You love them or hate them, but there’s no denying that sardines pack a lot of flavor and nutrition into every little fish. These little silvery fish are canned in water, oil, mustard sauce, hot sauce, and several other flavorings. Sardines are packaged whole, unlike canned tuna or salmon, because each fish is less than 25 centimeters and can be eaten with skin, bones and all.
Don’t be fooled by their appearance – if you like other “fishy” fish like salmon or herring, you’ll probably love the taste of sardines. They’re fantastic spread on crackers, piled on toast, tossed into a salad, or stuffed into peppers. And these are just a few of the many ways to enjoy it!
Sardines also bring a lot of nutrition to the table at a low price. A can (3.75 ounces) of sardines contains 22 grams of protein and can be found for as little as $1.50 or less per can.
These little fish have lots of flavor and are a versatile and economical addition to your grocery cart, but are they healthy? Here are four ways eating sardines could affect your health.
Sardines naturally contain two key nutrients to help keep your bones strong as you age. Since sardine bones are so small and soft, they stay in the fish, which is great news for your own bones. “Sardines with the bones are an excellent source of non-dairy calcium, essential for bone health,” says Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, INFCP, CPTa New York-based virtual functional medicine practitioner.
A can of sardines contains 27% of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium, more than a cup of milk! Like us, most of the calcium in sardines is stored in their bones.
But calcium isn’t the only way sardines help keep your bones strong and healthy – they’re also a great source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin your body needs to absorb calcium. . If you lack vitamin D, the calcium you consume cannot do its job of protecting the strength and integrity of your bones.
Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, swordfish and sardines are great natural sources of vitamin D. A can of sardines contains 22% of your DV.
Related: #1 Supplement for Strong Bones After 50, Says Registered Dietitian
Sardines are a convenient way to sneak in your omega-3 fatty acids, as each can contains 1 gram of heart-protecting unsaturated fat. “A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has many potential benefits, including lower cholesterol, lower levels of inflammation, and a lower risk of developing heart disease,” says Bethany Keith MS, RDN, LD, CNSCdietitian at Sizzling Nutrition.
In a 2021 JAMA internal medicine review, researchers analyzed data from nearly 200,000 adults (with and without heart disease). They found that eating at least 2 servings (175 grams) of oily fish per week significantly reduced the risk of serious heart disease in healthy adults and mortality in those who already had heart disease.
“High consumption of sardines can contribute to flare-ups in gout sufferers, and some varieties of canned sardines can be high in sodium,” explains Emma Laing, PhD, RDNnational spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Gout is a particularly painful form of arthritis. Flares can be felt as shooting pains, burning, and tenderness in joints like the big toe, ankle, or knee. One of the causes of a gout flare is a diet high in purines, a natural substance that breaks down into uric acid in the body. Gout attacks occur when uric acid crystals build up in the joints, causing severe inflammation and pain.
Sardines, anchovies, mussels, trout, and red meat are all high in purines. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat sardines, but you may need to be careful about how much you eat and the rest of your diet. If you have gout, talk to your doctor or dietitian because you may need to limit your sardine intake or adjust your overall diet to incorporate them, suggests Laing.
Along with calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein, sardines are an excellent source of vitamin B12. A can of sardines has 343% of your DV for vitamin B12.
Deficiency of this water-soluble vitamin is most commonly seen in the elderly, people with pernicious anemia (a disease that prevents the stomach from absorbing vitamin B12), people with various stomach diseases and vegetarians or vegans. Too little vitamin B12 can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath and low energy.
Although the vitamin B12 in sardines won’t give you an instant energy boost like caffeine would, including it and other sources of B12 and high-quality protein in your diet will help you feel more energetic on a regular basis.