Little fish, big benefits

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2006

Just mention sardines to some folks and watch their reaction: corners of the mouth turn down, eyes roll, they pinch the nose or all the above. Okay, I'll admit that it helps if your sense of smell is not too sensitive. But if you can get past the fishy fragrance you'll find a convenient and inexpensive food that has more nutritional quality than almost anything in your pantry.

Sardines were probably among the first fish that our Stone Age ancestors caught. They congregate in very large schools of thousands of individuals, often appear close to shore in shallow coves and as fish go, are not very fast swimmers. Not very smart, either. Early hunter-gatherers caught them by placing crude traps in shallow inlets at flood tide and gathering the catch as the tide went out.

Sardines and their herring-family relatives are among the oiliest of fish. That means that they are very high in omega-3 fats. These fats are critical for the health of every cell in the body but especially for the brain and eye. In populations where the intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish is high, sudden cardiac death is rare. These fats help to stabilize nerve cells within the heart so that an abnormal and usually fatal rhythm becomes less likely

Anthropologists believe that human brain development accelerated dramatically when Homo sapiens learned how to gather seafood. Our brains became larger and more complex whereas the brains of land animals are small relative to their body size. Omega-3 fatty acids improve memory and mood. They even play a role in the treatment of depression.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of omega-3 fatty acids. Few Americans get the recommended daily intake of 650 milligrams a day but only one ounce of sardines (packed in water) contains half that much.

The soft skeleton of the sardine is an excellent source of calcium. One 3½-ounce serving provides about 400 milligrams, nearly half the daily recommended amount of calcium. For persons who don't drink milk because of lactose intolerance or who avoid ice cream and cheese because of the high calories, sardines are a good alternative

Sardines are also a good source of protein. Like all animal sources, fish protein has all the essential amino acids and is therefore a complete protein.

The small size of sardines and their eating habits limit the levels of mercury and other environmental toxins that have reached hazardous levels in the large fish species. The U.S. government advises that pregnant women should avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel and should limit their intake of albacore and other tuna species. There is no need to limit sardine intake.

Sardines aren't exactly a convenience food but the canned varieties don't need cooking and some are already packed with tomato sauce, hot sauce, mustard or other condiments. Add them to a leafy green salad to boost protein. You can make a speedy sandwich right from the can or you can mash them with lemon juice and a little light mayonnaise or horseradish to make them easy to spread and to give them a more pleasant texture.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at