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Diabetes Developments - A blog on latest developments in diabetes by David Mendosa

The Sardine Diet

November 25th, 2008 · 50 Comments

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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.”

This is a mirror of one of my articles that Health Central published. You can navigate to that site to find my most recent articles.

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50 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sheila meadows // May 2, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I was interested in your sardine articles. I simply love sardines and eat two or three cans a day. When I am out and working, I simply take a can and a spoon and that is my lunch. I have arthritis and know that fish oils are good for that. I am also trying to lose weight.

  • 2 David Mendosa // May 2, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Dear Sheila,

    The fish oils from the sardines and losing weight are the two very best things you can do for your arthritis.

    I do highly recommend the VitalChoice.com sardines.

    Best regards,

    David

  • 3 Justin // Aug 2, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Hello,
    For a while I have been trying to find a good, whole food source of omega 3 and sardines seem to fit the bill. My only doubt is what happens to the oil during the canning process. Is It damaged when heated/ smoked? Is some of it burnt off? Does any bit of it go rancid when canning? I ask this because I know that fresh sardines spoil quickly specifically because of the fact that they are so high in omega3. Thank you for any information.

  • 4 David Mendosa // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Justin,

    If you contact the good people at vitalchoice.com, I am sure that they can answer your questions.

    David

  • 5 Mary (High Blood Pressure Remedy) // Nov 30, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Never thought of sardines as “trail food” but its a fab idea. Thanks

  • 6 ruth karp // Nov 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    I read where sardines are high in cholesterol. Is that good cholesterol?

  • 7 David Mendosa // Nov 30, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Dear Ruth,

    Actually, sardines don’t have much cholesterol. For example, the 124 grams of sardines from VitalChoice that I prefer have 176 mg of cholesteterol. By comparison, the same amount of shrimp have 242 grams of it. These calculations are from the USDA National Nutrient Database at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

    But we need to differentiate between cholesterol in our diet and cholesterol in our blood. A long time ago scientists thought that they were directly related. But now we know that’s hardly the case. The LDL (”lousy”) cholesterol and the triglycerides comes from eating not too much fat but rather eating too much carbohydrates.

    In fact, what we call the lousy LDL cholesterol and the good HDL cholesterol aren’t really cholesterol at all! They are lipoproteins, a combination of fats and proteins that carry fats around in our bloodstream. Wikipedia has a technical article about it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lipoprotein

    Beyond that, sardines actually lower our cholesterol levels when it couldes to the fats in our blood stream, triglycerides. “Oily fish types like sardines, salmon and tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids help to lower cholesterol (in the form of triglycerides) in the bloodstream. These fatty acids are a healthier source of fat for your body than the saturated fat in most meats,” according to the http://organizedwisdom.com/Sardines_and_Good_Cholesterol website. A much more detailed article that is well worth reading is “The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Fatty Fish” on MedicineNet.com at http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=56304

    The bottom line is to eat a lot of fatty fish like sardines (and salmon and a few others) and very little carbohydrate. For example, now that I am following a very low-carb diet and eating a lot of sardines and other fatty fish (including today), my LDL level is 74 (it should be below 100), my HDL level is 69 (it should be below 40), and my triglyceride level is 43 (it should be below 150). All well within range!

  • 8 Shana // Jan 12, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for clarifying the relationship between cholesterol and sardines. I still have a question though. If I have high cholesterol and high triglycerides, is it better for me to eat the sardines that come without the skin and bones which are lower in cholesterol and sodium, or does it not matter? Thank you.

  • 9 David Mendosa // Jan 12, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Dear Shana,

    Frankly, the issue is your high triglycerides, not your high cholesterol. A very low-carb diet will reduce your triglyceride level LIKE A ROCK. As to the sardines, the key is more what they are packed in oil (olive or other or water). Water is best, olive oil is second best, and other oils worst. That’s because oils detract from the Omega 3/6 ratio. I prefer the sardines with skin and bones, because that’s less processing, but I don’t think it much matters. What matters the most is that you will get tasty sardines that you will like to eat so you will actually eat them regularly. By far and away the tastiest and healthiest come from vitalchoice.com (note that I have no connection with that company whatsoever, except as a very satisified customer).

    Best regards,

    Davi

  • 10 Malcolm // Jan 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Hello,

    I also have discovered the amazing benefits of sardines. I eat them packed in water with skin/bones. My question: Are any/many of the nutrients left in that lil couple table-spoons of oil slick water left in the can? Thanx :) .

    M

  • 11 David Mendosa // Jan 14, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Dear Malcolm,

    That’s the best way to eat sardines in my opinion. I usually add them to my salad and poor off the water. I never considered your question before and don’t know the answer. My suggestion would be for you to call customer service at vitalchoice.com . They are very knowledgeable and would be glad to advise you. You don’t have to buy your sardines from them — but it would sure be a great idea!

    Best regards,

    David

  • 12 Malcolm // Jan 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Thanx David, I did call and they said nothing is lost. Thanx. I think $28 for 6 cans is a bit out of my range tho ;) . Unless she said ‘only’ 8 and I misunderstood.

  • 13 David Mendosa // Jan 15, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Dear Malcolm,

    Thanks for getting back to me with this. I will now certainly continue to pour off the water.

    Vital Choice is definitely more expensive, but their products are all the highest quality and worth it. I buy them by the case and place large orders so I get free shipping. I would have liked to check the prices that you aren’t certain about. But according to the website they are all out of stock of sardines right now anyway and don’t have the prices listed.

    Best regards,

    David

  • 14 Malcolm // Jan 17, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Just to be xtra sure tho, Im now sopping up my excess water with a piece of wheat bread and some tomato slices ;) . Thanx again. I tell ya..ppl who drink coffee really outa consider sardines as an alternative *wake up*. Is it just me, or is there a kind of energy boost? But I dont get the *crash* that I would if I drank coffee.

  • 15 Anders // Jan 30, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Dear David,

    Your site is an excellent resource, thank you.

    King Oscar sardines are delicious, but perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Keri Glassman recommends that brand because it was King Oscar that approached her in the first place to write the book.

    Or so I remember reading in the newspaper, at any rate.

    Best regards,

    Anders

  • 16 David Mendosa // Jan 30, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Dear Anders,

    Yes, I have enjoyed King Oscar sardines. But I enjoy those from Vital Choice much more!

    Best regards,

    David

  • 17 Susan // Mar 4, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Hi David! Have you tried any low sodium sardines? ARE there any low sodium sardines? Ideally… I’d love to find a can of low salt sardines packed in tomato sauce with the skin and bones left in. For some reason, it’s not that easy!!!

  • 18 David Mendosa // Mar 4, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Dear Susan,

    The sardines I get are from vitalchoice.com and are packed in water with no sodium added. I think they are the best — and they certainly taste the best.

    Best regards,

    David

  • 19 tickyul // Mar 30, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Actually, canned wild salmon has lower levels of mercury than even sardines. May times when tested canned Alaskan Salmon has undetectable levels of mercury.

  • 20 Ruth // Apr 8, 2010 at 6:54 am

    I found Goya sardines in tomato sauce. A 5.5 oz. can (only $.79) has 330 mg of sodium and only 70 calories. Just purchased, haven’t tried yet, so can’t vouch for flavor.

  • 21 lotfi // Jul 27, 2010 at 9:17 am

    i love this article. it helped me alot. ive been eating sardines alot, and wonderif there are any hazards or risks in eating them. Can you please make an article of that? Or how the risks are mere folklore, if they are. Thanks

  • 22 David Mendosa // Jul 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

    The only possible health risk that I have ever heard of from eating fish in any form is mercury poisoning. The higher on the food chain the more mercury a fish has. Sardines are very low on the food chain and have correspondingly low mercury. In addition, all the recommendations that I have seen for limiting fish consumption are for children and pregnant women. So, keep on enjoying your sardines!

    Best regards,

    David

  • 23 Joe // Aug 4, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Ruth #20,

    Are the Goya sardines skinless and boneless? I considered buying them yesterday but the price being so much lower than the rest on the shelf I had fears of opening the can and finding them with the heads and tails still on them and having to do some prep work before eating them.

  • 24 David Mendosa // Aug 7, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Dear Joe,

    I don’t know about the Goya sardines, but I do know that those from vitalchoice.com are wonderful. They do have skin and bones (more natural and healthier), but don’t have the heads and tails.

    David

  • 25 Nate Piletzer // Sep 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Sardines? Ugh!!! Fishy, smelly, sickening. Est what you like, and don’t teist youself into a pretzel (not to mention a miserable dieter) by eating bad tasting swill promoted by the latest medical fads.

    Me? I’ll take a plate of homemade pasta or slice of crispy pizza, with tomato sauce, olive oil and a nice glass of red wine. People, live as long as God wants you to, and enjoy what you like!

  • 26 steve // Oct 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    The Mercury content in Sardines is extremely low compared to almost all other commercialy sold fish. I have included a link to the FDA’s ” Mercury Chart”. No data on canned salmon ! Hmmm, suspicious. I buy bumble bee sardines at $o.99 on sale. Canned in Canada. Please look at the chart ! http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product-SpecificInformation/Seafood/FoodbornePathogensContaminants/Methylmercury/ucm115644.htm

  • 27 Andrew // Nov 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Extra virgin olive oil actually “scrubs” your artery walls,so to speak.I suggest everyone check out Dr. Weil and what he has to say about Extra virgin olive oil,Omega 3’s and sardines!

  • 28 gil // Jan 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I eat sardines regularly for the reasons that have been discuseed. I’ve been looking for a larger capacity can. And have been having a good deal of trouble locating a brand/distributor of say… 8 oz to 16 oz cans… of oil or water packed sardines. Can anyone help on this one? Thank you for your time.

  • 29 Gabriela Carbajal // Apr 1, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Dear David,
    I’ve been researching about sardines for a while, I read this whole article and I decided to ask you something.
    I have bad acne for almost 3 years ( mostly on my forehead and cheeks)
    I NEVER eat fish. I’m considering to eat sardines.
    What do you think about the relationship of sardines and acne?
    Please help me
    Thank-you,
    Gaby

  • 30 David Mendosa // Apr 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Dear Gaby,

    I’m sorry but I don’t know. But your problem well could be that your omega-3 level is too low, and eating sardines or other fish or taking fish oil could help.

    David

  • 31 Tomas Vanderwood // Jul 30, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I like to check out your weblog a couple times a week for new readings. I was wondering when you have any other topics you write about? You’re a very fascinating writer!

  • 32 David Mendosa // Jul 30, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Dear Tomas,

    Thanks for asking. But your comment puzzles me. I write at least one article a week here. The main link is http://www.mendosa.com/blog

    David

  • 33 Clint Campbell // Sep 6, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Hello, Do you know where I can buy sardines packed in glass?

    Thanks, clint

  • 34 David Mendosa // Sep 6, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Dear Clint,

    Sorry, I don’t know.

    David

  • 35 Rik // Nov 2, 2011 at 3:12 am

    This is a good article, thanks. I’ve started adding sardines to my diet because of their health benefits since I have high blood pressure and cholesterol. I’ve been doing a ton of research online about them and I find myself a bit confused about the sodium aspect. Should the high sodium content of canned sardines keep me from eating them too often or will the “good” stuff in them cancel out the sodium? Also, do you happen to know the difference in sodium content of the canned vs. fresh? I live in Italy and the fresh ones are easily avaialble but the tinned are more convenient. Thanks!

  • 36 David Mendosa // Nov 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Dear Rik,

    Thank you. Canned sardines don’t have to be high in sodium. The brand that I prefer, Vital Choice Sardines in Organic Olive Oil, have 194mg per can. But fresh sardines are almost certainly even lower in sodium.

    David

  • 37 Christy // Apr 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Hello, unrelated question but just wondering if you eat red meat? i’m looking to replace my red meats with more oily fish and wondering if this is a good idea…

  • 38 David Mendosa // Apr 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Dear Christy,

    Such a good question! I have changed my mind on it several times. At present I do eat red meat about one day a week. But I eat fish about three days a week.

    David

  • 39 Wojtek Nowakowski // Jun 22, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I have a confession to make-I’m addicted to sardines in xtra virgin olive oil+some hunza bread!

  • 40 David Mendosa // Jun 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    You could have worse addictions!

    David

  • 41 Dick McLean // Jun 27, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I am 82, swim 2 1/2 hours a week. Work 6 days and feel like Tarzan because I thrive on sardines.
    Favorite recipe: Sardine Gaboona: smash sardines and combine with cottage cheese and mayonnaise, add chopped green onions and crunch in some potato chips for mouth feel. (I also add anchovy paste to give it a tang of zip). Wife makes me sleep else where if I use it for late night snack, however at Sea World the dolphins greet me like a relative.

  • 42 Rose // Jul 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Hi David,
    I ate some sardines for lunch in hopes of helping alleviate my migraine. It worked! Although, the pain is not gone completely, I would say about 90% of the pain did subside. I love sardines even before discovering they help alleviate migraines.

  • 43 Sonya B. // Dec 20, 2012 at 12:14 am

    This information has really helped me because i have been wanting to lose weight and a friend recommended sardines and eating grapefruits. I just need to keep my sodium down. Are there any low sodium sardines in grocery stores.

  • 44 David Mendosa // Dec 20, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Dear Sonya,

    Good question, but I don’t know about what grocery stores carry. I buy all my sardines (as well as mackerel, salmon, and albacore tuna) from VitalChoice.com. It’s the best!

    Namaste,

    David

  • 45 D-Ann Finch // Jun 5, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    When I was young and living at home, My Mother would buy me sardines (but make me) go outside on the back patio to eat them. Said they made the house stink! LOL Cats came from miles away because of the smell.

  • 46 Dick McLean // Jun 6, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I share for the world my recipe for Sardine Garboona:
    Can of sardines
    Big scoop of mayonnaise
    Generous amount of cottage cheese
    Can of drained green beans (not crushed and added last)
    Just enjoy!

  • 47 Candace D // Aug 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    David your my favorite person right now because of thid article.
    THANK ALOT!!!

  • 48 David Mendosa // Aug 6, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Dear Candace,

    You are most welcomed! Thanks for writing.

    Namaste,

    David

  • 49 ruth p // Aug 8, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Is there a lot of mercury in the sardines?

  • 50 David Mendosa // Aug 9, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Dear Ruth,

    Good question. No, sardines don’t have a lot of mercury because mercury accumulates in big fish that eat other fish that are lower on the food chain. Sardines are some of the smallest fish.

    Namaste,

    David