In this brief guide, we will answer the query, “Can vegetarians eat seafood?” and will discuss which class of vegetarians can eat seafood.
Can vegetarians eat seafood?
No, vegetarians can not eat seafood. Vegetarianism used to include abstaining from eating any animal meat. That ruled out all animal products, including beef, pork, chicken, and game, as well as fish, crustaceans, and shellfish (1). It was off-limits if it had been alive before it was served to you. Simple.
In 2006, approximately 2.3% of the US adult population (4.9 million people) strictly followed a vegetarian diet, asserting that they never ate meat, fish, or poultry. In 2012 the percentage increased to 5%. Approximately 1.4–2% of the US adult population is vegan (1).
Vegetarians are increasingly choosing to consume fish and other seafood as an alternative to meat. They are known as pesco-vegetarians or pescatarians, even though they are not strictly vegetarians. The tremendous health advantages that fish provides are the driving force behind this diet. Aside from being a good source of protein and healthy fat, seafood also has plenty of iron and vitamins like B-12 (1,2).
Indeed, there exists a perception that vegetarians, and especially the vegan diet, are deficient in important nutrients including protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B-12 (2).
Eating habits: vegetarian vs pescatarians
Animal meat is not consumed by vegetarians. As a result, seafood, including fish, is not considered vegetarian under this definition. Some vegetarians consume dairy and eggs. These people are known as Lacto-ovo vegetarians. Even yet, fish are off-limits to them. Pescatarians are vegetarians who eat fish and seafood but don’t consume animal products like meat (1).
However, whether or not people are classified as pescatarians depends on how they define the term. Vegetarians are still considered by some to be persons who consume mostly plant-based meals, with just occasional eating of fish or shellfish (1).
Those who eat mostly plant-based diets, such as the semi-vegetarian, flexitarian or Mediterranean, may nevertheless consume fish and seafood if they like (2).
Why do some vegetarians opt to consume seafood instead of other animal products?
Vegetarian pescatarians who prefer to include fish in their diets do so for a variety of reasons. Eating fish or seafood may broaden a person’s culinary horizons by providing a wider range of protein sources during mealtimes. Fish intake also provides potentially beneficial protein, vitamin D, and selenium (3).
Additionally, some individuals choose to consume fish for its nutritional value (3).
Micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and zinc are deficient in vegetarian and vegan diets, as the main source are animal products. Aside from protein, fish and seafood are loaded with nutrients like zinc, iodine, vitamin D and vitamin B12, which are critical for a healthy immune and brain system (1). On a strict vegetarian diet, it’s tough to acquire enough of these vitamins and minerals.
Zinc and vitamin B12 are also found in high concentrations in oysters, with one serving providing 85 percent of the DV for each. Fishery products such as salmon, herring, and sardines have high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are essential for good health (DHA). EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are found in very little amounts in plant meals. Modest consumption of fish (eg, 1-2 servings/wk), especially species higher in the n-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), reduces risk of coronary death by 36% and total mortality by 17% (3).
These vital nutrients are critical for a healthy pregnancy and delivery, as well as for long-term brain and heart function. You can get omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from some plant meals, but it’s not readily processed by your body into EPA and DHA (or other important facts). As a result, a vegetarian diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids may be problematic for certain people (1).
Incorporating fish and seafood into a mostly plant-based diet may be due to the wide range of essential elements it provides for pescatarians. Conversely, concern has arisen over potential harm from mercury, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls present in some fish species (3).
However, isn’t eating seafood a kind of dishonesty?
There is a lot of resentment among vegetarians and vegans against those who abstain from eating animal products but do so while still eating seafood. Many people believe that since fish can experience pain, eating just fish won’t eliminate cruelty from your diet.
However, there is a lot of gray area here. According to certain research, fish do not have the same level of pain perception as humans. Because fish are physiologically distinct from humans, inducing pain reactions in them, in the same manner, you would in a mammal (e.g., with rubbing injuries) often results in little to no response observable. Some vegans that consider eating seafood argue that animals who (or that) are not sentient (roughly, who lack the capacity to experience pain) may not be owed any particular moral consideration. This is clearly the case of insects. But, whether fish and oysters are painless as well, is a question (4).
Other researchers, on the other hand, assert that fish are sensitive to pain. When a fish is exposed to an irritating chemical, according to biologist Victoria Braithwaite in her book “Do Fish Feel Pain?” fish’s gills pulse faster, they rub their afflicted portions against the tank’s edges, and they lose their appetite. They seemed to be in distress.
Without equivalent biological systems, identifying what constitutes pain in the same way that people do may be difficult. Ethically and philosophically, the most difficult element of determining whether you should eat fish is figuring out whether or not to merely presume fish are different enough from humans to not have any conventional feeling of suffering. We can’t question them, but can we make any assumptions about their worldview based on the information we do have? Anyone may decide for themselves how morally safe they want to play this game or not.
Some more reasons to become a vegetarian include the unsustainable nature of current fishing and mercury contamination in seafood. However, sustainable fisheries and healthful seafood sources aren’t taken into consideration.
Studies have shown that dietary composition strongly influences greenhouse gas emissions. Eggs, dairy, non-trawling seafood, traditional (non-recirculating) aquaculture, poultry and pork all have much lower emissions per gram of protein than ruminant meats. However, the global adoption of the Mediterranean or the pescetarian diet by 2050 would require 62% or 188% more seafood production, respectively. If wild caught landings stayed at current levels, aquaculture, which grew at 6.1% per year for 2002 to 2012, would have to increase at 4.1% per year from 2010 to 2050 to meet the demand of the pescetarian diet (5).
Fish-eating vegetarians can’t be complete conventional vegetarians, but there are valid reasons to be a pescatarian rather than a strict vegetarian.
Other FAQs about Vegetarian that you may be interested in.
In this brief guide, we answered the query, “Can vegetarians eat seafood?” and discussed which class of vegetarians can eat seafood.
- Sebastiani, Giorgia, et al. The effects of vegetarian and vegan diet during pregnancy on the health of mothers and offspring. Nutrients, 2019, 11, 557.
- Clarys, Peter, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients, 2014, 6, 1318-1332.
- Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB. Fish Intake, Contaminants, and Human Health: Evaluating the Risks and the Benefits. JAMA. 2006, 296, 1885–1899.
- Milburn, Josh, and Christopher Bobier. New omnivorism: a novel approach to food and animal ethics. Food Ethics, 2022, 7, 1-17.
- Tilman, David, and Michael Clark. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 2014, 515, 518-522.