Of the many ways you can choose to eat, some provide more health benefits than others. While it might be fun once in a while to scarf down junk food or feast on a thick steak, doing so every day could have negative long-term health consequences.
As such, eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet has been found to be one of the best ways you can take your health into your own hands and prevent or delay the development of common chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
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There are a variety of ways to enjoy a plant-based diet, from veganism that strictly eliminates all animal products to the Mediterranean diet that features some meats but relies mainly on whole foods and a lot of plants. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of options lie vegetarianism and pescatarianism.
Vegetarian Diet Overview
A vegetarian diet is one that does not contain meat, poultry or fish, explains Janet Shannon, a registered dietitian with Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California.
A vegetarian diet may include some animal products. There are different types of vegetarians, with the most common classifications revolving around what’s included in the diet:
- Lacto vegetarians. These individuals eat dairy products, such as milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and cottage cheese.
- Ovo vegetarians. These individuals eat eggs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians. These individuals eat both eggs and dairy products.
A balanced vegetarian diet will feature a lot of plants and whole grains, but also may include dairy, beans, legumes and eggs. Honey can be part of a vegetarian diet.
Pescatarian Diet Overview
The pescatarian diet is much like the vegetarian diet in that it eschews meat and poultry, but pescatarians do eat fish. A pescatarian diet contains fruits, vegetables, milk and other dairy products, eggs, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Pescatarians, Shannon notes, “avoid meat, poultry and products made from meat and poultry such as gelatin, broths and lard.”
The pescatarian diet is also sometimes called a pesco-vegetarian or partial vegetarian diet, says Cathy Leman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer, a nutritional consulting firm based in greater Chicago that’s aimed at helping breast cancer patients and survivors.
“The pescatarian diet is basically more flexible,” than the vegetarian diet, says Daryl Gioffre, celebrity nutritionist and author of “Get Off Your Acid: 7 Steps in 7 Days to Lose Weight, Fight Inflammation, and Reclaim Your Health and Energy.”
Comparision of Vegetarian and Pescatarian
Because both diets are considered plant-based, followers will achieve many of the benefits associated with plant-based diets. This approach to eating – when done right – has been associated with plenty of health benefits including:
- Better control of blood pressure.
- Better control of blood glucose.
- Less inflammation.
- Reduced cholesterol levels.
These factors translate into improved heart health, a reduced risk of developing diabetes and a reduced risk of certain types of cancer.
“Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins like C and E,” Leman says. Vegetarians also tend to consume “more fiber, potassium, magnesium and plant compounds, called phytochemicals,” which have been found to have favorable effects on health.
Pescatarians have the added benefit of getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, “which are known for their heart-protective and anti-inflammatory properties,” Shannon explains. Omega-3s are essential compounds that the body can’t make on its own – you have to ingest them as part of your diet or in supplement form. They are critical to maintaining cardiovascular health. Fatty fish, such as sardines, mackerel and salmon are rich sources of omega-3s.
One specific risk associated with a pescatarian diet is the presence of mercury or heavy metals, says Emilie Vandenberg, a registered dietician with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “I think that’s the most common thing we hear about,” in terms of risks associated with a fish-heavy diet.
Fish, shellfish and other seafood accumulate mercury in their bodies. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, this can drive up the concentration of these potentially dangerous toxins in the flesh of the larger fish.
Generally speaking, the lower the fish is on the food chain, the less mercury it’s going to have in its tissues. This is why some health experts recommend limiting your intake of larger fish, such a tuna, swordfish, king mackerel and shark. Particularly for women who are pregnant or nursing, you should avoid fish that could be contaminated with mercury, as high levels can damage the developing fetus or growing baby, Vandenberg says.
With vegetarian diets that do not include fish, mercury contamination is not a concern, but, “with any diet that excludes whole food groups like meat or milk, careful planning is key,” Shannon says. Because whole groups of foods are excluded, there’s the potential to miss out on certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc. But by carefully considering what you’re eating and choosing foods that offer a broad variety of essential vitamins and minerals, those risks can be mitigated.
“Without this careful planning, increased health risks or worsening of medical conditions associated with deficient intakes of these nutrients may occur. For example, otherwise healthy persons like the growing infant or adolescent and those with osteoporosis can be at risk” of a worsening of bone density if they aren’t getting adequate calcium in their diet, Shannon says.
Another common concern among people following a vegetarian or plant-based diet that eliminates animal protein sources is that the individual’s protein intake might fall.
“Protein contains essential amino acids or the ‘building blocks’ that are absolutely critical for healthy functioning bodies,” Shannon says. “While plant foods do have protein,” for some vegetarians or pescatarians, getting enough might take a little extra effort.
Vandenberg also notes that fish and seafood aren’t the only sources of protein in the pescatarian diet. “You can get protein from beans, legumes, tofu and soybeans.” So again, a well-planned diet, whether it’s strictly vegetarian or includes some seafood, can provide more than enough protein.
When viewed from a public health perspective, Shannon notes that “many health organizations recommend moving towards more of a plant-based diet.”
Leman agrees that by and large, the vegetarian diet can be very healthy alternatives to the standard American diet. “Overall nutrition, as assessed by the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, which is an assessment of adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is typically better on vegetarian diets compared with meat-based diets.”
Both vegetarian and pescatarian diets can be budget-friendly, especially if you’re including conventionally-grown produce instead of seeking out only organic items, Leman says. “The addition of seafood in a pescatarian diet could increase the cost, but choosing canned and frozen options, especially when they’re on sale, can help reduce the cost.”
Red meat and poultry can be expensive, so forgoing these purchases in favor of more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish could reduce your overall shopping bill.
As with any diet, the quality of the food is also important, Gioffre says. Look for whole, unprocessed options rather than prepackaged or prepared foods. These whole foods that you cook yourself are usually less expensive than prepared foods.
Which One is Better?
Both the pescatarian and vegetarian approaches to eating can be perfectly healthy diets, provided you’re focused on eating whole, unprocessed foods rather than packaged junk foods. Vandenberg says, “it all comes down to which foods you’re choosing and whether you’re covering all your needs. You need a variety of vitamins and minerals to cover you bases.”
One area where pescatarian diets might have a leg up over strictly vegetarian diets is in providing more omega-3 fatty acids.
Leman says there’s “not a lot of research comparing pescatarian diets to strictly vegetarian diets. However, there is evidence that plant-based diets, with or without the inclusion of seafood or fish, are healthful.”
Here’s what to consider:
May be a better option for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and other cardiovascular issues because of higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
May be the better option for pregnant or nursing mothers because of the risk of mercury contamination in some fish.
Tips for Adopting a Pescatarian or Vegetarian Diet
If you’re interested in trying out the pescatarian or vegetarian lifestyle, a little planning upfront will make a big difference in the long run, Leman says. “It’s important to plan, include whole, unprocessed foods, load up on produce and be deliberate in choosing a variety of foods to meet all nutrient needs.”
This is where meeting with a dietitian to determine the optimal nutrient intake for your specific situation can help. “A registered dietitian’s job is to recommend a diet for a patient only after considering a patient’s sex, age, health history, medications, weight, etc. and individualizing a diet with that patient in mind. This means that a diet recommended to a patient may be different from that recommended to the general population,” Shannon explains.
10 Cheap Plant-Based Meals
Elaine K. Howley, Contributor
Elaine Howley began writing for U.S. News in 2017, covering breast cancer and COPD. Since … Read more
Daryl Gioffre, DC; Cathy Leman, RDN; Janet Shannon, MS, RD; Emilie Vandenberg RDN, LD
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