“A pescetarian diet? What in the world is that?”
Pesce is the Italian word for fish — so naturally, a pescatarian diet is followed by someone who chooses to eat a vegetarian diet, but who also eats fish and other seafood. It’s largely a plant-based diet of whole grains, nuts, legumes, vegetables, and healthy fats — with a side of pan-fried salmon! Many pescetarians may also eat dairy and eggs but the question is, why do people do it? How’s it beneficial? Surely there are some drawbacks?
If you seek answers to these questions, then well, we got them for you. We spoke to Tehzeeb Lalani, a Mumbai-based diet and health counsellor and the proprietor of Scale Beyond Scale, to break down the Pescetarian diet for us and help us understand it better.
IB: What are the benefits of a Pescetarian diet?
Oh, there are plenty. For starters, research studies show that eliminating red meat lowers the saturated fat and cholesterol content of the diet leading to improved heart health, lowered risk of obesity, and a decreased likelihood of suffering from chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Secondly, DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish is immensely important for proper brain and eye development. EPA and DHA, both of which are omega-3 fatty acids as well are found in seafood, and can help decrease inflammation and contribute to healthy joints.
Lastly, fish is an excellent source of many necessary vitamins including B-complex vitamins, vitamin A, and vitamin D. These vitamins are beneficial for the maintenance of the nervous system, healthy vision and for bone development respectively. Fish is also a great source of essential minerals, including but not limited to zinc, iodine, selenium, and iron. Zinc gives us good immunity, iodine supports effective thyroid hormone function, and selenium gives us great hair, skin and an anti-ageing glow!
IB: Are there any issues that one could potentially face if they go pescetarian?
There are a few, yes, and it’s only fair to inform people about them. Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, for example, as well as certain varieties of white fish including sea bass and halibut, contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in your body over time. Excessive exposure to these pollutants could increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, hormonal, and endocrine disruptions and thyroid diseases. Secondly and most importantly, fish also contain varying amounts of mercury, which is a natural element that fish process into a toxic substance called methylmercury. As a pescetarian, the chances of exposure to the toxin may be higher.
IB: We’re glad you mentioned the mercury levels. So, how much fish can one consume, and is there a bad season to consume seafood in India?
Most fish and shellfish contain mercury in varying amounts. As mentioned earlier, ingesting high levels of mercury poses health risks, such as harming the development of an unborn baby or growing child. For pregnant or breastfeeding women, the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) recommends eating no more than 12 ounces of fish per week to limit your intake of mercury.
There is no bad season (to eat fish) as such, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
The way the food chain works is that the big fish eat the small fish. Thus, the bigger the fish, the more mercury it naturally contains.
Apart from being environmentally costly, imported fish won’t have any nutrient offerings in abundance. Think about it — by the time your salmon comes from Norway, or your cold cuts from Europe to India, how many nutrients would they retain for you? Having said that, fish from India are notorious for being unsafe and laced with toxins and antibiotic resistant bacterial strains since the water is contaminated with medical waste, fecal waste, and other unmentionable whatnots. So it’s important to be aware about where you source your fish from!
IB: What are the healthiest varieties of fish available in the Indian market? Some people claim that Basa is unhealthy. Is that true?
Healthy fish are the smaller fish since the mercury levels would be lower. Some examples include mackerel (bangada), herring, clams, pomfret, and rawas. Basa does have high protein and potassium content so it’s not an ‘unhealthy’ option. But if your basa is dipped in butter garlic sauce… then well, that’s where the ratio of protein to fat gets skewed for the worse!
Another misconception is that shellfish such as prawns, crabs, lobsters are off limits for those trying to lower their cholesterol. That isn’t entirely true. The key is to not overindulge, but instead to enjoy these food items in moderation. Instead of focusing only on the cholesterol, one should also worry about lowering the saturated fat content of their diet!
IB: Finally, how do we ensure that people make an informed decision about their diet?
It’s important to do your research and then take a call. For example, farmed fish is the latest health trend because people assume that these are safer. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth because the fish are fed growth hormones, antibiotics and other foods that are not found in their natural habitat
People choose to follow specific diets — be it pescetarian, vegan, vegetarian, eggetarian, or flexitarian — due to ideological and/or religious beliefs. Thus, people who don’t eat a certain food item shouldn’t be forced to eat them. For instance, vegetarians can receive their share of omega-3 and other nutrients from their veg food sources too. One need not necessarily consume fish for these nutrients. Similarly, a meat eater shouldn’t be asked to give up the meat he loves and become vegetarian for nutritional reasons. Speak to an informed nutritionist, because there are always alternatives in the market for you.
Tehzeeb is a Mumbai-based diet and health counsellor for clinical and non-clinical woes. She has seen over 300 clients and helped them successfully transform their lifestyle. You can get in touch with her at +91 809 739 1167, or [email protected]
Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar