If you’ve been overlooking sardines in favor of sexier sole or shrimp, it’s time to take a look at all the health benefits crammed into a can.

Sardines deliver calcium, protein and a particular type of fat that may protect you from heart disease, according to Mary Beth Sodus, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland Center for Weight Management and Wellness in Baltimore.

Although milk is more often touted as an excellent source of calcium, a 3.75-ounce tin of sardines has just as much of the bone-building and maintaining mineral.

When it comes to protein, red meat usually comes to mind. However, a tin of sardines holds its own, providing as much protein as the same weight lean hamburger patty and for about the same number of calories – 200 per serving.

But perhaps most exciting are the properties of the fat in sardines.

This diminutive fish (along with other fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, herring and lake trout) is high in omega-3 fatty acids, substances that balance the body’s cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Eating one to two servings of this type of fatty fish each week may reduce your risk of heart disease by a third (statistics vary depending on research studies), the dietitian says.

The health virtues of sardines are only part of the sales pitch. No doubt you’re also looking for foods that fit into your busy life. The little fish can take another bow.

“Sardines are an economical and convenient way to add protein to your meals,” says Sodus.

You’ll find canned sardines in a variety of forms. For optimal nutrition with the fewest calories Sodus recommends bone-in water-pack sardines.

“If you buy oil-packed sardines you’ll get excess calories from the oil. Eating sardines packed in mustard or tomato sauce will be less caloric [or you can drain off the oil].”

Add this flavorful fish to a green salad or platter of leftover cooked vegetables and you’ve got an almost instant meal.

Sardine and Green Bean Salad

8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces

1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/8 teaspoon pepper or to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 (3.75-ounce) can sardines, packed in oil, drained

1 tablespoon chopped walnuts

1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

Place green beans in steamer over boiling water. Steam for 10 minutes or until beans are bright green and crisp-tender. Remove and drain well. Cool to room temperature. Place in salad bowl. Combine mustard, vinegar, salt, pepper and oil in a cup. Stir well. Pour over green beans. Toss to mix. Arrange sardines over green beans. Sprinkle on walnuts and shallot. Makes 2 servings.

Each serving has: 220 calories; 20 grams of fat; 14 grams of protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 65.5 milligrams cholesterol; 515 milligrams sodium and 4 grams dietary fiber.

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