Eating a diet consisting mainly of plant-based foods has a variety of health benefits, which the addition of fish and fish products may enhance.
However, some types of fish may absorb mercury from their environment, so certain people may need to limit their intake.
In this article, we look at the potential health benefits of a pescatarian diet and what people can eat on this kind of diet.
Health benefits of the pescatarian diet
The pescatarian diet has many health benefits. Below, we cover some of these benefits.
Eating fish provides omega-3 fatty acids, some of which are integral for healthy living.
Eating fish, especially fatty fish, provides increased long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake. An omega-3 fatty acid is an unsaturated fat that can be beneficial to people, and some omega-3s are integral for healthy living.
Apart from fish, the pescatarian diet consists mainly of plant foods. According to one 2017 analysis, people who have a diet high in vegetables and other plant foods have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
The study authors say that the heart health benefits of a plant-based diet include improved blood lipids and lower blood pressure.
The same research concludes that a vegetarian diet could reverse atherosclerotic plaques when combined with exercise and stress management.
Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries. This causes the arteries to harden, narrow, and restrict the blood flow.
According to a 2015 study, colorectal cancers are the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
The study used data from a cohort of over 77,650 people and found that the pescatarian diet had a strong protective effect against colorectal cancers.
Diabetes and inflammation
Following a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
There is also evidence that omega-3s present in fatty fish may reduce inflammation, though this evidence comes from trials of supplements.
Plant-based diets are high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents, such as flavonoids. These are natural compounds present in plants. Flavonoids have a range of anti-inflammatory and antidiabetic properties.
A 2016 study, again looking at different dietary patterns among more than 77,000 people in the U.S., found that people following a pescatarian diet had the highest flavonoid intake of all those taking part.
Environmental and animal welfare benefits
Some people choose vegetarian diets because they disagree with factory farming practices or killing animals for food.
For people concerned about animal welfare, the pescatarian diet may be a little more suitable. This is because some scientists argue that fish cannot feel pain. A 2015 study concluded that although fish can experience psychological stress, they lack the neural network necessary to experience pain.
The pescatarian diet may also appeal to those who want to eat foods from what they perceive to be sustainable farming practices.
Is a pescatarian diet sustainable?
While some see farming fish as a solution to over-fishing, it can still damage water ecosystems.
The pescatarian diet is more sustainable than factory farming of mammals or birds, but it does have some environmental issues.
Some people believe that the farming of pigs and ruminants, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, can harm the environment. Both groups emit greenhouse gases, with ruminants producing methane gas and pigs producing ammonia.
On a global scale, these gases contribute to global warming. Also, large-scale deforestation for grazing and agriculture makes the greenhouse gas issue worse.
Although fish do not produce greenhouse gases, fishing and fisheries represent a challenge to water ecosystems.
For example, eating wild line-caught fish is not necessarily better for the environment than eating farmed fish, and the trawlers used to catch trawler-caught fish can affect ocean ecosystems in many ways.
Some people see farming fish as a solution to over-fishing and depleted fish stocks, and the practice has grown rapidly over the past few years.
However, in certain circumstances, fish farming can:
- damage water ecosystems
- introduce invasive species
- use wild fish for feed
- cause overcrowding
- cause disease
The pescatarian diet may also be expensive or difficult to maintain when people live some distance from coastlines or fresh waterways. Some people may also find it hard to access sustainably sourced tinned fish.
What can someone following the pescatarian diet eat?
Listed below are some suggestions for sources of fish that a person on a pescatarian diet can eat:
- canned sardines
- canned salmon
- canned tuna
- fish sticks
- frozen salmon, trout, and herring
- frozen shrimp
- fresh fish, such as salmon, pollock, catfish, and sardines
- fresh shellfish, such as shrimp, clams, and scallops
Other foods to include are:
- cereals and whole grains, including oats, bulgar wheat, amaranth, corn, and rice
- food containing grain products
- pseudo grains, such as quinoa and buckwheat, which are gluten-free
- legumes, including kidney beans, pinto beans, and peas
- legume products, including tofu and hummus
- nuts and nut butters
- seeds, such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia
- eggs and dairy, if lacto-ovo-vegetarian
If a person follows a strict pescatarian diet and avoids consuming eggs and dairy, they might need to check their calcium intake and consider taking supplements.
1-day meal plan
Here, we give examples of recipes for meals that a person might consider when choosing a pescatarian diet:
Sardines are an excellent source of protein and omega-3s.
Sardines are an excellent source of omega-3s. Using spinach to make a pesto spread on the crostini provides a source of vitamin C and vitamin A. The vitamin C helps increase the amount of iron a person absorbs.
This recipe uses canned sardines, but it is also possible to use fresh sardines or anchovies. Starting the day with protein increases the feeling of fullness, and the pesto adds healthful greens that are a source of iron.
Tahini is good source of plant protein and omega-3s. Chickpeas are also a good source of plant protein and fiber. Add a healthful Mediterranean salad to this recipe to create a filling lunch.
Salmon provides omega-3s essential fatty acids.
Strong-flavored fish go very well with citrus fruits such as grapefruit. The addition of grapefruit to this recipe also adds vitamin C and fiber, and it counts toward the 2 servings of fruit that a person should eat per day.
Disadvantages of a pescatarian diet
Heavy metal and pollutants in marine fish is a global issue. With 92 percent of fish consumed by humans being marine fish, mostly from coastal fisheries, there is a risk of contamination.
Mercury is present in the atmosphere and bodies of water and, because of this, nearly all fish may be a source of mercury.
For most people, the mercury present in fish is not a risk, explain the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
However, they advise women considering becoming pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children not to eat specific fish.
Fish to avoid include:
- sword fish
- king mackerel
Fish low in mercury include:
- canned light tuna
A pescatarian diet may be healthful and carries health benefits, as long as people avoid fish with high levels of mercury. However, this diet may not be as sustainable as some people think.
Plant-based diets can help a person maintain a healthy weight, and they also may help with weight loss when necessary. A pescatarian diet may also be more healthful than some diets that rely on calorie deficits to reduce weight.
People may find that canned tuna and sardines, as well as smoked fish, are the easiest foods to obtain and eat. These are full-flavored options, but frozen white fish and fish sticks are more delicately flavored options.
Where possible, people may wish to try to buy fresh fish from sustainable sources. A useful website that can help is Seafood Watch.