salmon over veggies

When a nutrition scientific advisory panel met in 2008 to update the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid first introduced by Oldways and the Harvard School of Public Health in 1993, one of the major changes was making fish and seafood more prominent.  The reason?  In 2008, ongoing research studies concluded that consuming seafood and fish, particularly fatty fish high in Omega-3s, twice a week was particularly health promoting for brain and heart health.  Since then there’s been a continual drumbeat of research validating that conclusion. Consider these seafood and Mediterranean Diet-related headlines from scientific studies listed on Oldways Health Studies page: 

Oldways founder, K. Dun Gifford, fishing
  • Seafood and Mediterranean Diet Linked with Better Brain Health in Aging
  • Seafood During Pregnancy Linked with Improved Brain Development in Children
  • Eating Omega-3 Fatty Acids While Pregnant May Reduce Pre-Term Births
  • Mediterranean-based Diets Associated with Better Cognitive Function

Today, to raise awareness about the healthfulness and great tastes of Pescatarian eating, Mediterranean Foods Alliance member National Fisheries Institute (NFI) has designated October as National Pescatarian Month. What does this mean? NFI explains pescatarians are those who consume seafood combined with a vegetarian diet. In other words, a pescatarian is someone who eliminates all meat from their diet with the exception of fish (like a vegetarian who still loves sushi or grilled salmon or shrimp!). Making up roughly 5% of the population, pescatarians follow a diet of seafood plus grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, fruit, veggies, and eggs.

Think this sounds like the Mediterranean Diet?  Sharon Palmer, Oldways consulting dietitian and author of Plant-Powered for Life, agrees. As she noted in Today’s Dietitian, “the Pescatarian diet is similar to the traditional Mediterranean diet: plant-based, with fish serving as the primary animal protein.”  

 What is it that makes a Pescatarian Diet so healthy? We asked two leading scientists for their opinions.  

Michael A Crawford, PhD, CBiol., FRSB, FRCPath, The Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction at Imperial College, London, told us: ”The escalation of mental ill-health is a greater threat to the survival of humanity than global warming, important as that is. The brain evolved in the sea 500-600 million years ago. With the recent escalation of intensively reared land-based foods and decline in fisheries, it is not getting the seafoods it still requires! The solution to this crisis is to restore the balance between land-based and aquatic foods. Restore the oldways when during the upward evolution of our brain, we enjoyed the best of both worlds—a balance between foods from the sea and foods from the land.”  

One of the key health-promoting components of a Pescatarian Diet is the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (particularly fatty fish). “There is a most impressive scientific evidence base about the many health benefits of a dietary pattern wherein fish and seafood are the major protein sources along with vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods such as legumes, nuts, seed and whole grains. In fact, these foods are the basis of a dietary pattern recommended by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Including fish and seafood is especially beneficial for prevention of heart disease through multiple mechanisms including: lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improving blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lowering triglycerides and lessening inflammation,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Penn State University.

There’s more good news on the seafood front.  While the new Dietary Guidelines won’t be released until the end of 2020, or beginning of 2021, the Scientific Report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has been released, and includes positive recommendations regarding seafood consumption, including:      

A seafood meal enjoyed in Ortigia, Sicily
  • Seafood consumption before pregnancy may be related to reduced risk of gestational diabetes and hypertensive disorders.
  • Consumption during pregnancy may be related to reduced risk of hypertensive disorders and preterm birth and better cognitive development and language and communication development in children.
  • Women who are lactating should continue to consume seafood at the same amounts recommended during pregnancy. 
  • Provide good sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, such as seafood, beginning at ages 6 to 12 months, and prioritize seafood for toddlers ages 12 to 24 months.

Sharon Palmer reminds us not to forget the vegetables!  ”It’s not only eating fish. It’s important to eat plant foods, too.” This gets at the heart of Oldways messaging.  Aim for an overall healthy eating pattern with a variety of whole foods with cultural food traditions as a guide.  The health benefits of eating fish and seafood fit are clear and fit into overall healthy eating patterns—including a Mediterranean or Pescatarian Diet. It’s time to celebrate!  For more, check out the Oldways recipe collection and NFI’s website, Dish on Fish.

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Simon House
Omega-3 DHA is essential to every cell-membrane. Before pregnancy build stores, and extra as the baby's brain becomes large and growing at double-rate. Shortage restricts the baby's brain and the mother's, hence depression, pre- and post-natal. Extra omega-6 arachidonic acid is also needed.
Penny Kris-Etherton
This is a great article! It encourages people to eat (and enjoy) fish/seafood. The pictures are beautiful! Thanks for communicating such an important message to improve public health in the US and globally!

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