When you first stumbled upon this question, you probably thought it was really stupid. Mostly because you had the thought and immediately went “of course fish isn’t meat.” Except there’s another half of you that might have gone “of course fish is meat.” Now both populations are aware of each other and might be sufficiently confused, since there are a handful of different ways to define “meat.” You know, the dictionary, religion, culinary profiles, stuff like that. Anyway, let’s unpack some food, is fish meat?
Let’s start by pulling out the dictionary, which Merriam-Webster defines as animal tissue that is considered food. It falls under the banner of “flesh,” which can either refer to domesticated animals or mammals. They make the mammal part distinct from fowl and fish. Oxford says meat is the flesh of an animal used as food–but especially mammals.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan you probably abstain from eating fowl, fish, and red meat so this entire discussion is moot. Or you’re pescatarian, and you eat vegetables, fish, and seafood–but no red meat and poultry. There’s also the flexitarian diet which allows for eating red meat, fish, and fowl–but focuses on at least trying to eat mostly plants.
At that point, that sounds like a diet where you’re just supposed to eat less meat. We all could do with cutting back on meat anyway.
Dietary restrictions vary greatly depending on your faith.
Understatement of the year.
Some diets don’t really complicate things in the fish versus meat department, but many leave room for flexibility when it comes to eating fish. In a kosher diet fish with scales are permitted–but seafood that does not have scales is not permitted.
Perhaps the one you hear the most about is Catholics, who don’t eat meat during Lent but fish is alright. Separating meat and fish became entrenched in the 13th Century, where Saint Thomas Aquinas basically said meat was too good. Since Lent is about asceticism and simplicity, toning down on the luxury of meat was on the table.
Also he thought meat was intrinsically related to sex and made people horny. No-no during Lent.
The distinction may also be linguistic–many Catholic rules were originally written in Latin, which forbade eating carnis– which is limited in scope to warm-blooded animals. Through translation and the game of linguistic telephone, the rules eventually said “meat,” but kept the Latin scope of carnis.
In the end, it’s just arbitrary. The Catholic Church has ruled beavers counted as fish in the past. Sometimes muskrats are allowed, and in New Orleans alligators are literally considered part of the fish family for Lent purposes.
Fish and Your Health
The health effects of fish are vastly different from red meat. Both have their place when consumed in proper moderation. We’ll get to how much meat people eat.
Hint, it’s kind of ridiculous.
But you probably knew that your salmon had different nutrients than your steak. Here’s something that might be a little more interesting. You can gain a meat allergy from some tick bites if you’re unfortunate. That’s right, you can get bitten by a tick and just be allergic to mammal meat for the rest of your life. It’s called the alpha-gal allergy (mammalian meat allergy) and those who have it can normally still eat fish or poultry just fine. Other mammal products like milk, not so much though.
That said, the average American eats a little less than 270 grams of red meat per capita, per day. Which comes out to over 1800 grams per week. If you assume around 15% of meat in America is simply thrown away as the UN does, we can knock this down to 230 grams per day; over 1600 grams per week. That’s 10 times above what more contemporary research suggests you should eat (this study suggests around 23 grams per day). It’s also over 3 times above what many public health agencies suggest–which normally hovers around 500 grams per week. So uh… Maybe eat a little less meat anyway?
Luckily it’s less ambiguous when you’re not eating the animals. Identify some fish here.