Healthy Living

Can Vegans Eat Fish?

Bill Clinton is one of the few public figures to announce that he eats salmon once a week along with his vegan diet, on the advice of his doctor who recommended that a source of protein be incorporated in his diet. The formal term for people following this diet is pescatarian. They abide by the same principles as vegans who are against harming animals and refrain from eating products made from them, including milk and poultry. However, pescatarians make an exception for fish, for the sake of protein consumption. 

Researchers Daniel Rosenfeld and Janet Tomiyama conducted a survey on 104 pescatarians and 135 vegetarians, about their belief systems, perceived ability of fish to feel pain and the health benefits of fish consumption. The findings of their study were then published in the Journal of Health Psychology.

Why People Deny Being Pescatarians

Plant-based diets do not always have enough protein, hence the choice is inevitable sometimes. An interesting finding of the study was that 37 percent of the respondents who ate fish and plant-based food continued identifying themselves as either vegetarians or vegans. This was because they felt conscious of how they would be perceived going against long-held beliefs, even if they included fish in the diet to only improve health. 

The same researchers conducted a second study with 251 pescatarians. Surprisingly, 41 percent denied the fish they consumed was real meat. It was revealed that they were twice as likely to identify themselves to be vegetarian as opposed to pescatarians. 

The paradox stems from the fact that such people probably want to rationalize the consumption of fish in their heads without disrupting moral code. “We speculate that viewing fish as distinct from other meat may be a strategy for reducing cognitive dissonance and threats to one’s moral self-concept one might feel from viewing oneself as a meat-eater,” the researchers stated in the paper. 

What Pescatarians Believe To Be True

In contrast, pescatarians were clear they were making a health conscious decision, and justified this with the belief that fish experienced less pain. “Compared to vegetarians, pescatarians were more likely to emphasize health over ethical motivation, exhibited greater speciesism, perceived fish as possessing less capacity to experience pain, and perceived fish as more healthful to consume,” the researchers said.  

Turning to pescatarianism with the clear intention of benefiting one's health prevented cognitive dissonance on the subject since deep moral questions can be gripping and inhibiting.

"Upon committing to pescatarianism, viewing fish as a healthful food would promote consistency in one’s beliefs and behaviors, thus avoiding dissonance. As such, we hypothesized that pescatarians are motivated to believe that eating fish is healthful, as doing so would reinforce their preexisting belief that this diet is ideal,” the researchers noted. 

Pescatarian Ocean to Table: Several Varieties of Fresh Whole Fish on Ice For-Sale in a Fish Market in the Chinatown section of Manhattan in New York City Keith Getter / Contributor/ Getty Images