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Are Sardines Good for Your Health?

Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Published in Nutrition

8 min read

March 23, 2022
a baked fish with lemon on a plate
a baked fish with lemon on a plate

Most types of oily fish may look unassuming, but they typically have numerous health benefits. From mackerel and anchovies to herring and pilchards, several of these fish are a good source of nutrients and minerals like vitamin B12, omega-3, magnesium, and much more.

One of the most common of these types of fish is sardines—a small, oily fish that’s eaten whole. You'll find them in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. Despite their small size, the steel blue fish have a nutritional profile that offers up numerous health benefits. Anglers sometimes use sardines as bait for larger fish, but they're a popular food item in their own right. 

Sold fresh, smoked, dried, and canned, they’re an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain magnesium, protein, potassium, selenium, and vitamins like vitamin B12; it’s safe to say these little fish pack a big nutritional punch.

If you didn’t grow up in a household that regularly ate sardines, they might be intimidating, thanks to their appearance and intense flavor. But we love them! We’d go so far as to say they’d be a pretty good contender on a list of superfoods. Read on to learn about the potential heallth benefits of sardines and then check out some fun facts about this delicious oily fish at the end of this article. 

Fresh vs. Frozen vs. Canned Sardines—Does it Matter?

frozen sardines and slices of lemon

If you're looking for a healthy, affordable, and sustainable source of protein, sardines may be the perfect food for you. But with so many different types of sardines on the market, it can be challenging to know which ones are the best choice.

Should you pick up a can of sardines? Should you forgo dried and tinned options for fresh sardines? And does any of this even matter? Take a look at what we found out.

Fresh Sardines

Fresh sardines are not as commonly found as canned sardines, but they can be a good option if you find them. You also can prepare these little fish smoked, fried, baked, or grilled! 

Frozen Sardines

Frozen sardines are the least common way to buy these fish in supermarkets. There isn’t a big difference in buying them fresh or frozen as long as they were flash-frozen upon being caught. 

Canned Sardines

Canned sardines are the most popularly bought and stocked types of sardine. The fish are washed and either steam-cooked, dried, or fried before being tinned. Most have their gills and heads removed and are de-scaled. Some canned sardines have tomato, soy, and mustard sauce, but they're most commonly packed in olive oil or water. 

What to Pick

We’re big fans of fresh fish, but fresh sardines are difficult to get your hands on. And while they’re worth it if you do find them, don’t miss out on this oily fish if you can’t. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration, sardines contain less mercury than most other fish. Even canned, they contain enough healthy fats to have several health benefits, including helping with heart disease and decreasing triglycerides

So they’re likely not terrible for you, even in their canned form. Of course, before changing anything in your diet, find out what your body responds well to. It’s best to consult a nutritionist or registered dietitian and use tools like continuous glucose monitors.

Some Nutritional and Health Benefits of Sardines

baked sardines

Sardines are a rich source of nutrients like protein, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin E, vitamin A, and vitamin D. They’re also low in mercury and other toxins. So, it’s no surprise they’re considered a healthy option.

However, they also contain mercury (even though they have less mercury than other fish), so it is essential to eat them in moderation.

Scientists have found that a diet heavy in fish, like the Mediterranean and paleo diet, is ideal for most people’s optimal health. But even with all the potential health benefits of sardines, it’s best to find out if they suit your body.

If you can tolerate this type of fish, some reasons to include sardine in your diet are:

Calcium Content

if you're like most people, you probably think of milk and healthy bones when you think of calcium. However, canned fish like sardines with the bones intact can also be a great source of calcium. The canning process softens the bones and makes them easy to chew along with the meat in canned fish. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and is involved in many vital functions, including muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve transmission. 

Source of Minerals like Selenium and Magnesium

Minerals like potassium, phosphorous, zinc, iron, and magnesium play a role in many critical body functions. If you don't get enough of them, you could be at a higher risk of many health problems. Minerals are essential for many bodily processes, including maintaining fluid balance, transmitting nerve impulses, and building bones. 

They also have anti-inflammatory properties, play a role in energy production. Fish contain iron and zinc, essential minerals for the human body.

Selenium is an essential mineral that your body needs for various functions. It may help protect against cancer, heart disease, and other health problems. In addition, selenium supports healthy thyroid function and helps keep the immune system strong. You can get selenium from foods like nuts, eggs, and fish or take a supplement if you're not getting enough through your diet. 

High in Protein

sardines and lemon on a plate

In the fitness world, protein is king. And for a good reason: it's essential for repairing muscles and helping the body create new muscle tissue. Protein can also help you feel fuller longer, helping you maintain a healthy weight. It helps build and repair tissues, produce enzymes and hormones, and keep your energy levels up. It also plays a significant role in regulating blood sugar. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Are you getting proper levels of omega-3 in your diet? You might not be if you're not eating fish or taking a supplement. These essential nutrients are essential for many reasons, including heart health, bone health, brain function, and inflammation reduction. Omega-3s also help your body lower triglyceride levels and may help prevent anxiety and depression.  

Vitamins Like Vitamin D and Vitamin B12

Sardines are rich in many B vitamins such as niacin as well as vitamins A, D, and B12. Vitamin B12 serves many functions. Not only is it needed for cardiovascular health, but it's vital for cognitive function, neuronal health, and DNA integrity. Vitamin D plays a role in countless functions, including regulating gene expression, bone mineralization, immune health, and so much more.

Different types of sardines have different nutritional content. But here's a good example of what you're getting in one can of sardines with bones.

macros of one can of sardines with bones

*Per the USDA

The Relationship Between Sardines and Blood Sugar Levels

a person using finger prick method to test their glucose level

Sardines are packed with health benefits, low in contaminants and toxins, promoting healthy bones and good heart health. But did you know they also impact your blood sugar levels?

Sardines are a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. They can help regulate blood sugar levels and boost metabolic health. Remember, sardines are low in calories and rich in vitamins like vitamin B12 and minerals like zinc and magnesium. So, they make a healthy addition to any diet but may be particularly beneficial if you’re trying to manage blood sugar levels.

Intermittent fasting is a hot topic in the health world recently. It may help control blood glucose levels, aid in weight loss, and positively affect your metabolism. If you’ve read up on or tried intermittent fasting, you know that one of the most important things to focus on is what you choose to eat after your fast to break it.

Foods that are high and healthy fats (like omega-3 fatty acids) and protein are ideal for breaking your fast because they may not cause spikes in blood sugar levels for most people. They can also help satisfy hunger cravings and make you feel fuller for longer after you break your fast.

Feeling fuller for longer will prevent carbohydrate and sugar cravings and help boost your energy levels. Because sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids and contain protein, they may be a great way to break your fast.

Sardines and Weight Loss

a person measuring their waist

Do you want to lose weight? If so, you might be wondering if sardines or fish oil help with weight loss. But, as it turns out, sardines and their omega-3 content may actually be helpful for your weight loss goal.

This tiny fish is low in calories and high in protein, making it an ideal choice for people trying to slim down. In addition, sardines are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help promote weight loss by reducing inflammation and preventing overeating. Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may potentially influence weight and fat metabolism, but their impact on weight loss appears to be modest and may vary among individuals.

It's important to note that incorporating fish oil into a well-rounded, healthy diet and exercise routine is more likely to contribute to overall well-being rather than serving as a standalone solution for weight loss.

How Often Can You Eat Sardines?

a can of sardines, toasts and a slice of lemon

Can you eat sardines every day? Sardines are a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, making them a healthy addition to your diet. But how often should you eat them to get the most benefits, and can you eat too many? Even though they have many health benefits, they do contain some saturated fat (which may raise cholesterol levels for some). It’s best to eat them in moderation.

Another interesting fact to note is that even with its mercury levels, this type of fish is safe and healthy for children and adults. 

The FDA states that as per the recommendations from Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which list sardines in their “Best Choices” list of fish), sardines are safe for children.

Sardines contain a small amount of mercury and other contaminants and toxins. However, they do have uric acid, which can cause kidney problems in susceptible people or those with pre-existing conditions. 

While they’re typically safe for pregnant women to consume, everyone’s body is different. So it’s best to talk to your doctor about whether this oily fish is for you.

Overall, sardines can be a healthy addition to your diet. They're affordable and easy to find (well, canned sardines are anyway!). And if you're looking for a healthy and delicious way to add more fish to your diet, sardines should be at the top of your list.

As with any food, it’s best to eat them in moderation—eating sardines two to three days a week is a safe and healthy option.

Some Fun Facts About Sardines

toasts with sardines and tomatoes
  • Morocco is the largest canned sardine exporter in the world.
  • Love Worcestershire sauce? Did you know the main ingredient is fermented sardines?
  • The term sardine is said to come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, once teeming with this type of fish.
  • You likely know the term ‘packed like sardines’ comes from how the small fish are packed into tins. But did you know it’s also the name of a children’s game?
  • Not all types of this small fish are endangered, but according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Madeiran sardine is a vulnerable species.
  • Cornish sardines have a Protected Geographical Indication status.
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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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