For decades, diets and styles of eating have come and gone. Labels boasting South Beach, low-carb, and most recently, gluten-free, have sailed in and out of restaurants and grocery stores, picking up followers and confusing other people. But few have annoyed and confounded so many as the label “pescatarian“, which dates clear back to 1993, when Merriam-Webster first described the diet, which permits seafood and shellfish, but no other meat.
Maybe it’s because the label itself sounds so picky, or maybe it’s because, as we know, people have a hard time accepting the dietary choices of others. But either way, despite its existence for nearly two decades, pescatarianism remains an outcast amid a dieting landscape that stretches far and wide. Just restrictive enough to irritate or bemuse those who eat meat, and yet, not restrictive enough to fall within the confines of true vegetarianism, this middle-ground lifestyle, despite potential health benefits, just can’t seem to catch a break…which seems largely due to a PR problem, both for fish-eaters, and for herbivores.
Many “true” vegetarians dislike the use of the label (and dislike the diet itself) because it confuses people who already think that “not eating meat” also means “eating shrimp and the occasional crab cake.” Which is a fair concern–anyone who openly doesn’t eat meat has probably been offered an anchovy-laden caesar salad or sushi roll at some point, or asked, point-blank, “But you eat fish, right?” It can be difficult, particularly when there’s an entire subset of people whose answer would be “Yup! But no chicken, pork, beef, turkey, bison, or emu.”
Additionally, for those who believe that fish feel pain (just like chickens, pigs, etc.), the idea that a person might say they’re quitting “meat” (read: land creatures) for the sake of the animals sounds hollow and incorrect–even though a quick peek on any vegetarian or vegan message board will unearth a few fish-eaters to still consider themselves animal allies, and who have stopped eating (most) meat for that reason. And yet, few of them actually adopt the big “P” as their label of choice.
But plenty of people, many “reformed” vegetarians included, do choose to incorporate fish and shellfish back into their diet, and are very happy with the results. Because, after all, most health advocates do advise cutting red and white meats–and keeping fish–for the ample of health benefits. Fish can be a great source of critical proteins and minerals that many vegetarians don’t get, without the cardiovascular risks of other animal products.
This kind of diet also allows for more flexible eating, and the ability to “pass” without the condemnation of meat eaters who see vegetarians as “overly picky.” Of course, eating too much fish–and especially fish that’s been factory farmed–can also come with health benefits, including increased exposure to mercury.
And yet, despite its benefits, pescatarianism remains largely under-the-radar, looked upon by many as a bourgeoisie, Whole Foods-eating half-measure. The lonely, lonely sheep in a herd of diets that, though much stranger, seem to get along just fine in polite society. Perhaps, once gluten-free (for those without a lower-GI disease that make it necessary) falls by the wayside, pescatarianism will finally have its moment in the sun.