A diet limited to sardines might sound somewhat too restrictive. It is.
Even the most ardent health food fanatics don’t go that far. As much as I love the health benefits and taste of sardines, I almost never eat more than two cans of sardines a day. Even Keri Glassman, who wrote The Sardine Diet, is using hyperbole to make her points.
Her points are that sardines are not only delicious but also have unique properties that help us lose weight and improve our health. Food doesn’t come any better than that.
Keri is president of A Nutritious Life, a nutrition counseling and consulting practice in New York City. Her practice focuses on weight loss/maintenance, pediatric nutrition, lifestyle/wellness/beauty, pre/post natal nutrition, cardiovascular health, and sports performance. A registered nurse and Certified Dietitian Nutritionist, Keri is the Nutrition Contributor to the CBS Early Show as well as a tri-athlete.
In 2006 Downtown Bookworks published The Sardine Diet: Lose Weight, Fight Disease, and Stay Healthy for Life. I just obtained one of the last available copies of this 128-page paperback (unless you are willing to pay $195 for a used copy) and have studied it carefully. I also interviewed Keri by phone at her New York practice.
Calling it The Sardine Diet is a great attention getter. Punningly, she admits in the book that it is “really a ‘fishy’ name for a high-fiber, reduced calorie diet that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids.”
The sardine diet involves eating a wide variety of foods. “Sardines simply make it easy to follow, even on a hectic schedule.”
That’s because sardines are the best combination of healthy and convenience food. Keri notes that they are so popular for desktop lunches because all you need to do it flip open the lid.
For me they are my favorite trail food. I take two cans of sardines and a spoon on every long hike.
Sardines come in a variety of flavors, including mustard sauce, tomato sauce, salsa, and pesto. The purest form comes packed in spring water, but I prefer the taste of those packed in organic olive oil.
I almost always eat my sardines straight out of the can. But lots of people add a splash of lemon (or the more convenient TrueLemon), a slice of sweet onion, or a dollop of mustard or mayo or miso. They are a great addition to salads too.
The term “sardine” is surprisingly vague. The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization say that canners can call any of 21 species as sardines. Usually, however, the are pilchards, a small fish related to herrings, or sprats, such as brislings.
Keri prefers a brand of brislings and I prefer a brand of pilchards. But, “the best sardines are your personal preference,” she told me.
The brand that she recommends in her book is King Oscar. These brisling sardines “are good because of the cold, clear Nordic water they come from,” she says. These mild sardines are available in many supermarkets, including Safeway.
They are too mild for my taste. I prefer the richer taste of the VitalChoice brand of Portuguese pilchards — and not just because half of my ancestors came from Portugal.
“I love VitalChoice as a brand,” Keri told me. “I like their salmon as well. They are a great company.”
Besides the choice of brand, I wondered about how important it is to eat whole sardines — skin and bones and all — compared to skinless and boneless. While I prefer whole sardines, I realize that some people might be put off by them.
“It doesn’t matter too much,” Keri told me. “You are getting a little more calcium in the bones, but you get most of the nutrients either way.”
What about fresh versus canned sardines?
“In New York City a lot of Greek restaurants have them,” Keri said. “That’s the place to get them.”
I’ve never seen fresh sardines here in Colorado — until yesterday evening. The local Whole Foods store now has them.
Then I told Keri that I prefer the taste of sardines in olive oil, and the problem is that olive oil is omega-6. Are sardines in water better for us than those packed in olive oil?
“That depends on what else you have in your diet the rest of the day,” Keri says. “If you are not getting any other fat in your diet, then sardines in olive oil are a fine choice. But if you are getting olive oil five other times a day in other places, you probably don’t need it with your sardines.”
All sardines are very low in mercury, which is the biggest problem with much seafood. Generally speaking, the bigger the fish — the higher on the oceanic food chain — the more the mercury. Shark, tuna — and yes, salmon too — are all high in mercury. As befitting their name, sardines are small. About the lowest on the food chain, they are also among the fish lowest in mercury.
And they are among the very highest in the best kind of oil, omega-3. I have written several times about the importance of omega-3 oil in our diet, including the importance of increasing the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oil. In September my most recent article emphasized the importance of increasing our omega-3 consumption.
Wild Chinook salmon seems to have a bit more omega-3 oil per 100 grams than canned Atlantic sardines, according to my analysis of the USDA National Nutrient Database. The sardines have a total of 1.5 grams of the different omega-3 oils, which the USDA calls “n-3,” and the salmon has a total of 2.1 grams.
But besides the mercury issue, salmon isn’t available all year around. And salmon is much more expensive.
“Sardines are cheap!” Keri concludes. “They are a great power food.”
HealthCentral published an earlier version of this article.