Your body loves fish, and all the benefits they confer, but there are ethical and ecological concerns that come along for the ride as well. As with most things, it’s best to weigh the options carefully, and buy consciously, the healthiest, highest quality fish available.

When it comes to health benefits and sustainability, which fish takes pole position? In my book, it’s the humble, underrated sardine. Whether you’re cutting back on animal products, concerned about mercury levels or simply like your protein in compact form, it’s time to get to know sardines better. Long considered a mealtime staple in traditional Mediterranean dishes, as well as in Nordic and Eastern European cuisines, sardines have mostly stayed off the American plate. In recent years, however, they’ve started to make a bigger splash as an easy way to get more fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in one small package. What else can these small but mighty superfoods-of-the-sea do for you? Here’s a topline on what sardines have to offer, and why you should add them to your foods-with-benefits rotation: 

Sardines have fewer downsides than most fish.

While fish are loaded with nutritional advantages, increasingly, concerns about over-fishing and ecologically problematic fish farming have made sea creatures a rather fraught subject. Then there’s the question mercury toxicity and how to minimize it. Some species are healthier to eat than others due to their size, longevity and where they fit on the food chain. The bigger, predatory, longer-lived ones grow large (think 75 to 500 lbs. or more!) on a diet of creatures lower on the food chain. Over time, more toxins, contaminants and heavy metals accumulate in their flesh, which ultimately winds up in yours after you tuck in – in effect, you eat what they ate, so buyer beware.

With small fish like sardines, however, the news is a lot better. They don’t feed on other fish; they feed on plankton, microscopic plant-like creatures which flourish on a ‘diet’ of sunlight and nutrients that fall to the bottom of the ocean floor. What that means for you is a much healthier protein on your plate.

Sardines are more sustainable than many other types of fish.

Another feather in the sardine cap? They repopulate quickly and abundantly, so there are fewer concerns about over-fishing. And they’re a wild fish that doesn’t do well in fish farm situations – their large, very dense schools need room to roam – and that’s good news for both our oceans and our bodies. Where to find them? In the waters of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coasts of Europe and the U.S., some parts of coastal Central America as well as in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Small fish, big nutrition. 

Fresh or canned, packed in water or oil, bite-for-bite, sardines deliver a lot more nutrition than their diminutive size might suggest. When you add them to your protein repertoire, you’re gifting yourself with an excellent aquatic source of inflammation-taming nutrients, minerals and vitamins, without adding significant expense or kitchen prep time. They deliver a number of health-supportive goodies your body will thank you for, including essentials such as:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – which our bodies need but can’t produce themselves. These essential fatty acids found in ‘oily fish’ like sardines help keep inflammation in check, support a healthier heart and blood pressure as well as brain function and eye health.

Getting your omega3s is also associated with better weight management and may be beneficial for cognitive function  in those with milder cases of Alzheimer’s. Plus, there are numerous studies showing that countries which eat large or even moderate amounts of fish, on average, tend to live longer and healthier lives than the rest of us.

  • Protein – you’ll get roughly 20+ grams in the average 3 – 4oz tin, which will help support your immunity as well as the health of your muscles, connective tissue and bones.
  • Minerals – essentials like potassium, magnesium, niacin, copper, zinc, selenium, choline and phosphorous, plus a bit of thiamine, manganese and folate.

Avoiding dairy but don’t want to scrimp on calcium? Sardines – and their small, soft, edible bones – are a great source, in addition to being a tasty stand-in for dairy. Not a big meat eater? A small tin of sardines can help here too, covering roughly 15% – 20% of your daily iron needs.

  • Vitamins –When it comes to cognitive function, mood, mental well-being and keeping your brain younger longer, vitamin B2, B12 and vitamin D are essential. Not surprisingly, sardines score big here too, with the average tin serving up roughly 22% of your daily vita D needs and well over 126% of your daily B12 needs.

Sardines will boost health and save you time and money.

What’s also great about sardines is that they’re hassle-free – I always have a few tins on hand in the pantry — to help get a light and healthy dinner on the table in less time than it would take for your online order to appear. Use sardines in a Greek salad with feta and red onion, lay them out on the grill, broil, bake or roast with root veggies and broccoli rabe for an easy one pan meal. Adding sardines once or twice a week to your menu will give your overall health an almost effortless, virtually instant upgrade – so take the plunge! If you’re not sure where to start, here’s what to look for:

Canned (or ‘Tinned’) Sardines

  1. Look for wild-caught sardines, which most are by default, but always double check before buying.
  2. Look for sardines in BPA-free cans, packed either in water or extra virgin olive oil.
  3. Avoid sardines packed in soybean oil, and steer clear of the ones packed in tomato sauce, which can boost the sodium content quite a bit. Stick to the water or oil-packed versions.
  4. Look for the expiration date. Though tinned sardines have a shelf life of several years, the nutritional content will degrade with time, so don’t hold on to them forever. Also, store canned sardines unopened in a cool place to help maintain freshness.
  5. Look at the label for the sodium content, and when possible, opt for no salt added or low sodium. Barring that, at least rinse off your sardines as you prep them – they’ll still be plenty salty, and if you need more, you can always add a pinch. If you’re not in a hurry, you can lose some additional sodium by soaking them for an hour or two in a bowl in the fridge, then dump the water and pat dry.
  6. When you open a can, if you don’t use all the sardines, store the remainder in a covered glass container in the fridge for no more than 3 – 4 days. When you’re ready to eat the leftovers, do a sniff test first – your nose will tell you if they’ve passed their prime.

Fresh Sardines

When shopping for fresh sardines, go to a reputable fishmonger, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the origins of the fish. Do your research to make sure you’re getting the highest quality sardines possible. If you’re a fish market newbie, get guidance and additional tips from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch database and Marine Stewardship Council. Also:

  1. Look for fresh sardines that look and smell healthy with bright-eyes and little, if any odor, with skin and body intact. If you see ‘belly burn,’ or some of the guts spilling out, it means the stock, way past its prime, so don’t buy it.
  2. Look for sardines without sunken-looking bodies, bruises or dull skin. Think firm, plump and shiny.
  3. Once you get them home, keep sardines on ice in the fridge for no more than 2 – 3 days and, after cooking, as with canned, give ‘em a sniff test before eating the remainder.

Enjoy these gifts from the sea!

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