Would you like to eliminate meat from your diet but not fish? Or are you thinking about going vegan but want protein options other than plants?
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Consider a pescatarian diet. The plan—like the lifestyle—is vegan with one important difference: You also eat fish and seafood. Registered Dietitian Anthony DiMarino, RD, explains what it means to be a pescatarian and how to maximize the health benefits.
Foods to eat on a pescatarian diet
A pescatarian diet doesn’t have strict rules about how much of each food group you should eat. Instead, you have the freedom and flexibility to choose pescatarian-friendly foods and how much you want to eat based on your preferences and health goals.
If you are a pescatarian, you choose:
Foods you don’t eat
Going pescatarian means you choose to avoid eating any type of meat that isn’t seafood, including:
- Poultry like chicken and turkey.
- Red meat, including beef, pork and lamb.
- Wild game like deer and bison.
Health benefits of a pescatarian diet
Removing meat and poultry from your diet and focusing on plants and seafood can be a healthy transition. Benefits of a pescatarian diet may include:
1. Improve heart health
One of the main benefits of going pescatarian is replacing unhealthy meats with heart-healthy fish. Many Americans do not eat enough seafood, which contains high amounts of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA.
“EPA and DHA are called essential fatty acids because your body can’t make them,” says Di Marino. “Seafood is one of the best sources of these fats, which improve heart and blood vessel health. Omega-3 reduces the risk of high blood pressure, blood clots and sudden cardiac death.”
Fruits and vegetables also contain antioxidants, compounds known to reduce the risk of heart disease. Including these foods in a diet high in fish provides a double benefit for heart health.
Another potential plus for your heart: skip the red meat. Regular consumption of red meat and pork increases the risk of heart disease. Also, red meat is higher in calories and unhealthy fats than fish or plant-based foods.
“Eliminating red meat is a great way to improve heart health,” says Di Marino. “Pescatians can get all the nutrients they need without eating beef, lamb or pork.”
2. Lower risk of cancer and other diseases
Fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, but most of us don’t eat enough of them. Eating colorful fruits and vegetables is an important part of an anti-cancer diet. These foods contain nutrients and phytochemicals that help fight the cellular changes that lead to cancer.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, if you increase your consumption of products, your risk of cancer decreases:
But an apple a day (plus other products) can ward off more than cancer. Research also shows that eating more fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes. “Just about anything that adds more fruits and vegetables to your diet can be beneficial,” says DiMarino. “These foods are the best foods for fighting disease and living an overall healthy life.”
3. Good gut health
If your pescatarian plan includes plenty of fiber-rich foods, your gut will heal. Fiber in plant foods helps prevent constipation and nourishes the gut microbiome. Your microbiome is home to bacteria, fungi, and yeast that live in your small and large intestine.
“Your microbiome plays an important role in your immune system, digestion, and metabolism,” says Di Marino. “A healthy microbiome can improve your mental health, too.”
4. Loss of appetite
Many foods in a pescatarian diet, such as beans, nuts, and seeds, can help curb afternoon cravings. These foods are naturally high in fiber and protein, which take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates like chips and processed snacks. The bottom line: You can eat fewer calories throughout the day and feel less hungry.
Protein is the building block for your body tissues – every cell in your body needs it. There is some evidence that eating enough protein can help you lose weight. But getting your protein from meats high in saturated fat, like hamburgers, has health risks (extra calories).
Pescatarian proteins are the healthiest. Fish and eggs are excellent sources of lean protein. Plant-based proteins like soy, nuts, and legumes are also a healthy way to get plenty of these important nutrients.
“We all need protein, but not all sources of protein are healthy,” says DiMarino. “If you go pescatarian, you’re eating the healthiest sources of protein. Choosing these lean proteins over high-fat meats can help you lose weight.”
But it’s important to remember that going pescatarian doesn’t automatically mean you’re cutting calories, she adds. “You have to be selective about what you eat. Focus on whole foods to help you feel fuller, longer.”
Possible pitfalls of going pescatarian
A pescatarian diet makes your food choices largely up to you. But giving up meat does not ensure proper nutrition. To reap the benefits of a pescatarian lifestyle:
Too many processed foods
You can follow a pescatarian diet and still eat unhealthy foods. For example, potato chips and sugary cereal are not meat, so you can “technically” eat them on this plan.
“Any diet can be unhealthy if you eat too many processed foods,” warns Di Marino. “Processed foods are high in calories, unhealthy fats and sugars. They also lack the vitamins and minerals your body needs.”
To get the most out of a pescatarian plan, focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Eat less or no processed foods.
“By shopping the four walls of the grocery store, you can avoid most processed foods,” says Di Marino. “Fill your cart with fresh produce, nuts and seeds, dairy, eggs and fish. Avoid middle-of-the-road snacks that usually include crackers, cookies, and chips.
Fish high in mercury or contaminants
For most people, the benefits of eating fish outweigh any risks. Most of the fish you eat should be low-mercury types, including:
- Alaskan Atlantic and Atka mackerel (not king mackerel).
- Canned light tuna (not albacore tuna).
- Shrimps and sardines.
But people who are pregnant or breastfeeding should completely avoid high-mercury seafood. The types with the highest levels of mercury are older, larger fish, such as:
- Golden bass.
- Golden snapper.
- King mackerel.
“Most healthy adults should eat two servings of fish per week,” says Di Marino. “If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you can occasionally eat mercury-containing fish. But for most fish consumption, focus on low-mercury types.”
Possible nutritional deficiencies
There are no guidelines on how much fish, eggs and dairy you can eat on a pescatarian diet. If you don’t eat these foods regularly, you may develop the following deficiencies:
“Pescatarians, like vegetarians, need to be mindful of nutrients that are not readily available in many plant foods,” says Di Marino. “You can get enough zinc, protein and iron without eating too much eggs, milk and fish, but it takes some planning.”
For example, many nuts, seeds and legumes are rich in zinc and protein. Fortified grains and mushrooms contain vitamin B12. But you won’t always find a nutrition label on fresh foods, so it’s hard to know how much you’re getting.
If you plan to eat small amounts of dairy, eggs, and fish on a pescatarian diet, play it safe and talk to a registered dietitian. Together, you can create a meal plan that covers your nutritional needs.
Pescatarian vs. Mediterranean Diet: Which Is Better?
There are some similarities between the pescatarian lifestyle and the Mediterranean diet. Both plans focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But on the Mediterranean diet, you:
- Eating meat: A Mediterranean diet can include any kind of meat, but red and processed meat should be reduced.
- Focus on olive oil: Both diets allow olive oil, but it is a major component of the Mediterranean diet.
- Eat less milk: The Mediterranean diet usually includes several servings of dairy products each week.
“Following the Mediterranean diet is a proven way to reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Di Marino. “But studies show that similar results can be achieved with a pescatarian diet. An important key to any diet is to choose whole foods over processed foods whenever possible.”
Choose what works for you
Following a pescatarian diet may improve your health, but it’s not for everyone. “Some people like lean chicken or don’t like fish,” says Di Marino. “It’s probably not a good idea to go pescatarian under these circumstances. Consider the Mediterranean diet instead. The best diet for you is the most nutrient-dense diet you can stick to over the long term.”