Sardines are jam-packed with important nutrients, securing them a top spot as one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. High in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin B12 and selenium, sardines in a can are one of the few ingredients on the market that are super healthy, budget-friendly, convenient and delicious.
So why are sardines good for you? Sardines health benefits range from reduced levels of inflammation to enhanced bone health and increased weight loss. Plus, they supply a wide array of important vitamins and minerals for a low amount of calories and can be a versatile addition to a nutritious diet.
What Are Sardines?
The sardine — sometimes also referred to as the pilchard or herring fish — is a type of small, oily fish that belongs to the Clupeidae family. This fish can be found in many different regions, including the Pacific and Mediterranean, and typically feed on plankton.
Sardines as food are tasty and bursting with important nutrients, making them a worthy addition to any diet. Not only are they rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but they’re also loaded with protein and essential nutrients like vitamin B12 and selenium. Plus, they’ve been associated with a number of health benefits, ranging from better bone health to increased weight loss and beyond.
Although these delicious fish can be purchased fresh, they are most often consumed canned for a convenient and power-packed meal or snack. They also have a distinct signature flavor that works well in many different dishes and recipes, such as salads and pastas.
One 3.75-ounce can (about 92 grams) of Atlantic sardines contains approximately: (1)
- 191 calories
- 22.7 grams protein
- 10.5 grams fat
- 8.2 micrograms vitamin B12 (137 percent DV)
- 48.5 micrograms selenium (69 percent DV)
- 250 international units vitamin D (63 percent DV)
- 451 milligrams phosphorus (45 percent DV)
- 351 milligrams calcium (35 percent DV)
- 4.8 milligrams niacin (24 percent DV)
- 2.7 milligrams iron (15 percent DV)
- 365 milligrams potassium (10 percent DV)
- 35.9 milligrams magnesium (9 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams copper (9 percent DV)
- 1.9 milligrams vitamin E (9 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams vitamin B6 (8 percent DV)
- 1.2 milligrams zinc (8 percent DV)
1. High in Anti-Inflammatory Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Sardines are one of the best natural sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids in the world, with a single 3.75-ounce can supplying over 1,300 milligrams. Sardines provide both EPA and DHA, two types of essential fatty acids that the body uses to reduce inflammation, resulting in improved hearth health, better brain function and a lower risk of chronic disease. (2, 3)
Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fatty acids can be effective in the treatment and prevention of hundreds of medical conditions. Studies show that consuming foods like sardines that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help protect against mood disorders like depression and anxiety and aid in the prevention of ADHD, various types of cancer, arthritis, infertility and especially heart disease (4, 5, 6). In fact, omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to lower unhealthy cholesterol levels and triglycerides, making them one of the most important nutrients when it comes to maintaining a healthy heart. (7)
Omega-3 fats come in three forms: DHA, EPA and ALA. ALA is found in plant foods including walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds, for example. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, including sardines, salmon and mackerel fish. EPA and DHA have been shown to be the most beneficial and easily absorbed by the body, which makes sardines an even more beneficial option for obtaining these specific kinds of fatty acids.
2. Rich in Essential Nutrients
Sardines are rich in many essential nutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and selenium. They are also a great source of phosphatidylserine and numerous other B vitamins, phosphorus, iron, copper, potassium, and more. Not only do these nutrients play a central role in everything from heart health to metabolism and cellular function, but they can also prevent nutritional deficiencies and help you feel your absolute best.
3. Contains Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an important water-soluble vitamin that helps maintain nerve function, brain health, blood cell formation, energy levels and more. (8) Unfortunately, many people’s diets are lacking in this key vitamin, resulting in a vitamin B12 deficiency. Even a mild vitamin B12 deficiency can cause symptoms including nerve damage, impaired mental function, difficulty supplying cells with oxygen and chronic fatigue. Fortunately, just one can of sardines goes above and beyond your daily vitamin B12 needs, providing 137 percent of the amount that you need in a day.
4. High in Selenium
Sardines also provide high levels of selenium, containing nearly 70 percent of your daily needs in just one can. Selenium is an essential mineral that also acts as an important antioxidant and is required for your body to create and convert glutathione, a compound dubbed by researchers as the “master antioxidant.” (9)
Selenium prevents oxidative damage in the body, fights off disease-causing free radicals, helps regulate metabolism and improves cellular function. Selenium is also an important mineral for supporting detoxification since it has the ability to take stress off the digestive and endocrine organs like the liver and thyroid. (10, 11)
A deficiency in selenium has been linked to thyroid impairment, decreased immune function, hormonal imbalances, reproductive problems, mood disorders and heart disease. (12)
5. Protect Bone Health
Sardines are a great source of many vitamins and minerals that are essential for maintaining a healthy skeletal structure, including calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus. Consuming foods rich in calcium can prevent bone mineral loss and help to heal broken bones following injuries. These three key minerals help regulate bone metabolism, a process in which mature bone tissue is removed to allow for the formation of new bone tissue. (13)
Sardines are one of the few food sources of vitamin D and one of the rare ingredients that provides a hearty dose of all three, making them an excellent addition to a healthy bone-building diet.
6. Defend Against Mood Disorders
Many recent studies have focused on omega-3s’ impact on mental health, particularly EPA, and have found that these essential fats can play a vital role in boosting mood and maintaining healthy brain function to help you beat depression. (15) The brain itself is made up of roughly 60 percent fat, so obtaining the right ratio of fatty acids is crucial for the function of the central nervous system and your overall mood. (16)
7. Control Blood Sugar Levels
Sardines are packed with both healthy fats and protein, which both work to slow down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream. Combining high-protein and high-fat foods like sardines with carbohydrates can slow the release of glucose (sugar) into the blood, helping prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. Consuming foods with essential fats and proteins is especially important for people who have diabetes, metabolic syndrome or other conditions related to insulin resistance.
In one study conducted on rats fed a high-fructose, researchers fed the rats either casein, sardine protein with high-fructose or sardine protein without high-fructose. Ultimately, they found that “the [sardine protein] diet prevented and reversed insulin resistance and oxidative stress, and may have benefits in patients with metabolic syndrome.” (17)
8. Promote Weight Loss
Sardines are high in both protein and healthy fats, making them one of the healthiest fish to include in your diet to help you feel full and curb cravings. Considering all of their health benefits, sardines are low in calories but high in essential nutrients that many people are often lacking, including omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. They are a great source of low-calorie protein for people looking to cut calories and lose weight.
Numerous studies have also shown that adding fish like sardines to your diet can help you lose weight fast. For instance, one study out of the University of Iceland published in the International Journal of Obesity found that adding seafood to a weight loss diet helped people lose 2.2 pounds more than a control group over a four-week period. (18)
9. Low in Mercury and Pollutants
One of the best reasons to regularly consume sardines in place of other fish is because of their sustainability and low levels of contamination. Sardines are considered a fish at the bottom of the aquatic food chain because they eat plankton, which means they don’t carry the same toxins and heavy metals as many other fish you should never eat like red snapper, tilefish and swordfish. Avoiding pollutants, including heavy metals like mercury, is one of the biggest concerns for many people today, so purchasing sardines is a good way to get the important omega-3s from fish without compromising on keeping toxins out of your diet. (19)
Uses in Ayurveda and TCM
With the extensive health benefits and long list of nutrients packed into each serving, it’s no wonder that sardines work well when paired with many forms of holistic medicine, including Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Fish like sardines can be included as part of a healthy Ayurvedic diet, although it’s recommended to keep intake in moderation, limit fish consumption to lunch only and minimize intake during the autumn season. According to Ayurveda, certain types of fish like the sardine are thought to enhance strength and immunity, nourish the body, and act as an aphrodisiac.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, sardines are believed to promote kidney health and fight adrenal fatigue. They are also said to enhance fertility and are thought to have cooling properties that can reduce symptoms of excess heat, such as high blood pressure, thirst and constipation.
Sardines vs. Tuna vs. Anchovies
Sardines, tuna and anchovies are three of the most popular types of fish available. All three can be consumed fresh but are also available in canned form if you’re looking for a quick and convenient meal on the go. Each variety also offers a wealth of important nutrients in each serving, including protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
However, there are some distinct differences between these three types of fish. Tuna has a very mild flavor that is a stark contrast to the fishy flavor found in anchovies and sardines. They also differ in the way that they are packaged; canned tuna contains only the meat of the tuna fish while canned anchovies and sardines typically contain the entire fish and can be grilled, roasted, cooked or consumed as is.
Additionally, although the nutritional profiles of all three types are pretty similar, sardines usually contain the bone and therefore offer a higher amount of calcium and vitamin D. And while both anchovies and sardines are low in mercury, certain types of tuna can contain a good amount, which makes it important to monitor your intake and keep consumption in moderation.
However, all three can be healthy additions to a nutritious diet. Swap them into your favorite recipes and enjoy to take advantage of the unique flavor and health benefits that each brings to the table.
How to Eat
Sardines can be eaten fresh and broiled, roasted or grilled, but most often people buy sardines canned, which are widely available in most grocery stores. Sardines are often canned immediately after being caught because they are known to be very perishable.
It’s important to note that there is a big difference in terms of nutrients between freshly caught wild fish and farmed fish. You always want to purchase and eat wild fish and avoid farm-raised fish whenever you can, as farms often produce fish using antibiotics and pesticides and are fed an unnatural diet of grains.
This results in farmed fish having less nutrients than wild fish as well as more toxins and contaminants. Farmed fish are also higher in calories and contain more omega-6 fatty acids, which can create a dangerous inflammation-causing imbalance between levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids within the body. (20)
The best canned sardines are those that have been packed in olive oil or water as opposed to soybean oil or other types of refined oils. Sardines tend to last for a decent amount of time once canned, but it’s still best to always check the date to make sure they have not expired and lost their nutrients.
Store canned sardines in a cool and dry place, like your kitchen cabinet, and try consuming them within a few months. If you are able to find and purchase fresh sardines, you’ll want to look for small fish with a fresh smell that still remain shiny and firm. Always use fresh sardines with a few days of purchasing them, since they are considered a very perishable fish. You can store them on ice in the refrigerator for several days.
Sardines are naturally oily, contain small bones and have somewhat of a strong fishy taste. They are also usually very salty tasting because they are preserved in salt before being canned. While many people love this briny from-the-sea taste, some people don’t. For this reason, many people usually prefer to mask the taste or pair them with other foods that complement their unique flavor.
There are plenty of sardines recipes available online, but a few popular methods for toning down the fishy taste of sardines is to soak them in buttermilk or yogurt, pickle them, grill them, or use them in combination with strong-flavored ingredients. Sardines are complemented by rich flavors like goat cheese, eggs and fresh herbs.
You can also try using sardines on salads, blended into sauces and salad dressings, on top of pizza, or mixed into an egg scramble. Alternatively, if you enjoy a recipe made using anchovies or another type of fish, try subbing in sardines instead.
Here are a few sardine recipes that you can try
- Grilled Sardines with Lemon, Garlic and Paprika
- Simple Sardine Salad
- Mediterranean Summer Pasta with Zoodles
- Couscous Sardine Salad
- Romaine Wedges with Sardines and Caramelized Onions
Sardines get their name from the Italian island of Sardinia, where the fish originally were found in abundance swimming in large schools. However, their history goes back to the time of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who first popularized the fish. It’s believed that under Napoleon’s rule, the first sardines were canned as a means to ship and feed citizens in distant places with the abundantly available, but quick-to-soil, fish.
Sardines have been eaten across Europe and North America for hundreds of years but have only recently moved into the spotlight more as research continues to confirm that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits and should be considered an essential part of the diet.
Sardines have been enjoyed in the seas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean regions. Today, nations including Spain, Portugal, France and Norway are the leading producers of canned sardines. Sardines belong to the species of fish known as Clupeidaes, which are a small salt-water fish.
There are actually more than 20 varieties of sardines that are commonly sold throughout the world. All sardine varieties are oily, silver in color, have small bones and share the same health benefits. Sardines are referred to in different ways around the world, sometimes called small herring in the U.S. or pilchards in Europe and other areas.
Risks and Side Effects
Although sardines are generally considered safe for most people to consume, the biggest concerns about sardines for the general population stem back to the question of sustainability, heavy metal contamination, and whether or not consuming canned sardines is a health risk.
Experts believe that the sardines nutrition benefits outweigh the possible health risks associated with eating them. However, like with all canned foods, it’s best to try and find a brand that packages its food in a can free of the chemical BPA. BPA is a chemical that is commonly used in the manufacturing of some vinyl, aluminum and tin can liners. This includes some cans that are used to pack sardines and other fish like salmon or anchovies. BPA is known as an “endocrine disruptor” because it may have the ability to disrupt certain hormonal activities in the body and negatively impact the endocrine system. (21)
There is still more research needed on the amount of BPA that is actually able to leach into oily fish when they are packed in BPA cans, as the only research that has been done so far is minimal and has not drawn conclusive results. In the meantime, though, opt for cans that are labeled BPA-free whenever possible.
In order to practice sustainability, it’s also best to look for sardines that are wild-caught from Pacific seas. If possible, try to avoid Mediterranean-caught sardines, as these tend to be the oceans that are quickly becoming the most depleted.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid consuming fish that contain high levels of mercury. Consuming mercury during pregnancy has been associated with risks for developmental delays and brain damage to the fetus. (22) Both experts warn pregnant women to avoid fish including shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because they are high in mercury. However, sardines are one of the lowest sources of mercury and therefore are normally safe to eat during pregnancy in moderate amounts (one to two times per week) as part of an otherwise healthy diet.
- Sardines are a type of small, oily fish that belong to the Clupeidae family and can be found in different regions around the world.
- Each serving is high in many important nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and selenium.
- Because of their impressive nutrient profile, sardines can benefit just about every aspect of health, from regulating blood sugar levels to protecting against mood disorders.
- Opt for wild-caught fish whenever possible, and look for sardines canned in either water or olive oil rather than soybean oil.
- Swap sardines in for other types of fish in your favorite recipes, or enjoy them grilled, roasted or fresh to reap the nutritional rewards that this tasty fish has to offer.