You either 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 silver fish are canned in water, eaten with 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 long and can be eaten skin, bones and all.
Don’t let their looks fool you—if you like other “fishy” fish like salmon or herring, you’ll love the taste of sardines. They’re fantastic spread on crackers, piled on toast, tossed in a salad or stuffed into chili. 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. One can (3.75 oz) of sardines has 22 grams of protein and can be found for $1.50 a can or less.
These little fish are full of flavor and a versatile, budget-friendly addition to the grocery cart, but how healthy are they? Here are four ways eating sardines can affect your health.
Sardines naturally contain two key nutrients that help keep your bones strong as you age. Sardine bones are so small and soft that they stay inside the fish, which is great news for your bones. “Sardines with bones are an excellent source of calcium, in addition to milk, which is essential for bone health,” he says. Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, INFCP, CPTA virtual functional medicine physician based in New York City.
One can of sardines contains 27% of the daily value (DV) of calcium, which is more than a cup of milk! Like us, most of the calcium in sardines is stored in their bones.
However, calcium isn’t the only way sardines help keep your bones strong and healthy—they’re also an excellent source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your body needs to absorb calcium. If you’re low in vitamin D, the calcium you eat won’t do its job of protecting bone strength and integrity.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, swordfish and sardines are excellent natural sources of vitamin D.
Related: #1 Supplement for Strong Bones After 50, Says Nutritionist
Sardines are a convenient way to get omega-3 fatty acids, as each can contain 1 gram of heart-protecting monounsaturated fat. “A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has many potential benefits, including lower cholesterol levels, lower levels of inflammation, and a reduced risk of heart disease,” she says. Bethany Keith MS, RDN, LD, CNSCRegistered Dietitian at Sizzling Nutrition.
Until 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 people and the death rate of people with heart disease.
“A lot of sardines can contribute to gout flare-ups, and some varieties of canned sardines can be high in sodium,” he says. Emma Laing, PhD, RDNNational representative of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Gout is a particularly painful form of arthritis. Flares can cause severe pain, burning, and tenderness in joints such as the big toe, ankle, or knee. One cause of gout flare-ups is eating a diet high in purines, a natural substance that the body breaks down into uric acid. Gout occurs when uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints, causing severe inflammation and pain.
Sardines, anchovies, mussels, trout and red meat are high in purines. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat sardines, but you have to be careful about how much you eat and the rest of your diet. If you have gout, talk to your doctor or dietitian, as you may need to limit your sardines or adjust your overall diet to accommodate them, Laing says.
Along with calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and protein, sardines are an excellent source of vitamin B12. One can of sardines contains 343% of vitamin B12.
Deficiency of this water-soluble vitamin is most common in older adults, pernicious anemia (a disease that prevents the stomach from absorbing B12), people with various stomach disorders, and vegetarians or vegans. Vitamin B12 deficiency causes fatigue, shortness of breath, and low energy.
The vitamin B12 in sardines doesn’t give you an instant energy boost like caffeine, but including them and other sources of B12 and high-quality protein in your diet will help you feel more energized on a regular basis.