December 4, 2023


Future Depends on What You Do

Lean Protein and Omega 3s

Move aside, tuna and mackerel, there’s another popular (healthy!) tinned fish in town—sardines. Sardines have been around for quite some time, but canned sardines are gaining traction for their surprising number of health benefits and how easy they are to use in dishes. They may not be for everybody—they can give off a pungent smell and fishy flavor—but what else would you expect from an oily fish like sardines? And if you are a fan of this small fish, you’ll be happy to know that they’re packed with healthy benefits, and you may want to start including them more often in your weekly meal plans.

We spoke with registered dietitians, who explained that opening a can of sardines a couple times per week makes for quick and easy savory meals that are also good for you. Eating fish is part of a healthy, balanced diet, and fatty or oily fish are an especially nutritious pick to get your hands on. Fortunately, canned sardines are high in healthy fats and available year round. Since they’re shelf-stable, they’re a good source of nutrients to keep in your pantry at all times. To reap the benefits without overdoing it, you’ll want to aim for two to three servings of fatty fish, like sardines per week, per the American Heart Association (AHA).

“If you’re new to sardines, start with dishes that have sauces, such as pizza or pasta,” offers Rima Kleiner, RD, a registered dietitian passionate about seafood recipes. “Or, try adding sardines to rice-based dishes, fried eggs, or crackers.” Another easy way to eat more sardines is to use them like you would canned tuna—enjoy them in salads, sandwiches, and savory toasts. For advanced sardine lovers, you can even enjoy them straight out of the can.

Here’s a breakdown of all the healthy benefits of adding sardines into your diet including protein, heart-healthy and brain-boosting fats, vitamins, minerals, and more.

Health Benefits of Sardines

Sardines are a lean protein source.

“Lean protein” refers to a protein source that’s low in saturated fat—and sardines fall into that category. A serving size of sardines is typically three to four ounces, or about one can, which contains more than 22 grams of protein, per USDA data. While the average American does get plenty of protein, not all protein sources are nutritionally equivalent. Processed meats, for example, are high in protein, but they can also be high in saturated fats (and often added sodium and sugars, preservatives, and other additives as well). A diet high in saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels and negatively impact heart health. So, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting your saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of your total calories. Some organizations, such as the AHA, recommend even less saturated fat in a heart-conscious diet.

Enter a can of sardines, which provides less than 1.5 grams of saturated fat. A 2,000-calorie diet would consist of no more than 22 grams of saturated fat, per the Mayo Clinic, leaving a lot of wiggle room if you get your protein from sardines. This makes it a heart-healthier food choice when compared to other animal protein sources high in saturated fat, such as sausage, bacon, cheese, beef, and pork. (All foods have a place within a balanced diet, but both moderation and diversity of nutrient sources are always great!).

Sardines are high in bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids.

“Sardines are very high in bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential and beneficial for cardiovascular health, brain health, and more,” says Jenna Volpe, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist. 

There are three types of omega 3s—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The types found in fatty fish like sardines, DHA and EPA, are much easier for the body to utilize, making them more bioavailable than ALA, which is only found in plants.

There are many fantastic food sources of omega-3s—walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds, to name a few—but if you’re looking for the best dietary source of these healthy fats, you can’t get much better than fish. Sardines are one of the best sources of omega-3s because they’re low in mercury, yet high in nutrients. A 3.75-ounce can of sardines provides roughly 0.9 grams of omega 3s (0.44 EPA and 0.47 DHA), per USDA data.

The omega-3s in fatty fish are also great for your heart. Research suggests that eating fatty fish like sardines a few times per week reduces the risk of dying from heart disease and heart attack.

Sardines boost brain health and cognition.

Research shows that DHA is the most abundant unsaturated fat found in sardines. This is good news for your noggin—the brain and cognitive benefits of DHA are widely accepted. “It’s well known that sardines are very high in DHA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid for brain development, mental health, and cognition,” says Volpe, adding that DHA is the predominant omega-3 fat found in the brain. 

The rates of mild cognitive impairment in aging adults are increasing, and researchers are looking into the positive correlation between fish consumption and brain health. Older adults who regularly eat fish high in DHA, including sardines, are more likely to have healthy brain MRIs compared to those who eat fried fish or have a lower seafood intake, older research from 2008 found. Recent research indicates that DHA is also beneficial for brain development and mental health throughout childhood. So, eat your fish now, and your future self will be grateful.

Sardines contain key nutrients for bone health.

Drinking cow’s milk isn’t your only option for strong, healthy bones. “Sardines are rich in three critical bone-building nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D,” Kleiner says. “Calcium is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones, and vitamin D helps our bodies absorb and utilize calcium.” Like calcium, phosphorus is a mineral that’s important for bone health. It helps neutralize acids that could be harmful to your bones, Kleiner explains.

Eating plenty of calcium-rich foods can also reduce the risk of osteoporosis, preventing your bones from becoming weak and brittle. A serving of sardines packs 351 mg of calcium, providing roughly 25 percent of your daily need.

Sardines are rich in vitamin D.

Vitamin D—a.k.a. the sunshine vitamin—isn’t as easy to come by as other nutrients. This explains why over 90 percent of adults do not consume enough of it, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025. You can get vitamin D from food, sunlight, or supplementation, though food sources of vitamin D are few. 

“One can of sardines offers about 20 percent of your daily intake of vitamin D, which plays a role in immunity, musculoskeletal health, brain health, and potentially cardiovascular health,” explains Sarah Schlichter, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist. “It’s especially important to eat vitamin D–rich foods in the winter months, when sunshine may not be as readily available.”

Sardines may help prevent type 2 prediabetes.

Some animal studies show that eating sardines can reduce insulin resistance and oxidative stress, suggesting that the small fish may have some anti-diabetic properties. More human studies are needed, but there’s a small body of research that correlates sardine consumption with type 2 diabetes prevention. “In a recent trial, a group of older adults with prediabetes were given sardines in their diet just twice a week over the course of 12 months,” Volpe says. “This was significant enough to prevent them from developing diabetes.”