No Fish Diet: What to Consider with Nutrition in Mind

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Have you watched Seaspiracy and decided its time to Seariously give up fish (pun intended)?

Or maybe you want to try a diet without fish, but aren’t sure if it’s healthy?

Either way, you found the right post!

If you want to live the fishless life, keep reading to learn about what you should consider eating instead, along with tips from a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about making major dietary changes or before starting new supplements. See our Disclaimers for more details.

This post was originally published on 9/30/21. The updated date is listed above.

What is a “No Fish” Diet?

A no fish diet simply means fish is omitted from your diet. This includes salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, etc. Anything with fins or scales.

Going forward though, this article is going to focus on excluding all seafood. This includes shrimp, shellfish, etc even though they are technically not “fishes.”

Featured Image for blog post: No Fish Diet What to Consider with Nutrition in Mind

Can You Actually Have a Healthy Diet Without It?

Yes. If fish is not needed for your survival, it certainly is possible to have a healthy diet without fish.

Why does this question come up in the first place?

Possibly because several professional organizations recommend fish as a heart healthy protein source.

But when we talk about proteins sources, we also have another question:

What are we comparing fish to?

While salmon may be healthier than highly processed hot dogs, beans also offer unique advantages that both fish and hot dogs don’t have, such as fiber and virtually no saturated fat.

Still, fish also offers some unique benefits as well. For example fatty fish (like salmon) also offer DHA, which may offer additional benefits such as heart health.

Research is still under way on this topic. A 2020 Cochrane review suggests that we need more evidence to determine the impact fish has preventing heart disease. However, they also noted that there where the review only included a few trials of oily fish (1).

It’s possible that other nutrients fish, such as selenium may contribute to the health benefits of fish.

So in general, fish can be a part of a healthy diet, and eating a couple servings per week (with a preference for fatty fish) is recommended by the American Heart Association for adults.

But, you can have a healthy diet without it.

If your skeptical, let’s address the elephant in the room.

There’s one diet that has brought he potential health benefits of fish to the spotlight…

Hold on, doesn’t the Mediterranean diet include fish?

Sometimes.

Surprised? It turns out that plant based foods are central to the Mediterranean diet.

What we know of as the “Mediterranean diet plan” is actually quite diverse! It covers several countries and was not necessarily a pescatarian diet (diet that includes fish as the only animal based source).

In other words, there will be variation when comparing diets of each Mediterranean country.

However, what they all likely had in common was a high intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, and cereal products (like whole grains) and only moderate in fish. Olive oil might have been their principle food source higher in fat (2).

Like I mentioned before, many health professionals agree that fish is healthier than red meat.

After all, red meat has been classified as a group 2A Probable carcinogen by the Working Group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (3).

In the past, some have speculated that omega 3 fatty acid: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) may contribute to lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

This omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, and is abundant in the brain, and may have unique health benefits.

However, the we are still learning whether or not DHA supplementation reduces the risk of certain diseases. For example, a 2018 randomized placebo controlled trial suggests that DHA supplementation did not reduce the risk of invasive cancer, heart attacks or stroke (4).

So, while consuming more fish may be healthier than bacon, fish is not the focus of the Mediterranean diet.

We are going to go more in depth about DHA later, but the bottom line is this:

Fish may have been a healthy component of the Mediterranean diet, but it’s unclear if this is because what it replaces (ie: processed red meat), if health benefits are due to eating mostly plants, or perhaps all of these (and more) factors combined.

If you want to exclude fish despite the potential health benefits, keep reading!

Why Would I Want To Give Up Seafood?

A Healthier Planet

Our demand for fish takes a toll on the planet. Namely, contributing to the decline of certain species of fish which causes an upset in the ecosystem (5).

According to some estimates, farmed fish may have emit more green house gases than chicken or eggs (6)!

While fish may have less of an environmental foot print than beef, when we have the option of consuming beans instead we make a better choice for the environment.

So in order to reduce your carbon footprint, you will want to consider replacing fish with foods that are actually better for the environment!

Decrease Animal Suffering

If you are still trying to decide whether to give up fish or not, here is one aspect about eating fish that is not up for debate: Fish are sentient beings and can feel pain(7).

Fish don’t have the same (in my opinion-limited) protective measures from the US Humane Slaughter Act that cattle, pigs and sheep have.

So whether you purchase fish as wild caught or farm raised, there are few regulations around how they are killed. A death that is often slow and painful (prolonged suffocation, lice infestation, chilling water temperature, being examples).

Reduce Your Intake of Mercury

In the U.S., high mercury containing fish or shell fish may be common routes for methylmercury exposure (8).

Fish contain varying amounts of mercury, a toxic compound that can be especially detrimental to the brain(9), and some are known to be higher sources than others.

It’s also worth noting that many organizations recommend that pregnant/breastfeeding women and children avoid fish high in mercury, as high amounts of mercury can be detrimental to the baby. You can learn more at Fda.gov.

If you are convinced to go fish free, but wonder if you can meet your nutrient needs without fish, keep reading!

How Do I Plan A Diet Without Fish?

If you consume fish, its likely for the protein content right?

I don’t need to be the first person to tell you that there are several other options that are either animal or plant based.

Since more and more research is showing the benefits of adding more plant based protein, consider adding these meat free options to your plate:

P.S.: if you want a list high protein vegan foods, check out this article!

If fish was a major part of your diet before, you’ll especially want to consider talking to your doctor and Registered Dietitian who is well versed in diets that exclude fish.

Fish include micronutrients that you’ll want to be sure you are meeting in other ways. So lets talk about some of them!

Nutrients in Fish (and How to Get them Without Seafood)

Vitamin B12

Animal products contain vitamin B12, while non B12 fortified plant based foods do not.

Depending on how much fish you were eating before, you might unintentionally reduce your intake of vitamin B12 if you cut out fish.

Not getting enough vitamin B12 could eventually lead to health problems, like anemia and neurological problems(10).

Some research suggests that vegetarians have a higher prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency(11).

Luckily, vitamin B12 supplements are often inexpensive and readily available.

So, if you are cutting out fish, its a good idea to check with your doctor whether or not a vitamin B12 supplement is right for you. Especially if you are (FYI: not a comprehensive list):

  • On any kind of vegetarian or plant based diet
  • Are plant based or vegan and pregnant or breastfeeding
  • An older adult
  • Have pernicious anemia
  • Have a gastrointestinal disorder or surgery(10)

Iodine

Graphic showing some sources of iodine sans fish/seafood (also in text)

Iodine is critical for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland, a gland in our neck that secretes thyroid hormones. These hormones are important for normal metabolism and many other reactions in the body.

Deficiency of this nutrient could lead to a variety of problems, such as the development of a goiter, and consequences for infants born to iodine deficient mothers(12).

Foods high in iodine include:

If you are still regularly including other iodine rich sources and products, you may be getting enough. For example, one cup of non fat milk contains about 85 micrograms of iodine (57% the daily value(13)).

However, you still might want to talk to your doctor about other ways to get adequate iodine or supplement, especially if you have eliminated both dairy and fish.

And if a supplement is recommended by your doctor, be sure to ask about the form and dosage that is right for you. Too much iodine can cause thyroid problems as well!

One source found excessive levels of iodine in certain U.S. based prenatal multivitamins that contained iodine from kelp. The study suggests that iodine in the form of potassium iodide may be more reliable than kelp supplements (14).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States(15).

Many professionals warn against obtaining it from the sun, due to skin cancer concerns from excess exposure.

While fatty fish, such as salmon, are some of the highest food sources(16), it’s unlikely that most of us are eating enough to meet the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) every single day.

And while vitamin D can be found in fortified milk, UV treated mushrooms, and fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, or plant based beverages. Many of us probably aren’t eating enough of these foods to get enough vitamin D.

We want to make sure we are getting enough because vitamin D has a host of benefits, including aiding in calcium absorption and helping immune system function(16).

So talk to your doctor about getting your Vitamin D levels checked and supplementing.

Selenium

One of the lesser-known reasons why fish is touted as healthy may be because of selenium!

Selenium is an antioxidant that has many functions, including playing a role in immune and reproductive health. Inadequacy could contribute to a weaker immune system(17).

If you are going fish free, there are several other foods that contain selenium, including:

  • Brazil Nuts, 1 ounce (6-8 nuts) (544 mcg (about 989% the daily value)
  • Enriched Macaroni, 1 cup cooked (37 mcg (about 67% the daily value))
  • Brown long grain rice, 1 cup cooked (19 mcg (about 35% the daily value))
  • Cottage cheese 1% milk fat, 1 cup (20 mcg (around 36% the daily value) (17)

Certain countries and/or regions may have lower amounts of selenium in the soil.

So, talk to your doctor about selenium when you give up fish, especially If you live in a selenium soil deficient region. You could also discuss eating about half a Brazil nut a day (in addition to a healthy and variety filled diet).

Graphic containing sources of selenium sans fish.

Vitamin A

Believe it or not, certain types of fish are some of the highest sources of vitamin A(18)! Well, specially: preformed vitamin A.

Why does it matter that we are talking about preformed vitamin A? Here’s the scoop:

What many believe to be “vitamin A” in plant based foods (ie: carrots, sweet potatoes, etc), is actually a source of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.

Beta carotene must be converted to be usable as the active form of vitamin A.

One study suggests that not all of us can absorb or covert beta carotene to the active form of vitamin A efficiently. Around 45% of certain groups of people may have trouble with this conversion(19).

So what should you do to get this essential nutrient that is so important for vision and immune health if you are giving up fish?

Consider these pointers:

  1. Other animal derived foods that contain varying amounts of preformed vitamin A include dairy and eggs.
  2. Eat plenty of beta carotene rich fruits and vegetables (ie: sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, mangos etc).
  3. Eating some fat (such as avocado) with beta carotene rich fruits and vegetables may help with absorption of fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin A (20).

And if you are on a vegan diet or are particularly concerned about getting enough, consider talking to your doctor about supplementing with a small amount of vitamin A (often listed as retinyl palmitate). Too much preformed vitamin A is dangerous. Always talk to your doctor before adding any supplement.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (a healthy fat), that is actually an umbrella term for three unique fatty acids. They are:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) an essential fat
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid, (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Of these omega-3’s, only ALA has been found to be essential. This means we must obtain ALA from food/supplements because our bodies cannot make it on its own.

ALA is a precursor to EPA. In other words, ALA can be converted to EPA, which in turn can be converted to DHA (though this process is thought be slow and small). If we don’t get enough ALA, we might experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms, like skinor hair problems(21) (22).

You can easily obtain all the ALA your body needs without eating any fish. In fact, one ounce of English walnuts has more than the (Adequate intake (AI)) requirement for ALA in adults. How easy is that?

Plant based food sources of ALA include:

  • chia seeds
  • flax seeds
  • hemp seeds
  • walnuts
  • canola oil
  • soy

So what is all of the hoopla surrounding omega-3 and fish? Well, lets go back to the other two forms of Omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, of which some fish are rich in, while nuts and seeds are not.

But do I need to get EPA and DHA directly? This, my friend, is where the answer gets a little hazy. So lets try to clear some of that smoke:

We know that DHA is found abundantly in the brain, and that both EPA and DHA may have a role to play with combating inflammation (22).

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, EPA and DHA are especially important for the neurological development of baby (23), and several professionals recommend DHA supplementation for during pregnancy and lactation.

But is there any benefit of DHA unrelated to pregnancy and babies? The research does not seem to be as clear.

You might assume that vegans (who do not consume fish) would have worse health outcomes than those who eat fish. But that has yet to be determined.

As mentioned before, studies give mixed results regarding the benefits of DHA supplementation for the reduction of cancer, stroke and heart attacks (4).

What about cognitive decline? Does DHA supplementation help older adults? This is an area of research that is growing but has yet to provide clear guidelines.

Bottom line: If you are concerned about EPA and DHA when you give up fish, make sure you are meeting your need for ALA with healthy fats (of note, vegans might want to consume more, check out veganhealth.org for more info), and talk to your doctor about supplementation with a algae based (fish free) supplement if you want to obtain DHA.

After all, fish do not make DHA. They must eat microalgae and/or the plankton (who eat the microalgae) to obtain DHA, which means we don’t need to eat fish to get DHA.

graphic showing examples of omega 3 sources sans fish.

How to Have Success on a Meal Plan Minus the Fish

The best fish free diet plans are the ones that you can afford, enjoy, and incorporate into a healthy eating pattern.

Have these three things in your mind on fishless diet:

1. Keep Nutrients On Your Radar

When planning your meals without fish, don’t forget to keep the nutrients you just learned about in mind.

For example, if you typically think of fish on your plate as the protein portion, you could switch out the fish with protein and ALA rich tofu. Pair that with a some whole grain couscous, veggies, and a nice peanut sauce for a good dose of selenium and you’ve got a Indonesian inspired dish (and fitting for a Mediterranean diet meal)!

Talk to your doctor about whether a vitamin D and vitamin B12 supplement would be appropriate for you, whether your fish free or not. And, you might want to discuss iodine supplementation as well, especially if you have cut out dairy in addition to fish.

2. Treat Your Cravings the Fish Free Way

If you just love the taste of tuna salad or crab rangoon, I got good news for you!

The internet is bursting with awesome recipes that mimic the fishy taste you loved.

Keep experimenting in the kitchen, and check out the following recipes for some inspiration:

3. Remember Your “Why”

Don’t forget the reasons why you decided to give up fish in the first place. Remember them when all your buds are ordering the fish fillet sandwich at the golden arches.

Find your own “no catch” community see what I did there?) for moral support and accountability.

You got this!

Did you find this article helpful? Do you have any favorite fish free Mediterranean diet recipes? Let us know in the comments below!
And while you’re here, why not explore our blog?

We tackle other questions related to transitioning to a vegan lifestyle such as:
Plant Based Diet Book (Picks from Dietitians)
Grocery Shopping Tips for Vegans
Vegan Quotes (to come back to when it gets tough)
Going Vegan Detox Symptoms (P.S. going vegan does not = weight loss!)
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