What is a Pescatarian?

three cooked salmon with lemon on a white plate
Elise Bauer

These days more and more of us are exploring different approaches to diet. While a  plant-rich menu seems to be of particular interest, though, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. Every eater has different ideas about what it means to be vegetarian, from plant-loving vegans on one end to pescatarians on the other.  

What is a Pescatarian?

According to the ever-reliable Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term pescatarian (also called pesco-vegetarian) was coined in 1993 to indicate “those who eat fish but no other meat.” 

In other words, the sole defining characteristic of a pescatarian diet is that it eliminates any animal protein other than what comes from the sea, namely beef, poultry, lamb, pork, and game. 

The Pescatarian Diet 

Beyond the exclusion of meat and poultry, the make-up of a pescatarian diet can vary widely. Most pescatarians tend to include eggs and dairy, though not necessarily. 

The rest of the diet is filled out much like any vegetarian diet would be, with vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and legumes, in addition to seafood.

Why Be a Pescatarian?

For some, a pescatarian diet can be the gateway to a more plant-based style of eating, a way to get your feet wet without being overly restrictive. You eat like any vegetarian, yet have more options when it comes to filling your shopping cart or ordering off a restaurant menu. Sure, the diet eliminates most animal protein, but is still flexible enough to include fish and shellfish. 

One of the major motivators for becoming a pescatarian is that it’s good for your health. Eliminating meat can mean cutting out a significant source of saturated fat, a known contributor to heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Indeed, research has found pescatarians have lower risk of death from all causes, including cancer and heart disease.

In addition to being generally lower in unhealthy fats than much of what you’ll find in the butcher case, certain types of fish, such as salmon and sardines, are rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Seafood also provides nutrients that can be hard to come by in an otherwise plant-based diet, notably vitamin B12,vitamin D, iron, and zinc.

It’s no wonder that the US Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat more seafood to the tune of eight ounces a week (something 90 percent of Americans fall short of). 

Concern for the environment is another reason for choosing a pescatarian diet, since livestock production, particularly cattle, has a significant carbon output. Eliminating meat can make a difference. 

That said, the seafood industry is not without sustainability issues. Certain species, farming practices, and fishing methods are better than others in terms of environmental impact (most imported shrimp are notably problematic while domestic clams actually improve the waters in which they’re raised). 

To navigate the best choices in seafood from an environmental perspective, take a look at  Seafood Watch before heading to the fish market. It’s a free guide that rates fish and shellfish based on sustainability. 

Healthy Fish Cake Recipe - poached fish
Sally Vargas

Keep Mercury in Mind

When it comes to any diet that includes fish, it makes sense to be mindful of mercury levels, an environmental toxin to be avoided, particularly for pregnant and lactating women and young children. 

Mercury levels vary widely in seafood, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the species to avoid include king mackerel, swordfish, shark, tilefish, orange roughy, bigeye, and ahi tuna. That leaves a whole lot of fish in the sea that are fair game, including fan favorites like salmon, scallops, trout, and oysters. 

If you are interested in exploring a pescatarian diet, here is a line up of delicious recipes to get you started.

 Recipes for Pescatarians: