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Can vegetarians eat fish?

Typical sidewalk restaurant scene in Paris with tables and chairs set for a meal
Typical sidewalk restaurant scene in Paris with tables and chairs set for a meal

Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

If you grew up observing Lent, or know anyone who has, you’ll be familiar with that old exception: no meat on Fridays. But fish is okay. Fish doesn’t count. Culturally, many of us just don’t view fish as a type of meat.

For a lot of people, fish exist on some level that places them under traditional animals, but still above bugs. They’re simply not as endearing and cute as a fluffy white hen or a soulfully eyed cow, so fish aren’t exactly what inspire a lot of people to go vegetarian in the first place. So the question remains. Can vegetarians eat fish?

Let them eat fish

Traditionally, vegetarianism required people to swear off the flesh of any living thing. That meant no meat, poultry, game, and yes, no fish, crustacean or shellfish. If it was living before it came to your table, it was off limits. Simple.

Nowadays, there are vegetarians who eat fish and other seafood. Though they are not considered strict vegetarians, the name for them is pesco-vegetarians or pescetarians. The reason for this diet is the numerous health benefits that fish provide. Seafood is a healthy source of protein, is full of heart healthy fats and contains iron and a host of vitamins like B-12.

One writer in particular says it’s easier than going full on vegetarian. The high doses of protein and iron found in seafood satisfy much in the same way meat does.

Because of the high rate of heart healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, it’s a good option for people who have concerns about heart disease, as well.

But isn’t eating fish cheating?

Many vegetarians and vegans feel pretty strongly about people who don’t eat meat, but still eat fish. Many contend that fish can feel pain, so you’re not really cutting cruelty out of your life by just sticking to fish.

Yet this can be a huge gray area. Some studies out there claim that fish do not feel pain like humans do. Fish are very different from humans biologically, and stimulating pain responses in fish the same way you would a mammal (ie. rubbing injuries) produces little to no visible response much of the time.

Meanwhile, other scientists claim fish do feel pain. Biologist Victoria Braithwaite in her book “Do Fish Feel Pain?” said that when introducing an irritating chemical into a tank the fish would beat their gills faster, rub affected areas against the edges of the tank and lose their appetite. Like they were in pain.

But the fact remains, without similar biological structures, it’s hard to see what qualifies as pain like humans may feel. The hardest part of knowing if you should eat fish from a philosophical and ethical standpoint is trying to decide if you should just assume fish are different from us enough to not feel any traditional sense of pain. It’s not like we can ask them, but can we just assume anything about how they sense the world? It’s up to the individual about how ethically safe they want to play it.

Other concerns include the unsustainable nature of modern fisheries and mercury poisoning in the fish as reasons to go full vegetarian. But that doesn’t take into account the availability of sustainable fisheries and healthy sources of seafood.

One thing is certain, you cannot be full traditional vegetarian if you eat fish, but there are reasons to qualify for the semi-vegetarian classification of pescetarian.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    July 14, 2017 at 8:32 am

    A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, fish or insects. People can’t just change the definition of a word to suit themselves. Pescetarian is the correct word to use if you choose to eat fish but not meat. Fish is still meat! Stop trying to make yourself feel better by calling yourself vegetarian, there is still suffering if you eat fish.

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