Can You Be Called a Vegetarian If You Eat Fish?

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A woman having vegetables and fish for a meal. (Image: matthewennisphotography/iStock/Getty Images)

There is a lot of debate about the definition of vegetarianism. Some people believe that vegetarians can eat fish, while others do not. Some people even think that eating small amounts of poultry can be part of a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet is traditionally plant-based, but there are many types of vegetarian diets, such as semi-vegetarian and vegan.

Vegetarianism

Some people think that vegetarians eat only vegetables. The reality is, vegetarians eat a wide variety of foods, including grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lentils, beans, nuts and tofu. True vegetarians, by definition, eat no meats, like chicken, turkey, pork or beef. Additionally, true vegetarians do not eat seafood like fish. Vegans consume plant foods only; Ovo-lacto vegetarians eat dairy and eggs along with plant foods; lacto vegetarians eat plants, dairy and cheese, according to Colorado State University Extension.

Pesco-Vegetarianism

According to Dr. Bill Sears, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, vegetarians who consume fish are called “pesco-vegetarians”. The word “pesco” is derived from the Latin word for “fish”. Pesco-vegetarians are a type of semi-vegetarian who also may consume other forms of seafood, like shrimp and scallops, but no land-animal derived food, like chicken or beef.

Purpose of Vegetarian Diet

There are several different reasons for becoming a vegetarian and a person’s intentions with the diet typically modifies how he defines vegetarianism. Some people become vegetarians for animal rights reasons. For example, the Vegetarian Society believes that people who eat fish cannot be considered vegetarians, since fish are living animals that can feel pain. Some people are vegetarians for the health benefits only. People who are vegetarians for health reasons often consider eating fish acceptable.

Benefits of Fish

Dr. Bill Sears states that the healthiest type of diet is a pesco-vegetarian diet, which includes plant-based foods and fish. This is because fish is high in protein and B vitamins, two important nutrients that traditional vegetarians sometimes have a hard time consuming enough of. Additionally, certain types of fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are high in healthy, unsaturated fats, which are required to maintain normal bodily functions.

Protein and Iron Comparison

True vegetarians who choose not to eat fish need to consume enough protein and iron in other foods such as beans, lentils, nuts and tofu. Protein and iron help provide the body with energy. Protein also keeps the muscles strong, while iron keeps the immune system strong. The difference between fish and plant-based foods in protein terms is that fish contains heme iron. The National Institutes of Health states that heme iron, found in animal products, is absorbed better than the non-heme iron in plant-based foods.

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