or pescetarians.

Other than the inclusion of seafood, there are no strict guidelines that determine what is pescatarian versus what is vegetarian. There are no rules that define how often you need to eat fish in order to be considered a pescatarian. For example, you may be a vegetarian who only occasionally eats fish or you may include it in every meal.

Pescatarians can get their protein from seafood, plant-based sources such as legumes, and sometimes, eggs and dairy products. This approach to eating can easily make for a balanced diet that provides all the necessary nutrients.

Choosing a pescatarian diet is a flexible way to modify a vegetarian diet. It adds the lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids offered by seafood to the health benefits of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. A balanced pescatarian diet is full of nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods.

The pescatarian diet is often compared to the Mediterranean diet because fish is a primary protein source in both diets. Both emphasize nutritious ingredients, such as lean protein and vegetables. The pescatarian diet can be classified as semi-vegetarian, which means that plant-based foods are the main focus but animal products in the form of seafood are sometimes included.

Nutritionists say that pescatarians tend to be people who are health-conscious and make mindful choices when planning meals. They may be individuals who are considering a vegetarian diet and are using a fish-based approach to acclimate themselves to plant-based eating. Or they may be people who plan to follow a pescatarian diet for the long term to avoid red meat. However, not all pescatarian compliant choices are inherently healthy, so it's important to make balanced choices. Versions of this eating plan that emphasizes nutrient-dense, whole foods can be a healthful way of eating.

What Experts Say

"Defined as a vegetarian diet with the addition of fish, the pescatarian diet can be a great choice for those searching for a nutritious meal plan. Plant-based foods provide numerous vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, and the seafood supplies omega-3 fatty acids and protein."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

A balanced pescatarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and seafood. Most also include eggs and dairy products. A healthy pescatarian diet will often include flavorful foods such as olives, whole grains like farro and quinoa, spicy peppers, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and other nutritious, filling ingredients.

Unlike some other diets, a pescatarian diet is defined solely by compliant and non-compliant foods and ingredients. With no rules about portion sizes, components of meals and snacks, cooking methods, etc., an individual could follow a diet that is technically compliant but unbalanced. Keep this in mind as you design your meal plans by choosing real, whole foods over processed foods and limiting your intake of added sugars.

What You Need to Know

The pescatarian diet is not a formal diet or weight loss plan, but rather a lifestyle. If you decide to eat a pescatarian diet, you can eat meals and snacks whenever you prefer and as much as you prefer.

Of course, if you are looking to lose weight, portion control will be important. It's also a good idea to avoid overeating for long-term weight maintenance. When combined with regular exercise, a pescatarian diet that emphasizes nutrient-dense foods that are naturally lower in calories and fat could certainly help you lose weight and promote healthy weight management.

If you have a health condition such as diabetes, celiac disease, or heart disease, a pescatarian diet is likely safe and probably beneficial. It's also pretty easy to avoid gluten on a pescatarian diet if you need to. But you should always check with your healthcare provider first and make sure that you're getting the right mix of nutrients for your body.

If you are pregnant, it is recommended that you avoid raw fish (e.g., sushi and sashimi) and watch out for the mercury levels in the fish you are eating. You'll also want to be cautious about mercury if you are breastfeeding or have small children who eat pescatarian too. Fish high in mercury include swordfish, shark, mackerel, marlin, and tuna.

What to Eat
  • Seafood

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Grains

  • Dairy products and eggs

What Not to Eat
  • Red meat

  • Poultry

  • Pork

  • Wild game

Seafood

The seafood on a pescatarian diet may include freshwater fish such as trout or perch, saltwater fish like salmon or tuna, and shellfish including shrimp, oysters, clams, and more.

Dairy Products and Eggs

Most pescatarians eat eggs and dairy, although some do not. Technically, a pescatarian who eats eggs and dairy would be called a lacto-ovo-pescatarian.

Meat, Poultry, and Game

Regardless of whether or not you eat certain animal products like yogurt or cheese, if you follow a pescatarian diet, you won't eat meat or meat products. That means you'll not only avoid red meat (like beef or bison) but you'll also avoid poultry, lamb, pork, and game (such as venison).

Sample Shopping List

A balanced pescatarian diet includes seafood, plant protein, fruits and vegetables, legumes, grains, or other complex carbs. As a great source of fiber, whole grains provide more nutrients and fewer sugars (and often, fewer additives, too) than refined grains (like white rice and white flour).

There are no limits on the types of fruits and vegetables that can be included in this eating plan. Eat the rainbow, and fill up on produce to receive the full health benefits; add dark leafy greens, bright red, yellow, and orange peppers, eggplant, corn, blueberries, kiwi, and other fruits and veggies.

If you buy fresh fish, it usually needs to be cooked or frozen within a few days of purchase, so stock up on tuna packets or canned fish so you always have a seafood source ready to go. For more guidance, the following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on the pescatarian diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods and types of fish that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, eggplant)
  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)
  • Healthy fat sources (avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, olive oil)
  • Whole-grains (100% whole wheat bread, brown rice pasta, quinoa, barley)
  • Plant-based protein and legumes (tofu, soybeans, black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Canned or packaged fish (tuna, sardines, anchovies, salmon, herring)
  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, cod, salmon, snapper, sea bass)
  • Dairy products (cheeses, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese)
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

Though there are no rules on the pescatarian diet other than to replace animal protein with plant-based protein or seafood, you should always opt for nutritiously balanced meals. Choose healthy cooking methods—if you consume only fried fish and processed foods, for example, you may not reap the health benefits of this eating style. Grill or broil fish using healthy cooking oils, steam your seafood or use other lower-fat methods such as sautéing and baking to prepare your meals.

The following three-day meal plan is not all-inclusive but should give you a general sense of what the pescatarian diet can look like. If you do choose to follow the diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes and preferences.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • More protein choices than a strict vegetarian diet

  • Seafood offers health benefits

  • Can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids

  • May offer environmental benefits

Cons
  • Can be expensive

  • Watch for mercury levels

  • May not always be caught or farmed sustainably

Some people who choose to eliminate meat from their diets may find that following a pescatarian diet is easier than following a strictly vegetarian diet because it is easier to get enough protein each day with the addition of seafood. When you replace meat-based meals with fish-based meals, you are likely to cut calories and fat from your diet to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.

You'll also enjoy other wellness advantages if you choose this eating style. If you follow a pescatarian diet plan that is healthy and balanced, you get the benefits that are associated with a vegetarian diet, plus those associated with eating more fish.

The flexibility of this eating plan includes a wide array of compliant foods, with no specific limits on portion sizes and calories, which appeals to those who prefer a diet that is less regimented. However, the lack of specific guidance for making balanced, nutritious choices from compliant foods could pose a challenge to those who benefit from having a "rule book" to follow.

Additionally, buying the basic foods of this eating plan (fruits, vegetables, and fresh fish) can be costly. But you don't always have to buy fresh—many bulk bags of fruits and vegetables are just as healthy as the fresh versions and frozen fish is economical and easy to store. Though canned tuna is minimally processed and contains sodium, it is perfectly healthy to consume in moderation.

Some people follow a pescatarian diet because of the positive impact certain seafood choices can have on the environment. Raising and processing meat takes up land and contributes to dangerous emissions. By reducing our dependency on meat and making sustainable fish choices, we do our part to help create a healthier planet.

To feel better about your impact on the environment, use the information provided by The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to find responsibly sourced seafood. Simply enter the name of the fish you prefer and get specific recommendations for buying the best fish. There is even an app that you can use when you're shopping.

Is the Pescatarian Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Current guidelines set forth by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest filling your plate with a balanced mix of protein (which could be from meat, fish, or plant-based sources), grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. The pescatarian diet meets that standard when meals are balanced with USDA-recommended foods and nutrients.

There's no official calorie count for the pescatarian diet, which means no need for calorie counting. The number of calories that you need will vary based on your goals (weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain) age, weight, sex, and activity level). Use this calculator to determine the right calorie goal for you.

Research suggests that vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, and pesco-vegetarians have diets that are "mostly better in terms of nutrient quality" than omnivores (people who eat everything), though some critics argue that other factors lead to the improved nutritional quality—not just food choices.

Health Benefits

Fish is low in saturated fat and rich in other nutrients. Fish is also a source of complete proteins, so you don't have to combine proteins to get the nutrients you need, but you will want to incorporate other healthy foods such as grains, vegetables, and legumes into your meals.

When you eat certain types of fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, or sablefish) you'll also boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. While some people take a supplement to get the recommended daily allowance, most health experts recommend that you get your intake from food if you can. Omega-3s boost heart health, may reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and may even help to improve brain and eye health.

Studies have also shown that following a balanced vegan or vegetarian-based diet (including a pescatarian diet) is associated with lower body mass index (BMI). Other research suggests that people who follow a flexitarian diet (one that is primarily vegetarian but occasionally includes meat or fish) enjoy benefits including healthy body weight, improved markers of metabolic health, blood pressure, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Health Risks

Vitamin B12 is an important micronutrient typically found in animal foods, which means you may get less of it when you eat a pescatarian diet. For that reason, you may want to monitor your intake. But you can get it from other foods like tuna and sardines, eggs, dairy foods like yogurt, nutritional yeast, and fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) helps to maintain a healthy nervous system, and aid in the formation of red blood cells and DNA and protein metabolism. Make sure you get plenty of meat-free foods high in B12 such as shellfish, eggs, milk, and dairy products, and some fortified cereals.

You'll also want to avoid fish with higher levels of mercury, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorize fish into "best choices," "good choices," and "fish to avoid." Their resources are aimed at helping consumers make healthy and safe decisions when choosing seafood so they can reduce their intake of harmful toxins.

Best choices for seafood include herring, lobster, and freshwater trout. Good choices include snapper, halibut, and grouper. Fish to avoid includes bigeye tuna, orange roughy, and swordfish.

A Word From Verywell

The pescatarian diet has a lot going for it—but there is no one diet that is perfect. If you're considering a pescatarian diet but you're unsure if it's right for you, try it for a week or two and see how you feel. You may notice that when you boost your intake of grains, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods, you eat less and feel fuller longer. You may also have more energy. At the very least, you'll benefit from experimenting with new foods and flavors.

If you're not sure where to begin, enlist the help of a registered dietitian or a local cooking school to learn how to prepare fish so that you enjoy your meals and feel satisfied.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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