Taking Omega-3 Supplements? This 1 Food Might Be Able to Replace Your Daily Pill, a New Study Suggests

One clue: This food tastes amazing in pasta.

Nearly 6 in 10 American adults pop supplements daily, per the latest data published in the National Health Statistics Report. Multivitamins are a mainstay, along with another nutrient Americans fall short on: omega-3s fatty acids.

Many people opt to take an omega-3 supplement daily in the form of fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil or algae oil. But there may be a better way. According to a new review published in April 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, sardines are a budget-friendly alternative to omega-3 supplements. By eating more sardines, you may not need an omega-3 supplement.

According to the National Institutes of Health, on average, U.S. adults don't meet the recommended daily 250 milligrams of omega-3s, which is a shame considering that the three omegas—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—have been linked to everything from a healthier heart to less chronic inflammation to sharper vision. For this reason, omega-3s are one of four supplements you might want to talk to your doctor about taking, according to a dietitian.

So, should you add sardines to your weekly meal rotation? Read on to learn more about this research review, and to reel in even more ideas about edible forms of omega-3s.

a photo of a hand holding a Omega 3 pill
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What This Omega-3 Research Found

After reviewing the current research on omega-3 supplements and omega-3 food consumption, the authors of the study noted that the health benefits of fish might be due to more than just its omega-3 fatty acids. That's why fish itself has been found to be more strongly associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and arrhythmia compared to fish oil supplements.

In addition, the authors also suggest that our digestive systems may process fish oil-based supplements in a way that limits their bioavailability, or ability to be absorbed by the body.

For all of these reasons, the authors of this study say that sardines might be a suitable substitute for those who are currently taking or considering omega-3 supplementation. Beyond offering a potent dose of polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3s, sardines are rich in amino acids and micronutrients, including:

  • Calcium, which is important for bone health. Sardines provide an excellent source of calcium, since their tiny bones are also consumed.
  • Potassium, which can help lower blood pressure, among other benefits.
  • Zinc, a mineral involved in wound healing, the immune system and more.
  • Magnesium, which plays many roles within the body, including supporting blood sugar regulation and lower blood pressure.
  • Iron, which is needed to ferry oxygen throughout your body and is necessary for healthy energy levels. Sardines have higher levels than other commonly consumed fish, the authors say.
  • Taurine and arginine, two amino acids that play important roles in heart health.

That's why sardines can be considered a functional food. The term "functional food" might sound like a slick marketing term, but essentially, this means that a food delivers more benefits than the mere macronutrients and calories it provides. Functional foods (when consumed over time) have the potential to support overall health and longevity.

Because of that, the authors recommend consuming at least one or two servings of sardines per week.

EatingWell dietitians often recommend food first, then suggest supplementing as a backup plan to fill in the gaps. You're missing out on the added benefits of the protein and probiotics in your yogurt if you take a calcium supplement instead of consuming dairy, for example.

Lastly, another benefit is the investment required. The cost of supplements can really add up over time, and we take them in addition to the foods and drinks we consume. If we get the nutrients we need from our food, we need not invest more money in a pill, too.

The Bottom Line

Since sardines and other tinned fish are an affordable and convenient source of omega-3 fats, and come with benefits from their other nutrients, the little fish might be an excellent alternative if you'd rather not pop a pill. Sardines, particularly tinned sardines, tend to be one of the most inexpensive fish you can buy.

Future randomized clinical trials are necessary to confirm this recommendation and to determine if eating sardines could be even better than taking EPA, DHA and ALA, the authors say. Supplementation can often provide higher doses of a nutrient compared to what's found in food. But for now, if any of these signs you might not be eating enough omega-3s hit home, it certainly can't hurt to try to integrate more dietary sources of omega-3s into your diet.

While sardines are stellar sources of calcium and iron in particular (and heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, of course), you can also get omega-3s from vegan omega-3 foods, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, edamame and kidney beans or through other omega-3-rich fish and seafood, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring, according to the NIH. As you plan your meals for the week, try our Lemon-Garlic Sardine Fettuccine, Spicy Sardine Linguine or consider sprinkling in some of our favorite 26 Healthy Dinners That Are Packed with Omega-3s.

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