What is the Pescatarian Diet?

You are what you eat is one of the truest sayings in nutrition. Every morsel of food you consume enters your body and becomes part of you, affecting you at a cellular level. If you eat healthily, you can expect to be healthy.

Conversely, if you eat unhealthily, your short and long-term health may suffer. Eat too much, and invariably you’ll gain weight. One way that people eat for better health and to manage their weight is the pescatarian diet (1).

In simple terms, this involves following a vegetarian diet with added fish and seafood. Some pescatarians eat dairy and eggs too, but that’s a matter of personal choice. For some people, following the pescatarian diet is a healthy choice, while others do it for weight loss (2, 3).

Others do it because they like the taste of the foods that are allowed. There may be ethical reasons for going pescatarian, too; the raising and slaughter of cattle for food is something many people object to on moral grounds (4). Fish and seafood also have a lower carbon footprint, so it’s better for the environment (5, 6).

Whatever the reason, it’s essential to understand all the pros and cons of any diet before you start it, and while the pescatarian diet can be beneficial, there are a few drawbacks too.

Pescatarian Diet – All you Need to Know

What Can and Can’t You Eat on A Pescatarian Diet

The standard pescatarian diet is mainly vegetarian with added fish and seafood (7).

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Benefits of the Pescatarian Diet

Adding fish to a vegetarian diet has several benefits. Avoiding all animal flesh can create nutritional deficiencies, and adding fish can help plug these gaps. The benefits of the pescatarian diet include:

  More protein – while you can get enough protein from plant-based sources, it’s not easy. Just a few portions of seafood per day will ensure you get all the protein you need. Protein is especially important for exercisers, as it’s critical for muscle repair and growth. Fish contains just as much protein as meat, but it’s generally lower in fat and calories.

salmon  More omega-3s – omega-3 fatty acids are very healthy fats. Some plant foods contain them, such as flax seeds and walnuts, but seafood is one of the most readily available sources of these vital nutrients.

Omega-3s are good for your heart, hair, skin, and nails, as well as brain function and health (8, 9). 

Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herrings, and sardines, are some of the best sources of high-quality omega-3s.

  More vitamins and minerals – even a very well-balanced vegetarian diet can be low in certain vital nutrients. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, seafood is high in vitamins B6, B12, D, and E, zinc, calcium, and selenium, all of which are in short supply on a purely vegetarian diet. 

  Lower saturated fat intake – most land animals are high in saturated fat. Saturated fat is high in calories and is linked to weight gain and cardiovascular disease. Replacing meat with fish will automatically lower your saturated fat and caloric intake, often without resorting to smaller meals.

Shrimps and Broccoli More meal options – adding fish to a vegetarian diet makes meal planning a whole lot easier. Instead of trying to balance plant sources of amino acids to fulfill your protein quotient, you can just have a piece of fish with your usual selection of vegetables. You’ll also find eating out easier, as veggie options are often very limited and even unappetizing.

In contrast, most eateries offer several fish and seafood options. You can usually ask for your fish to be grilled instead of fried, which is useful if you are trying to eat extra healthy and avoid unwanted calories. In short, adding fish to your menu opens up a lot of extra menu options.

Drawbacks of the Pescatarian Diet

woman coockingOn the whole, there aren’t too many drawbacks to the pescatarian diet.

It’s mostly healthy, providing you go easy on the fish sticks and stick to unprocessed fish and plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. However, there are some concerns over mercury toxicity.

Mercury is a mineral that is poisonous when consumed in large quantities or for sustained periods. Mercury is mainly found in bigger fish species, such as tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and shark.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recommended that young children and pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid these foods (10). Adults should limit their intake to 2-3 times per week to prevent toxicity. Other drawbacks of going pescatarian include cost and food prep.

Fish can be expensive, often even more so than meat. This is especially true for popular seafood, such as salmon, cod, lobster, and king prawns. Also, prepping and cooking fish can be time-consuming, and not everyone knows how or wants to have to gut and fillet a fish.

However, most fishmongers will do this for you if asked. These drawbacks are far from insurmountable, and the pescatarian diet offers more pros than it does cons.

Pescatarian Diet Plan Ideas

The easiest way to make the move to the pescatarian diet is to replace the meat in your meals with fish or seafood. For example, have prawns on your salad instead of chicken, or try a fish fillet burger instead of a regular beef burger.

You can also experiment with different fish and seafood cooking methods. Options include:

  • Grilling
  • Broiling
  • Shallow frying
  • Deep frying (generally not recommended for regular use)
  • Poaching
  • Steaming
  • Baking
  • Microwaving
  • Sous vide (sealed in a waterproof bag and simmered in water)

Serve your seafood with your choice of vegetables and whole grains, e.g., broccoli florets, carrots, sweet potato, and/or wild rice. You can liven up any fish dish by using various herbs and spices and adding sauces.

What to Expect

Strong Woman ExercisingAdding fish to a vegetarian diet, especially one that was previously low in protein, could help you lose weight faster, build muscle more easily, and recover better between workouts.

You may also notice that the condition of your hair, skin, and nails improves.

Replacing meat with seafood may also lead to weight loss, and your blood pressure may drop if it’s currently elevated. You may also experience less bloating, as red meat can be hard to digest, while fish is usually lighter and easier to break down.

Increasing your fish intake and your omega-3 intake by default may also help reduce joint pain and other sources of inflammation. Omega-3s are potent anti-inflammatories.

Finally, while eating more seafood won’t automatically make you smarter, you may find that it helps with things like memory and concentration.

Fish oil is the original smart drug!

Is It the Right Choice for You?

Fried Asparagus ShrimpThe pescatarian diet is one of the least controversial diets around. It’s ideal for vegetarians who want to eat more protein and for carnivores who want to stop eating meat. Providing you eat healthily (i.e., not fish sticks, deep-fried prawns, etc.), going pescatarian should do you nothing but good.

However, like any diet, you should avoid eating the same foods over and over again, so don’t just eat tuna in the name of going pescatarian. Instead, eat lots of different types of fish and seafood. This will supply you with a broader range of nutrients and reduce your exposure to the toxins that could otherwise make this diet less healthy.

Also, consider the source of your fish. Seek out seafood from renewable stocks and avoid farmed fish where you can. This is especially relevant if you have given up meat because of ethical concerns.

Bottom Line

A lot of diets are far too whacky or extreme for long-term use. They ban the foods you love or lead to severe hunger or cravings. You might be able to stick with it for a few days, or even a week or two, but eventually, your willpower will fail, and you’ll give in.

In contrast, the pescatarian diet is more of a lifestyle choice than a weight loss diet. In fact, unless you watch your calorie intake, no guarantee eating seafood in place of meat will lead to weight loss. You could even gain weight if you eat more than usual.

That said, in terms of health, going pescatarian makes a lot of sense. Seafood is generally lower in saturated fat and higher in heart-friendly omega-3s and other nutrients essential for your long-term health. Plus, there are very few drawbacks to following a pescatarian diet, providing you actually like fish, of course!

Whether you are a vegetarian who wants to eat more protein or a meat-eater looking for a healthier, more ethical alternative to beef, lamb, and pork, the pescatarian diet could be just what you are looking for.

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  1. Rosell M, Appleby P, Spencer E, Key T. Weight gain over 5 years in 21,966 meat-eating, fish-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men and women in EPIC-Oxford. Int J Obes (Lond). 2006 Sep;30(9):1389-96. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803305. Epub 2006 Mar 14. PMID: 16534521.
  2. Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. E. (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes care32(5), 791–796. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc08-1886
  3. Key, T. J., Appleby, P. N., & Rosell, M. S. (2006). Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society65(1), 35–41. https://doi.org/10.1079/pns2005481
  4. Fox, N., & Ward, K. (2008). Health, ethics and environment: a qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite50(2-3), 422–429. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.09.007
  5. Mcdermott A (2018). Eating seafood can reduce your carbon footprint, but some fish are better than others. 
  6. Scarborough, P., Appleby, P. N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A. D., Travis, R. C., Bradbury, K. E., & Key, T. J. (2014). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic change125(2), 179–192. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1
  7. Rizzo, N. S., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Sabate, J., & Fraser, G. E. (2013). Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics113(12), 1610–1619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.06.349
  8. Nichols, P. D., Petrie, J., & Singh, S. (2010). Long-chain omega-3 oils-an update on sustainable sources. Nutrients2(6), 572–585. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu2060572
  9. Mozaffarian D, Lemaitre RN, Kuller LH, Burke GL, Tracy RP, Siscovick DS; Cardiovascular Health Study. Cardiac benefits of fish consumption may depend on the type of fish meal consumed: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Circulation. 2003 Mar 18;107(10):1372-7. doi: 10.1161/01.cir.0000055315.79177.16. PMID: 12642356.
  10. FDA. 2020.Advice about Eating Fish. 

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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