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Slim down your body, bulk up your brain with pescetarian diet

Tuesday - 5/13/2014, 12:08pm  ET

Catfish.JPG
In her new book, registered dietitian and author Janis Jibrin explores why a plant-based diet rich in seafood is healthy for your body and your brain. (Courtesy John Cochran)

WASHINGTON -- If you're looking to slim down your body and bulk up your brain, D.C. resident Janis Jibrin has one word of advice: pescetarianism.

It's a word she says is surprisingly unfamiliar, yet exceptionally healthy. And in her new book, "The Pescetarian Plan," Jibrin offers advice on working this keyword into your lifestyle.

A pescetarian -- from the root word "pesce," which means "fish" in Italian -- eats a mostly plant-based diet, with the addition of seafood.

"When you look at the research -- whether you're looking at Mediterranean countries, or Japan, or Sweden or the U.S. -- people who eat a basically vegetarian diet with very little red meat and more seafood, they live longer; their hearts are in better shape; [they have] less depression, less Alzheimer's," says Jibrin, a registered dietitian and food writer who lives in Dupont Circle.

A lot of these healthy statistics has to do with the anti-inflammatory properties of seafood. Jibrin says inflammatory compounds in the human body are the root of aging and chronic diseases.

"[These compounds] just basically cause havoc in the body. That is not the only cause of aging, but it is really turning into a pretty major cause," she says. Foods rich in antioxidants help fight inflammatory compounds.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as dark leafy greens, helps fight inflammation. "The Pescetarian Plan" includes a recipe for kale salad. (Courtesy Kate Headley)

"When you eat a plant-based diet, you're getting all of those wonderful antioxidants from the broccoli and the arugula and the tomatoes and everything else."

On top of that, seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This packs more inflammation-fighting power.

A 2013 study from Harvard School of Public Health shows that older adults who have higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids live, on average, 2.2 years longer than those with lower levels.

Jibrin, who grew up in Greece and Lebanon, says people have been eating a plant-based Mediterranean-pescetarian diet for years.

"All roads lead to this type of diet," she says. "Those people were pretty healthy and they were eating absolutely delicious food and that's what I wanted to replicate here."

"The Pescetarian Plan" is equal parts health book, weight-loss book and cookbook. Jibrin's approach unites science, meal plans on a calorie slider for those who want to lose weight or maintain weight, different methods for cooking fish and an arsenal of no-frills vegetarian and fish recipes, developed by D.C. chef Sidra Forman.

Forman aims to challenge the misconception that fish is too complicated to cook at home.

"I found through my experience that [fish] really is more fool proof than trying to cook chicken or red meat," Forman says.

Just in time for grilling season, Forman provides plenty of seafood options that go great on the grill, including wild Alaskan salmon, shrimp and scallops.

"Even doing something like a whole trout would work really nicely," she says.

Just in time for grilling season, Forman says there are plenty of seafood options that go great on the grill, including wild Alaskan salmon, shrimp and scallops. (Courtesy Kate Headley)

Chef Forman, whose recipes in the book include chocolate cupcakes with mint glaze and blueberries baked with sweet corn cake, says deprivation is not part of the plan. Many of her dessert recipes use fresh fruit, and her vegetarian recipes embrace savory gratins, refreshing salads and comforting baked goods.

Aside from the preparing and cooking of fish, Jibrin tackles another "fishy" issue in the book: seafood safety and sustainability.

"The Pescetarian Plan" includes healthy and "clean" seafood choices that can be eaten every day, species that should be eaten sparingly and fish that should be avoided. Jibrin also includes information on how different species are raised and how they are caught.

"There are so many choices that are low in contaminants," she says to those who are weary of seafood.

Jibrin says research suggests that people who eat the most fish do better physically and mentally. While many pregnant women are told to limit their mercury intake, Jibrin says pregnant women who eat the most fish have smarter babies. And pregnant women with higher mercury levels have smarter kids.

"And of course that's not the mercury doing anything good; it's because that is a marker for omega-3 fats, which are just absolutely so critical to the development of the fetal brain," she says. "If you make smart choices, you can keep your mercury levels down."

The American Health Association recommends that people eat two seafood meals a week for the omega-3 benefits. Jibrin recommends three seafood meals a week, interspersed with vegetarian meals.

When compared to fish, Jibrin says red meat and poultry just don't stack up in terms of health benefits -- and red meat's problems outweigh its benefits.

"[In] study after study, red-meat eaters do worse," says Jibrin, who cites red meat's ties to heart disease and colon cancer. "One really interesting thing that came up last year was that our gut bacteria convert an element in meat into something called TMAO, which in excess can prevent the cholesterol from leaving your arteries. So you can see why that would be a bad thing in terms of heart disease."

Poultry, she says, is "neither here nor there" when it comes to nutrition: When you take the skin off, it's not bad for you, but if you're going to eat a protein, fish has more health benefits.

Jibrin says if you are a red-meat eater who is too intimated to make the switch, try starting small. Substitute one red-meat dish with a vegetarian dish or seafood dish.

"Just making a substitution here and there -- having a vegetarian chili, putting shrimp on top of your Caesar salad instead of chicken -- it's just these small changes. You don't have to, overnight, change your whole diet," she says.


Cornmeal Crusted Catfish with Cucumbers:
From "The Pescetarian Plan"

Although catfish is the traditional choice in the South, haddock or flounder work just as well.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups sliced cucumbers
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound U.S. farm-raised catfish
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal

Instructions:

Place the cucumbers in a large bowl and toss with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and pepper. Add the red onion, red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons of olive oil, and cayenne, combine thoroughly and set aside.

Season both sides of the fish with remaining 1/8 teaspoon of salt and black pepper. Paint one side of the fish with a thin layer of grainy mustard and then coat with cornmeal.

Heat a large heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat. Coat with the remaining teaspoon of olive oil. Cook the fish until the crust is golden brown, approximately 2 minutes, flip fish, and cook until just flaky, 3 additional minutes.

Serve topped with the cucumber mixture.

Nutrition:

191 calories, 18g protein, 5g carbohydrates, 1g dietary fiber, 18g total sugars, 10g fat, 2g saturated fat, 300mg Omega-FA, 62mg cholesterol, 27mg calcium, 373mg sodium.

On May 18, author Janis Jibrin will give a lecture on "The Pescetarian Plan" and hand out samples of Sidra Forman's recipes at the Kentlands Whole Foods in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

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