The pescatarian diet has been around for a long time, yet unless following it, most aren’t aware of the ins and outs of this dietary protocol.
This article will explore the basics of eating like a pescatarian along with health benefits, downsides, and recipes.
What is the Pescatarian Diet?
A pescatarian is someone who follows a vegetarian diet, but with the addition of certain seafood and fish products added. Basically, a pescatarian diet avoids land animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs.
Proponents of the pescatarian diet state that you get all the benefits of vegetarianism plus the added boost of heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that are found in seafood.
While the way of eating has been around for decades, the term pescatarian was first used in the 1990s. Combined from the Italian words for fish and vegetarian, the word pescatarian literally means “fish plus vegetarian.”
A pescatarian diet includes everything a vegetarian would eat, such as grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables along with plant-based fats. It also includes seafood for a high percentage of protein.
Most pescatarians also include dairy and eggs. While vegans avoid any product that comes from an animal, vegetarians only avoid actually eating the animals themselves. Pescatarians strike a balance and allow seafood for greater health benefits.
7 Health Benefits of a Pescatarian Diet
The pescatarian diet has many similar benefits of a vegetarian diet, but even more thanks to the added intake of omega-3 fatty acids from seafood.
Let’s explore the top proven reasons why this way of eating could boost health, lower disease risk, promote weight loss, and more.
Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
Heart disease is still the number one killer in the world. While cholesterol and saturated fat were blamed for these for many years, they’re no longer implicated, yet public opinion hasn’t yet caught on.
The real culprits behind heart disease? Sugar, junk food, and a lack of healthy anti-inflammatory fats and antioxidants.
When you examine a pescatarian diet, you find a plethora of heart healthy nutrients: vegetables, fruits, seafood, nuts, and seeds. Research also finds that pescatarians have a 22 percent lower chance of dying from heart disease compared to people who eat a standard American diet.(source)
A large portion of this is thanks to the increased intake of EPA and DHA, two omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood. These especially protect heart health and reduce inflammation which could lead to heart disease.
Research even finds that daily consumption of these nutrients can reduce the risk of death from heart disease more effectively than statin medications.
Seafood can also help to reduce the formation of clots in the blood by keeping it more slippery, helping to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Lowered Chance for Type 2 Diabetes
According to the CDC, more than 100 million Americans now have type 2 diabetes.(source) While this disease complicates things in its own right, having diabetes is also a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
Research finds that pescatarian eaters had a nearly five percent reduced chance of developing diabetes, which is nearly three percent more than those who eat more animal products.(source)
Glucose and insulin regulation are crucial in diabetes, and when the signaling between them gets disrupted, type 2 diabetes ensues.
A diet rich in vegetables and fruits helps to improve insulin sensitivity and lowers glucose levels, largely due to the higher intake of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, seafood helps cut the inflammatory pathways that drive the disease.
While all seafood contains protein and some healthy fats, the best fish for diabetes are salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines.
Might Help Protect Against Certain Types of Cancer
Cancer is a disorder driven by DNA damage and improper cell replication. While it’s found in many different parts of the body or body systems, the primary driver of cancer is inflammation.
Regular intake of seafood, vegetables, and fruits all help to reduce the body’s inflammatory load, which is why the pescatarian diet might help to protect against certain kinds of cancer.
Vegetarian diets in particular are associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer, and following a pescatarian plan reduces this risk even further.(source)
For those who’ve already been given a cancer diagnosis, a pescatarian diet can also help to slow the growth and progression of the disease because of the omega-3 fats.(source)
Chemotherapy treatments can also be rendered more effective when eating a pescatarian diet because the omega-3 fatty acids can help to spare muscle mass, control inflammation, and preserve immunity.
Inflammation is a necessary health process, designed to promote healing. But when it continues in a chronic pattern, the heat of inflammation can damage tissues, lead to immune disorders, and result in various types of disease.
A little bit goes a long way, and in this case, too much of a good thing is definitely a bad thing.
Seafood, particularly the omega-3s found in fish like salmon and mackerel, helps to fight inflammation in the body. It is especially helpful when trying to prevent or address systemic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory allergies, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Overall, a pescatarian diet promotes weight loss because it contains fewer calories than the standard American diet, is higher in fiber, and promotes better appetite satiety (or feelings of fullness).
Research finds that women in particular can benefit from eating a pescatarian diet. One study showed that women eating this way gained 2 and a half fewer pounds over the course of each year compared to women who ate meat in their diet. (source)
This is applicable for men, too, as other studies show that an overall reduction in animal products can lead to less weight gain. However, research is mixed, and studies showing animal product intake can also demonstrate weight loss.
Ultimately, it’s about the right diet that works for you, and when you’re eating in a way that jives with your lifestyle and body type, that also provides high intake of nutrients, a better weight balance will follow.
Healthy Brain Function and Improved Mood
Brain health is complicated, but the nutrients that it relies on for healthy function are not. Without plenty of healthy omega-3 fats, brain health will suffer, including cognition and mood.
Aging naturally causes a decline in both, yet even proper intake of omega-3s can seemingly pause the effects of aging on the brain and can help to reduce the risk of developing brain-related disorders, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Omega-3 fats are so vital for brain health that when a pregnant women is low in intake, the child she is carrying could suffer from lifelong learning disabilities, reduced IQ, poorer test scores, and other brain-related problems.
This is because as the brain is literally being formed in utero, it relies on omega-3 fats for construction. A shortage in top notch building materials results in permanent changes.
Depression is a complicated disorder that can’t simply be fixed by one aspect, but low levels of healthy fats can lead to inflammation in the brain, which has been implicated as one major cause of depression.
The same is true for anxiety and ADHD.
Some people follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet for ethical reasons, because they want to avoid eating animals, or because they don’t support the inhumane factory practices that are also causing damage to the environment.
Additional reasons can include protesting the lack of fair wages and job support for factory farm workers, the concern over the high levels of antibiotics and other medicines used in feedlot operations, and more.
Ultimately a person’s diet must nourish their bodies and their souls, so when someone finds it distasteful to eat certain foods due to ethics or religion, it’s essential to find a dietary plan that supports their convictions, beliefs, and needs.
For many, a pescatarian diet does this.
Who Shouldn’t Eat a Pescatarian Diet (Plus Downsides)
A pescatarian diet seems great on nearly every level, but as with anything, there are some downsides and it’s also not appropriate for everyone.
Here are the biggest concerns.
Any diet that eliminates entire categories of food for preference, and is not necessitated by allergy, can result in certain nutrient deficiencies, and the pescatarian diet is no exception.
While pescatarians often eat dairy, eggs, and seafood, choosing not to eat any animal meats or poultry products can still result in a shortage of amino acids, B vitamins, zinc, iron, protein, and more depending on the variety of seafood consumed.
All of these nutrients can produce symptoms and disorders even when just at low levels, and not deficiency.
These nutrient shortfalls are of special concern during pregnancy and breastfeeding, childhood, teenage years, and the years over age 60, as these groups are more susceptible to problems from a lack of animal-based nutrients.
When following any dietary plan, it’s important to consult with your doctor and nutritionist, to ensure that you’re getting what you need whether from diet or high-quality supplementation.
One of the biggest downsides of seafood is mercury contamination, which is a neurotoxin and can cause serious brain damage when the body takes it in at levels that are too high.
This could happen if a high amount of higher-mercury seafood was regularly eaten, so it’s important to be mindful of on a pescatarian diet.
The highest mercury fish to avoid or to very rarely eat are swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and shark. Tuna should be limited to no more than twice per week.
Pescatarian Recipes for Anyone to Try
If you’re curious about the pescatarian diet, you’ll find that there are several recipes that are easy to try. Many of them wouldn’t be known as “pescatarian” to begin with, but are actually friendly to many different ways of eating.
If you want to incorporate more vegetables and seafood, and less animal products in your diet, give one of these recipes a try.
Black Bean and Sweet Potato Tacos: Give taco night a pescatarian twist with these meat-free dishes.
Shrimp-Stuffed Avocado Boats: Whether you need an easily packed lunch or a quick dinner at the end of a long day, this dish is perfect for anyone who loves shrimp and avocado, pescatarian or not.
Sheet Pan Honey Sesame Tofu and Green Beans: Never given tofu a try? This pescatarian go-to isn’t for everyone, but prepared this way, even a meat-lover would be intrigued.
Mason Jar Tuna Nicoise: An easy-to-pack twist on this classic dish, everything gets an upgrade when it’s in a mason jar.
Skillet Shrimp with Lime Curry: Skip the skewers, this shrimp dish is a zesty, spicy pan dish that you’ll want in the regular rotation.
Curried Cauliflower Quinoa Salad: You don’t have to have meat or seafood in a recipe to make it satisfying, savory, and filling. Prep this one ahead of time for an easy meal.
Mediterranean Chickpea Harissa Frittata: Chickpeas are a great way to feel full without the meat-based protein, and this dish is packed with flavor, texture, and tons of nutrients.
The pescatarian diet is a healthful way of eating that promotes dietary intake of omega-3 fats, vegetables, fruits, fiber, and more. While no diet is perfect for everyone, this diet has much to offer with several health benefits and only a few drawbacks.
Ultimately, when choosing a dietary plan, it’s most important to get feedback from your doctor and nutritionist, to ensure that there are no nutrient deficiency risks for your health.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.