8 Health Benefits of Sardines

Medically Reviewed by Madeline Hubbard, RN, BSN

Photo Courtesy: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Although sardines are not commonly consumed in the United States, they are a nutrient-dense food packed with antioxidants — not to mention, they have many other health benefits, too. Part of the herring family, sardines, sometimes called pilchards, are also an abundant, sustainable fish. The only downside? They are highly perishable, which is why you’re likely to find only canned sardines in the grocery store. 

Nonetheless, adding these fish to a balanced diet can benefit multiple body systems. How so? We've outlined eight great ways — and provided a little information on how to incorporate these beneficial fish into your diet. 

Health Benefits Associated With Eating Sardines 

Great Source of Healthy Fats:

This oily fish is a rich source of the healthy fats our bodies need. The two main heart-healthy fatty acids in sardines are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids actually originate in micro-algae and plankton, which are eaten by sardines. This diet of plankton means that sardines don’t accumulate mercury to the same extent as bigger fish, like tuna or mackerel, which, in turn, makes them an especially good choice for children and for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Moreover, the omega-3 fatty acids in sardines can benefit the body in several ways, as outlined below.

Strengthen the Cardiovascular System:

Over 40 years of research have assessed the effects of omega-3 fatty acids — primarily EPA and DHA — on cardiovascular disease and its risk factors. Several systematic reviews — the highest level of research, assessing numerous individuals research studies — have shown that both consuming more fish and having higher dietary levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

Protect the Brain and Nervous System:

Omega-3 fatty acids are also vital when it comes to supporting the brain and neurological systems. After all, high levels of omega-3 fatty acids are found in the human brain. Numerous studies have shown a positive effect of maternal intake of seafood and omega-3 fatty acids on infant birth weight, cognitive development, and other health outcomes. High concentrations of DHA are present in the brain and retina, and this fat is important for fetal growth and development.

Photo Courtesy: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Prevent Cancer: 

Some studies have suggested that intake of omega-3 fats may slow tumor growth and improve the quality of life in individuals with cancer. Doctors may also suggest a diet high in omega-3 fats as part of a preventative measure against cancer.

Anti-inflammatory Effects: 

Because omega-3s, such as EPA and DHA, have an anti-inflammatory effect, they may help reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammation-related conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and kidney disease.

Stronger Bone Health:

A can of sardines has about as much calcium as a full glass of milk. Not only do sardines have great calcium content, they are also a good source of vitamin D. These two nutrients are essential for healthy bone growth and synthesis. In fact, vitamin D has been shown to aid calcium absorption, and it is commonly found in fortified dairy products. Phosphorus, another mineral present in sardines, is also important in strengthening the bone matrix, alongside vitamin B12.

Great Source of Protein:

For individuals who do not eat red meat, sardines are a great source of protein. Protein is important because it can provide the body with essential amino acids, which the body cannot produce, despite needing them for everyday functions. Protein is also essential for muscle tissue wellbeing, as well as serving as the base component in connective tissues, antibodies, and nutrient transporters in our bodies.

Great Source of Vitamins and Minerals:

  • Vitamin B12: Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is important in the normal functioning of the brain, nervous system, and blood formation. It also plays a role in the metabolism of cells and affects DNA synthesis and regulation.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a vital nutrient that helps absorption of calcium, a mineral crucial in the formation, growth, and strengthening of bones. It also protects the immune system and has anti-inflammatory properties linked to the prevention of cancer.
  • Vitamin B3: Also known as niacin, vitamin B3 is important for the skin as well as the digestive and nervous systems. Research has shown it may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, convert food to energy, and promote skin repair.
  • Vitamin B2: Also known as riboflavin, vitamin B2 helps metabolize fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and has roles in DNA synthesis, regulation, and energy production.
  • Selenium: An effective antioxidant, selenium can help in the prevention of cancer by repairing free radicals in the body. It also helps maintain normal function of the thyroid and the immune system.
  • Phosphorus: Phosphorus not only helps synthesize protein for the maintenance of cells and tissues, it also plays a role in the formation of bones and teeth
  • Calcium: As noted above, calcium is known to strengthen and build strong bones and teeth.
  • Amino Acids: Our body needs essential amino acids for numerous day-to-day functions. Sardines are rich in amino acids that help support joint cartilage, create collagen, regulate insulin, and help the digestive tract. Some of these amino acids include tryptophan, lysine, tyrosine, and methionine.

Photo Courtesy: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Adding Sardines to Your Diet

Sardines come packed in water, oil, tomato, mustard, or other flavored sauces. You can eat them straight from the can, skin and tiny bones included! Or try one of these suggestions:

  • Mix sardines with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives for a Mediterranean-inspired spread.
  • Try pickled sardines instead of canned — they're delicious!
  • Balsamic vinegar or a squeeze of lemon can cut the oily taste of sardines.
  • Choose sardines packed in olive oil for a higher omega-3 fatty acid boost.
  • Add some canned sardines into your salad for additional flavoring.
  • Canned sardines spread on crackers or toast makes a great snack!
  • Lightly pan fry sardines in olive oil.
  • Pair sardines with some mayonnaise and a dash of hot sauce.

Sardines provide about two grams of omega-3s per three-ounce serving, making them one of the richest fish sources of omega-3s. Adults should aim to consume about eight ounces (two to three servings) of seafood per week. The best sources of heart-healthy omega-3s are in salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, and trout. As an added bonus, these fish tend to be lower in mercury. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that balanced diets that seafood are associated with reduced risk of heart disease and obesity. 

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