What Is a Pescatarian Diet?

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pescatarian diet
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The pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that includes fish or other aquatic animals. The word "pesce" means fish in Italian, so those that emphasize fish in their plant-based diets have come to be called by this term. Sometimes these healthy eaters are also called pesco-vegetarians or pescetarians.

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

Background

There are no strict guidelines that determine what is a pescatarian and what is a vegetarian. And there are no rules that define how often you need to eat fish in order to be a pescatarian. For example, you may be a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish or you may include it in every meal.

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 pescetarian diet for the long term, to improve their health by avoiding red meat.

How It Works

To follow a pescatarian diet, you'll consume meals that include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and seafood. 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.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Seafood

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Grains

  • Dairy products and eggs

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Red meat

  • Poultry

  • 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.

Fruits and Vegetables

A typical pescatarian meal might include vegetables, seafood or plant protein, and whole grains or other complex carbs. There are no limits on the types of fruits and vegetables that can be included. In order to take advantage of the benefits of this eating style, you'll want to eat the rainbow and fill up on produce. Add dark leafy greens, bright red, yellow, and orange peppers, eggplant, corn, blueberries, kiwi, and other fruits and veggies.

Grains

Grains make a great side dish when you are eating fish, and they provide fiber and other important nutrients. Whole grains are a better choice, since they provide more nutrients and fewer sugars (and often, additives).

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).

Recommended Timing

This is wide open, since the pescatarian diet is not a formal diet or weight loss plan. 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. You're already on your way by choosing a diet that is nutrient-dense and naturally lower in calories and fat. Choosing portion sizes wisely could be all you need to do to lose weight.

Resources and Tips

To make your pescatarian diet easier and healthier:

  • Choose healthy cooking methods. If you choose fried fish and processed foods, 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.
  • Stock up on canned or packaged seafood. Fresh seafood usually needs to be cooked or frozen within a few days of purchase. Stock up on tuna packets or canned fish so you always have a seafood source ready to go.
  • Get help with cooking. Some people are intimidated by the pescatarian diet because cooking seafood can be complicated and planning fish-based meals may seem unfamiliar. To learn more, take a class. Many cooking schools and kitchen stores provide free or inexpensive options. You'll learn how to get creative with spices and sauces so your fish-based eating plan never goes stale. There are also many quick and easy meals that you can either grab-and-go or prepare in advance to make following the diet plan easier. Several meal kit services offer pescatarian and vegetarian meals, too.

Modifications

If you are pregnant, you will need to avoid raw fish (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 includes swordfish, shark, mackerel, marlin, and tuna.

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

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • More protein choices than a vegetarian diet

  • Health benefits

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

  • May have environmental benefits

Cons

  • Can be expensive

  • Watch for mercury levels

Pros

Protein Choices

Some people who choose to eliminate meat from their diets find that following a pescatarian diet is easier than following a vegetarian diet because it is simpler to get enough protein each day. In addition, fish is a source of complete proteins, so you don't have to combine proteins to get the nutrients you need.

Health Benefits

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

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

Studies have also shown that following a vegan or vegetarian-based diet (including a pescatarian diet) is associated with lower BMI (body mass index). Others have shown 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.

In addition, fish is low in saturated fat and rich in other nutrients. 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.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

When you eat certain types of fish, you boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. While some people take a supplement to get the recommended daily allowance, most health sources recommend that you get your intake from food. Omega-3 boosts heart health, may reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and may even help to improve brain and eye health.

Environmental Benefits

Some people follow a pescatarian diet because of the positive impact on the environment. Many supporters of the diet point out that raising and processing meat not only takes up precious land but it also contributes to dangerous emissions. By reducing our dependency on meat and making sustainable fish choices, we may be able to create a healthier planet.

If you want 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.

The pescatarian diet has a lot going for it. But no one way to eat is perfect. Be aware of these potential pitfalls.

Cons

Expensive

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 easy to store and economical. Choose products without added ingredients (like sugar or salt).

High in Mercury

Avoid fish with higher levels of mercury. This chart from the FDA and EPA categorizes fish into "best choices," "good choices," and "fish to avoid." The chart is aimed at helping consumers make healthy and safe decisions when choosing seafood so they can reduce their intake of harmful toxins. Best choices include herring, lobster, scallops, and freshwater trout. Good choices include monkfish, snapper, halibut, and grouper. Fish to avoid includes shark, bigeye tuna, orange roughy, and swordfish.

Low in Vitamin B-12

This important micronutrient is typically found in animal foods, so you may get less of it when you eat a pescatarian diet. B-12 (cobalamin) is important for maintaining a healthy nervous system, the formation of red blood cells and DNA, and protein metabolism. Meat-free foods high in B-12 include shellfish, eggs, milk and dairy products, and some fortified cereals.

How It Compares

Many nutritionists compare the pescatarian diet to the popular Mediterranean diet because fish is a primary protein source in both diets. And both emphasize nutritious ingredients, such as lean protein and vegetables.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

Current USDA guidelines 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 nicely.

Calories

There's no official calorie count for the pescatarian diet, which means no need for calorie counting. However, the USDA suggests a daily calorie intake of about 1500 calories for weight loss (although this number varies based on age, weight, sex, and activity level). The pescatarian diet features many low-calorie foods, but if you are looking to lose weight, you may need to track calories to make sure you are creating a calorie deficit. Use this calculator to determine the right calorie goal for you.

Similar Diets

The pescatarian diet could be grouped with a few other diets as semi-vegetarian. All make plant-based foods their main focus, but sometimes include some animal products.

Pescatarian Diet

  • Protein sources: Pescatarians get their protein from seafood, plant-based sources such as legumes, and sometimes, eggs and dairy products.
  • General nutrition: This is a balanced diet that should provide all necessary nutrients.
  • Flexibility: 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.
  • Potential for weight loss: A pescatarian diet is full of nutrient-dense, high-fiber, lower-calorie foods, so it could help users who want to lose weight.

Mediterranean Diet

  • Protein sources: Much like the pescatarian diet, the Mediterranean diet's protein sources include seafood, plant-based proteins, and small amounts of cheese, yogurt, and meat.
  • General nutrition: Experts say this diet is heart-healthy and nutrient-rich, making it an improvement on the typical North American diet.
  • Flexibility: There are no hard-and-fast rules for this diet. so those following it can interpret it in the way that works for them. No foods are off-limits; they are just less commonly eaten.
  • Potential for weight loss: As with the pescatarian diet, the Mediterranean diet includes lots of nutrition for fewer calories. So it certainly could promote weight loss.

Flexitarian Diet

  • Protein sources: A flexitarian diet is simply a vegetarian diet that allows for the occasional consumption of meat and seafood, making it quite similar to the pescatarian plan. Protein mostly comes from plant-based sources, eggs, and dairy, with the occasional addition of animal products.
  • General nutrition: Nutritionists agree that this is a very healthy way to eat, especially if carbohydrates come from whole grains and veggies.
  • Flexibility: As the name suggests, there's plenty of flexibility built into this eating plan. No foods or food groups are eliminated, so users always have the freedom to add them to a meal if they would like.
  • Potential for weight loss: Like the other semi-vegetarian diets, the flexitarian diet could help users lose weight, as long as they don't overeat the healthy foods that typically make up this diet.

Vegetarian Diet

  • Protein sources: Unlike the semi-vegetarian plans, on a vegetarian diet proteins are either plant-based foods, or (in most cases) dairy or eggs.
  • General nutrition: This diet is generally balanced, but vegetarians do need to make sure they are getting enough of certain nutrients, such as iron and vitamin B-12.
  • Flexibility: While vegetarians will not eat meat, beyond that restriction there is flexibility to consume a huge variety of foods. And there are no rules about portion sizes or calorie counts.
  • Potential for weight loss: It's certainly possible to lose weight when you don't eat meat (which tends to be higher in fat and calories than plant-based foods). But if you're trying to lose weight, then those rules about portion and calorie control become necessary.

A Word From Verywell

If you are considering a pescatarian diet but you're unsure if it is the right eating plan for you, give it a try for a week or two and see how you feel. At the very least, you'll benefit from experimenting with new foods and flavors.

But you're also likely to see and feel other benefits as well. You may feel lighter and your clothes may start to fit better. You may also notice that when you boost your intake of grains, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods, you eat less and feel full longer.

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.

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Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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