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Debating Pescatarianism: To Fish or Not to Fish for a Protein Source

Thursday, July 31, 2008 by: Mary Sichi
Tags: nutrition, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Pescetarian, Piscatarian, Pescatorian, Pesco-vegetarian, Fishetarian -- No, these are not the names for members of obscure religious sects. These are some of the different terms used for people who do not eat the meat of mammals and birds but do eat fish and shellfish. While these individuals essentially eat a vegetarian diet plus fish and shellfish, there is reasonable concern among vegetarians that these terms incorrectly associate people who eat fish with true vegetarians, who do not eat the flesh of any animal. For the sake of clarity (not based on any definitive source, as there does not seem to be one yet), the term pescetarian will be used in this article. As with vegetarians, many people who decide to remove beef, pork, and chicken from their diets do so because of the inhumane and often horrendous treatment these animals receive in our commercial livestock industry.

When people become truly aware of the deplorable conditions these animals live in before they are slaughtered, as well as the cruel methods of slaughter employed in the name of efficiency, they often feel that it is impossible to honestly justify continued participation in such a system. Some of the other reasons for choosing to remove beef, pork, and chicken from one's diet are discussed below.

Health Benefits

Many of the health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet are also obtainable with a pescetarian diet, as it is the absence of meat from commercially-produced livestock (with its high-fat content and chemical additives such as hormones and antibiotics), along with the consumption of nutrient-rich legumes and vegetables, that confers these benefits. Plant-based diets provide protection against numerous diseases, including the three biggest killers in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, and strokes. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians have "lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; ...lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer" and are less likely than meat-eaters to be obese. A fair argument can be made that these benefits can also be realized by eating a pescetarian diet.

In addition to being a good source of protein, fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), which have been found to be helpful in the treatment and prevention of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis. Results from several studies have suggested that eating fish or taking fish oil supplements in certain amounts can lower triglycerides, slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques (hardening of the arteries), lower blood pressure slightly, as well as reduce the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known heart disease. Consumption of fish oil by pregnant women has also been found to be beneficial to the development of their infant's eyes and brains.

There are however, other health concerns associated with eating fish, resulting from environmental pollution, that must be weighed against the benefits of including fish in a plant-based (or any) diet. These serious concerns are discussed in the latter half of this article.

Environmental Benefits

Following a pescetarian diet can also contribute to a healthier planet. For one thing, raising farm animals for food is a very inefficient use of resources compared to the production of vegetables. Currently, more than 70 percent of the grains and cereals grown are fed to farmed animals, and almost all of those calories go into simply keeping the animals alive, not into making them grow. Only a small fraction of the calories consumed by farmed livestock are actually converted into the meat that people eat. Calorie for calorie, it is much more efficient to produce vegetables. In addition to food productivity, demand for meat from commercially-produced livestock has had a negative impact on many other environmental areas, including deforestation, water supply, water pollution, energy consumption, global warming, and biodiversity.

According to a 2006 report by the United Nations, the devastation caused by the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock's contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale..."

Simply put, it makes no sense to waste so many of our precious resources to inefficiently produce a less-healthy food source, especially in our current crisis of increased food prices and disastrous food shortages around the world.

A Step on the Way to Vegetarianism

When I decided to switch to a pescetarian diet, one of my goals was to use it as a stepping stone towards giving up all meat, sort of a gateway stage to vegetarianism. Since I was just learning to cook and prepare dishes using mainly vegetables, I wanted to be sure I still had enough protein and other essential nutrients in my diet so that I would be successful in removing beef, chicken, and pork. Others may also find this a useful step in their journey to becoming vegetarian or vegan. In the words of a practicing vegan, discussing veganism, "It's like vegetarianism, it's a broad church. People often come to it in stages."

Problems with Fish Consumption

Including fish in your diet also comes with the risk of consuming the metals and industrial chemicals that can build up in these animals, especially those at the top of the aquatic food chain. One of the harmful toxins found in fish is mercury, which occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans where it is turned into methylmercury, which is the most harmful type of mercury. Mercury can affect the immune system, alter genetic and enzyme systems, and damage the nervous system, including coordination and the senses of touch, taste, and sight. Methylmercury is particularly damaging to developing embryos, which are five to ten times more sensitive than adults.

In addition to mercury, most fish also contain some levels of PCBs in their system. PCBs, or poly-carbonated biphenyls, are made up of synthetic and organic chemicals. PCBs are used in hundreds of different commercial and industrial applications, and they pollute our air, soil, and waterways.
PCBs are also particularly bad for your health. They have been associated with disorders of the immune system and neurological system. PCBs are especially harmful for pregnant women. They have been associated with a number of fetal development problems including:

* learning disorders

* slowed mental development

* reduced birth weight

* neurological defects

While children, pregnant women, and those who may become pregnant are at the most risk for suffering negative effects of these environmental toxins, studies have shown unhealthy levels in others as well, and the general population is advised to be careful about which and how much fish they eat. Many websites offer mercury calculators, which allow you to estimate how much mercury your current diet contains.

Fish that tend to be low in mercury and PCBs include:

* shrimp

* canned tuna (chunk light)

* salmon (wild or canned)

* catfish

Ethical Concerns

Another set of considerations includes the question of whether fish should be killed for our consumption and the concern for the ethical treatment of the animals themselves. With respect to the first question, vegetarians draw no distinction between fish and other animals such as mammals and birds. Others, including some pescetarians, believe it is ethical to kill and consume animals as long as respect and care is shown for the animal throughout its life and slaughter. While there is much debate about whether fish "feel" pain, it makes sense to apply the same ethical guidelines when considering the living conditions and methods of slaughter of these animals as you would for any other living creature. In general, consuming seafood that is wild caught avoids some of the issues associated with fish raised in farms in terms of living conditions, but this is an area that calls for more education and awareness.

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon individuals to gather sufficient evidence and think deeply about the effects their food choices have on their own health, the welfare of animals, and the health of the entire planet.

The insightful naturalist Henry David Thoreau had the following to say about the issue: "Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals..."

There are numerous reputable sources of information available on the internet and in published materials about the health benefits and ethical issues involved in pescetarian and vegetarian diets. The specific references used for this article are listed below.

American Dietetic Association: (http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs....)

American Heart Association publication: Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease: (http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full...)

Ann Mangels, Virginia Messina, and Vesanto Melina, "Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jun. 2003, pp. 748-65.

Environmental Defense Fund website: (http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521)

EPA fact sheets on PCBs:

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Everyman, 1910

Mayo Clinic Report: Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid: (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fish-oil/NS...)

Meat and the Environment: (http://www.goveg.com/environment.asp)
H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, and C. de Haan, "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options," Livestock, Environment and Development (2006).

Source of vegan quote: Daily Mail (London), August 18, 1992: (http://www.wordspy.com/words/pescetarian.asp)

USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), August, 2004 article: Global impact of meat consumption: (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1272/...)

About the author

Mary Sichi is a research analyst in the field of psychological testing, and is currently considering making the leap from pescetarian to vegetarian, motivated by what she learned while researching this article.

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