Packed with just 110 calories per ½ can, sardines are a convenient, filling snack packed with protein and omega 3 fatty acids. My friend Tony Leiro eats 2-3 cans of sardines a week on whole grain crackers or in a sandwich and says the best sardines he’s found come from Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Weaver Street or Mariakakas and are packed in olive oil (not soy oil or broth). Tony didn’t like the fishy burp sometimes experienced with fish oil supplements (soft gel capsules). Sardines are not the only place to get omega 3 fats as the table below shows, but they are a natural source and a convenient one to keep in your pantry. Canned salmon is also an economical, convenient source of omega 3s.
What are Omega 3 fatty acids and why are they important?
We need fat in our diet. Saturated and trans fats are still considered hazardous, but polyunsaturated fats have been proven potent health protectors. Omega 3 AND omega 6 are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Essential means they are fats that are necessary for health and cannot be manufactured by the body so must be in your diet. Omega 6s are needed for blood clotting, fighting infection and protecting the skin. Omega 3s have earned respect as anti-inflammatory agents and may be helpful for a variety of conditions including:
It’s important to have a balance of omega 3 and 6. The typical western (American) diet contains more omega 6 (cereals, vegetable oils, margarines, processed foods) and less omega 3 so the emphasis has been on turning this balance around by increasing omega 3s.
Types of Omega 3
There are three main forms of omega 3 fatty acids:
DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines. ALA is found in plant sources like flax seeds, walnuts, canola oil and green leafy vegetables. The body needs to convert ALA to DHA/EPA in order to make use of it. In humans this conversion doesn't happen very efficiently so it is believed a direct source of DHA/EPA is important. Chickens on the other hand make the conversion efficiently, thus you can get DHA in eggs of chickens that eat ALA (flax seed).
How much do you need?
Given some controversy about the different forms of omega 3, it would be wise to include both DHA/EPA (from fish) and ALA (from plants). The American Dietetic Association recommends the following to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease:
The American Heart Association concurs and also recommends:
Foods that provide about 1000 mg DHA + EPA
Foods that provide about 300 mg DHA + EPA
Foods that provide about 1500 mg ALA
What about vegetarians?
Vegetarians who do not eat fish or eggs have ½ the blood levels of DHA/EPA of non-vegetarians. Because of this, vegetarians need to include at lease 2 grams of ALA/day (2T ground flax seeds will do the trick) and may want to consider a direct source of DHA/EPA from sea vegetables or a fish oil supplement (especially if you have heart disease). Also available are microalgae which are cultured and renewable and contain mostly DHA. 100-300 mg is the recommended dose.
Caution about Mercury
Don’t eat the following types of fish more than twice a week due to higher concentrations of heavy metals.
Too much of a good thing
Fish oil supplements seem to be safe and have minimal contamination. Beware of overdosing on supplements. Three grams or more per day of DHA/EPA may cause bleeding in certain people.
These can be minimized by keeping the gel capsule in the refrigerator.