What Is a Pescatarian Diet, and How Healthy Is It Really?
Should you say yes to this diet? Here, we take a closer look at the research and tell you how to get started.
A pescatarian is someone who includes seafood in their otherwise-vegetarian diet. Also called pesco-vegetarian, a person following this diet usually doesn't eat red meat or poultry, but may include dairy and eggs in their diet.
Pictured recipe: Rosemary Roasted Salmon with Asparagus & Potatoes
Because pescatarians are a type of vegetarian, they typically reap many of the same health and nutrition benefits that stricter vegetarians do. In fact, much of the research on the pescatarian diet is wrapped into research on vegetarian diets. Read on to learn more about the benefits of eating a pescatarian diet and to see how to make it work for you.
So, what are the benefits of eating a pescatarian diet?
Compared to omnivores, pesco-vegetarians consume less saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Interestingly, they also get less protein. (FYI: Most of us are eating enough protein. Find out how much protein you should be eating here.) And they eat more fiber and heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats. Also, research shows that pescatarians get more bone-building calcium in their diet than vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.
A review of the two largest ongoing groups of vegetarian study participants found that pesco-vegetarians have a lower risk of premature death—from all causes—compared to meat-eaters.
Lower risk of some chronic conditions
Following a pescatarian diet also may protect against type 2 diabetes (one study found it lowered risk by 24 to 49%) and also help keep your blood pressure in check (fewer fish-eaters had high blood pressure compared to meat-eaters, though even fewer vegetarians and vegans had high blood pressure).
Protection against some cancers
A large study of vegetarians in the United Kingdom found that pesco-vegetarians have a lower risk for all cancers, and are significantly more protected from prostate and colorectal cancers.
There is one potential drawback, though.
If you eat a fish-heavy diet (regardless of whether it's a part of an otherwise-vegetarian diet or a meat-eating diet), you need to be mindful of mercury. It's a dangerous environmental toxin that accumulates in fish, shellfish and other seafood.
It's most pronounced in larger fish because they eat smaller fish, which adds to the bigger fish's mercury content; plus many larger fish have lived longer and accumulated more mercury over their lifetime. Most experts say that the benefits of regularly eating seafood outweigh the risks of mercury exposure, but advise being mindful of the varieties that are likely to deliver the most mercury:
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
- Ahi tuna
- Bigeye tuna
Ideas for how to follow a pescatarian diet
Pictured recipe: Smoked Salmon & Avocado Toasts
Remember, although you'll be eating seafood (and also maybe dairy and eggs), this diet is a mostly vegetarian diet. So, fill your plate with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts and seeds and their oils. Try our 7-day pescatarian diet meal plan to get ideas for healthy breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.
Including seafood in your dinner menu probably feels the most attainable: cook up your favorite fish fillet, make salmon burgers, add shrimp to a stir-fry. But what about breakfast and lunch? Also, if you're eating a fish-forward diet, variety is important (for your health and that of the environment), so aim to think beyond fish sticks and canned tuna—though both of those are absolutely A-OK to include! (Is canned tuna really healthy? Yes, find out why.)
How to include seafood at breakfast
Smoked salmon is perhaps a given—especially tucked into a bagel. But, "Try it alongside soft-scrambled eggs too," says Ann Taylor Pittman, independent writer and recipe developer. "I also love to take leftover salmon fillets and flake them into an omelet or frittata. If I don't have leftover salmon, I use canned flaked salmon and some fresh dill."
If avocado toast is a go-to breakfast for you, Pittman suggests you #putafishonit: "I'm a big fan of oil-packed sardines and love to top my avocado toast with them, or a fun conserva like smoked mussels or octopus."
Lunch ideas for fish-eaters
While you're in the canned tuna section, move over a couple feet and add canned salmon to your cart. "I'm a big, big fan of canned boneless, skinless salmon. I'll make salmon salad (just like tuna salad) to have on crackers or bread," says Pittman. "Or flake the salmon into a big salad with kale as the base and whatever crunchy veggies I happen to have on hand."
You can also use up what remains from your tinned fish at breakfast, and turn it into a snack lunch as well: "I enjoy some nice tinned fish or seafood packed in oil with good bread or crackers, some olives, some fruit, maybe a chunk of cheese and a few nuts," says Pittman.