Sardines: The Most Underrated Food For Bodybuilders

Reviewed By :

As a Registered Dietitian, I’ve noticed that sardines are an underrated protein source, especially among bodybuilders who need more protein than the average person. Let’s see what makes sardines great for muscle-building.

Key Takeaways

  • Sardines are an excellent choice for bodybuilders seeking to vary their protein sources. In addition to being high in protein (22.6 grams per can), they are high in omega-3s, which help reduce inflammation and aid in muscle recovery.
  • Oil-based sardines are high in calories (191 per can), which makes them suitable for bulking when your caloric intake requirements are greater.
  • Sardines have 3.4 grams of creatine per 100 grams. Creatine is shown to improve high-intensity performance, recovery, and muscle growth.  At 3.4 grams of creatine, this is an adequate daily “maintenance dose” (research recommends 3-5 grams daily).

Sardines: Overview

Nutritional content of one can (3.75 oz or 92 g) of canned sardines in oil


Canned sardines are energy-dense. An average can (3.75 ounces or 92 grams) of sardines in oil provides 191 calories.

The higher energy density can be beneficial while bulking, as it allows you to consume more calories more easily and creates the necessary calorie surplus for muscle gain. 

However, this can be a double-edged sword while cutting because calories can add up quickly. 

Because of that, I recommend tracking portion sizes and logging them in an app (like MacroFactor) to stay within your calorie budget and continue to lose fat.


Sardines only have two macronutrients: protein and fat.

A 92-gram can has 22.6 grams of high-quality that provide all nine essential amino acids your body needs for muscle repair and growth.

For reference, this is almost as much protein as a scoop of protein powder, though the exact amount varies from brand to brand.

One can also provides ten grams of fats, the same as two teaspoons of olive oil. So, a can of sardines can be a good way to add some fats to your diet if you struggle to cover your needs.

That said, always look at the nutritional label, as the macronutrient profile can vary from brand to brand. The type of flavoring used (more on that below) also makes a difference.


These are some of the micronutrients found in sardines, with a brief look at how they can benefit you as a bodybuilder:

  • Vitamin B12 (340% of daily needs per can). It is essential in forming red blood cells, which are in charge of transporting oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. With more oxygen and nutrients, your muscles can function better, recover, and grow.
  • Vitamin D (29% of daily needs per can). Along with calcium, it plays an essential role in bone health. Good bone health means you’re less likely to get an injury.
  • Phosphorus (11% of daily needs per can). This is another mineral necessary for bone health. It also serves as a building block for other tissues (including muscle) and makes up around 1 to 1.4% of the fat-free mass in your body.

As noted by Registered Dietitian Elizabeth Shaw:

“Canned sardines are a nutritional powerhouse. Not only are they an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium (more than 20% of the Daily Value), but they’re also a good source of iron (more than 10% of the DV). Plus, canned sardines contain close to 100% of the recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids.”

Read my top picks: Best Fish For Bodybuilding.

4 Pros Of Eating Sardines For Bodybuilding

pros of eating sardines for bodybuilding

Rich in Creatine

Creatine is one of the best-studied and most popular compounds for athletic performance and muscle recovery.

Research has repeatedly shown that it can improve high-intensity performance (such as in weight training), boost recovery between workouts as well as from set to set, and lead to more muscle growth

It does so by lending phosphate molecules to support adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthesis. As a result, your muscles have more energy readily available to continue contracting at a high rate. 

The interesting thing is that sardines appear to be quite rich in creatine, with 100 grams providing 3.4 grams. For reference, the recommended daily supplementation dose of creatine is 3 to 5 grams.

High in Omega 3

Omega-3 fatty acids are classified as essential because your body cannot produce them, so you must get them through your diet. 

One of their functions is to help reduce inflammation, which, as mentioned above, can support muscle recovery

The recommended intake for the anti-inflammatory effects is at least 500 mg per day

Consuming these fatty acids also helps improve the balance between omega-3 and omega-6, with research suggesting that the ideal ratio is 4:1 or less (omega-6 to omega-3). 

However, the ratio for most people these days is closer to 20:1 in favor of omega-6, which means more inflammation, possibly impaired immunity, and a higher risk of health issues down the road.

One can of sardines covers this by providing exactly 500 mg of omega 3. This can help balance omega-3 and omega-6 to some degree.

Ready To Eat Protein

A can of tuna is often the go-to option for bodybuilders when they need some ready-to-eat protein. 

However, tuna has higher mercury levels, and the FDA recommends limiting your intake to two to three weekly servings.

Canned sardines are a fantastic alternative because they are low in mercury and protein-rich (almost as much as tuna). 

Plus, you may enjoy the taste better, especially if you’re tired of tuna.

As my colleague and certified nutrition coach Laura Semotiuk notes: 

“Sardines have the added benefit of being canned, so they don’t require refrigeration. This makes them a good option to have on hand at home or work if you’re in a pinch.”

Good For Bone Health

For those who don’t include many dairy options in their diet, sardines are an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D, which are crucial for bone health.

One cup of milk contains 300 mg of calcium, while one can of sardines has 350 mg, representing 35% of the recommended intake.

2 Cons of Eating Sardines For Bodybuilding

cons of eating sardines for bodybuilding

High In Calories

As discussed, a three-ounce can of sardines provides 191 calories, which can be beneficial while bulking but not ideal when cutting.

Since cutting involves having fewer calories, you may struggle to add sardines to your diet without going overboard and sabotaging your fat-loss efforts.

One way to decrease the caloric content of sardines is to drain the oil in the can and rinse them with cold water. 

This will cut the fat content in half, so you can easily save 60+ calories.

High In Sodium

Another drawback of sardines is they are high in sodium, with one three-ounce can providing 282 mg, more than 10% of the recommended daily intake of 2,300 mg.

A high sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular issues down the road. 

Plus, sodium can lead to water retention, make you appear ‘puffy,’ and mask scale weight loss during a cut.

For a food to be considered low in sodium, it should provide 140 mg or less per serving

Draining the oil from the can and rinsing your sardines before eating them will reduce the sodium content to a degree.

Can You Eat Sardines Before Workouts?

Sardines are not the best option before working out because they don’t have carbs, which are your body’s preferred energy source.

They provide only protein and fats, which aren’t an ideal immediate energy source. These nutrients, particularly fats, also take longer to digest and may lead to some stomach discomfort during your training.

So, what should you do?

Research recommends aiming for a gram of carbs per kilogram of body weight to fuel yourself before training. So, if you weigh 70 kilograms (154 lbs), aim for up to 70 grams of carbs. 

This means having foods like rice, quinoa, oatmeal, potatoes, rice cakes, and dried fruit a couple of hours before training to have enough time for digestion.

Can You Eat Sardines After Workouts?

Sardines are a decent post-workout food because they provide the protein your body needs to repair and grow muscle tissue.

Research recommends having 0.3 to 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight after training. For a 70-kilogram (154-lb) bodybuilder, that would be 21 to 35 grams of protein. A single can of sardines can cover your needs.

Also, the omega-3 content helps reduce inflammation and may promote better recovery.

That said, you also need carbs after training (roughly the same amount as protein) to replenish lost glycogen and support muscle recovery.

Since sardines lack carbs, pair them with rice, quinoa, or pasta for a balanced post-workout meal.

Don’t Like The Taste of Sardines? Here’s How To Eat Them 

What can you add to sardines?

Calorie-Free Options

Here is a list of the most common, low-calorie things you can add to sardines to make them even better: 

  • Mustard
  • Tomato sauce
  • Hot sauce
  • Lemon juice
  • White wine or rice wine vinegar
  • Sauteed with garlic

Fat-Based Options

If you want to make sardines creamier, add one of the following foods. However, keep in mind that they are higher in fats and calories.

  • Mayonnaise
  • Aioli
  • Avocado
  • Cream cheese

Frequently Asked Questions 

Are Sardines Good For Muscle Growth?

Sardines are good for muscle growth because they provide high-quality protein, helping you get the recommended 1.6-2 grams per kilogram (0.7-1 gram per pound) for muscle growth.

Can You Eat Sardines Every Day For Bodybuilding?

No, eating them up to 3-4 times a week is best. Although they are a healthy protein option, they can contain a high amount of sodium, increasing the risk of high blood pressure.

Additionally, they have small amounts of mercury, so having them daily may not be ideal.

Are Sardines Better Than Tuna For Bodybuilding?

Yes, sardines are better than tuna for bodybuilding because they have less mercury, and you can rely on them as a protein source more often.

Sardines also have more nutrients than tuna (iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and selenium).

Are Sardines Better Than Salmon For Bodybuilding?

They are great protein options with healthy fats that help reduce inflammation. Both also have a variety of vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health and bodybuilding results. 

Remember that variety is vital in a healthy diet. Don’t focus on only one type of food, but try to have as many options as possible.

Other Fish For Bodybuilding


Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019 Aug 20;6:131. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00131. PMID: 31482093; PMCID: PMC6710320.

Reynolds E. Vitamin B12, folic acid, and the nervous system. Lancet Neurol. 2006 Nov;5(11):949-60. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(06)70598-1. PMID: 17052662.

Schnabel R, Lubos E, Messow CM, Sinning CR, Zeller T, Wild PS, Peetz D, Handy DE, Munzel T, Loscalzo J, Lackner KJ, Blankenberg S. Selenium supplementation improves antioxidant capacity in vitro and in vivo in patients with coronary artery disease The SElenium Therapy in Coronary Artery disease Patients (SETCAP) Study. Am Heart J. 2008 Dec;156(6):1201.e1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ahj.2008.09.004. PMID: 19033020; PMCID: PMC3624729.

Huang Z, Rose AH, Hoffmann PR. The role of selenium in inflammation and immunity: from molecular mechanisms to therapeutic opportunities. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 Apr 1;16(7):705-43. doi: 10.1089/ars.2011.4145. Epub 2012 Jan 9. PMID: 21955027; PMCID: PMC3277928.

Khazai N, Judd SE, Tangpricha V. Calcium and vitamin D: skeletal and extraskeletal health. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2008 Apr;10(2):110-7. doi: 10.1007/s11926-008-0020-y. PMID: 18460265; PMCID: PMC2669834.

Tai V, Leung W, Grey A, Reid IR, Bolland MJ. Calcium intake and bone mineral density: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2015 Sep 29;351:h4183. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h4183. PMID: 26420598; PMCID: PMC4784773.

Kuo IY, Ehrlich BE. Signaling in muscle contraction. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2015 Feb 2;7(2):a006023. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a006023. PMID: 25646377; PMCID: PMC4315934.

Cooper R, Naclerio F, Allgrove J, Jimenez A. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Jul 20;9(1):33. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-33. PMID: 22817979; PMCID: PMC3407788.

Jiaming, Y., & Rahimi, M. H. (2021). Creatine supplementation effect on recovery following exercise-induced muscle damage: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Food Biochemistry, 45, e13916.

Saito S, Cao DY, Okuno A, Li X, Peng Z, Kelel M, Tsuji NM. Creatine supplementation enhances immunological function of neutrophils by increasing cellular adenosine triphosphate. Biosci Microbiota Food Health. 2022;41(4):185-194. doi: 10.12938/bmfh.2022-018. Epub 2022 Jun 17. PMID: 36258765; PMCID: PMC9533032.

Wu SH, Chen KL, Hsu C, Chen HC, Chen JY, Yu SY, Shiu YJ. Creatine Supplementation for Muscle Growth: A Scoping Review of Randomized Clinical Trials from 2012 to 2021. Nutrients. 2022 Mar 16;14(6):1255. doi: 10.3390/nu14061255. PMID: 35334912; PMCID: PMC8949037.

Naderi A, de Oliveira EP, Ziegenfuss TN, Willems MT. Timing, Optimal Dose and Intake Duration of Dietary Supplements with Evidence-Based Use in Sports Nutrition. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2016 Dec 31;20(4):1-12. doi: 10.20463/jenb.2016.0031. PMID: 28150472; PMCID: PMC5545206.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19. PMID: 21784145; PMCID: PMC3191260.

Kyriakidou Y, Wood C, Ferrier C, Dolci A, Elliott B. The effect of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on exercise-induced muscle damage. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021 Jan 13;18(1):9. doi: 10.1186/s12970-020-00405-1. PMID: 33441158; PMCID: PMC7807509.

EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion related to the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). EFSA Journal 2012; 10(7):2815. [48 pp.] doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2815.

DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe J. The Importance of Maintaining a Low Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio for Reducing the Risk of Autoimmune Diseases, Asthma, and Allergies. Mo Med. 2021 Sep-Oct;118(5):453-459. PMID: 34658440; PMCID: PMC8504498.

Simopoulos, A. P. (2006). Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 60(9), 502-507.

Chen L, Deng H, Cui H, Fang J, Zuo Z, Deng J, Li Y, Wang X, Zhao L. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget. 2017 Dec 14;9(6):7204-7218. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.23208. PMID: 29467962; PMCID: PMC5805548.

Pahwa R, Goyal A, Jialal I. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2023 Aug 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:

Kyle, J. H., & Ghani, N. (1983). Mercury concentrations in canned and fresh fish and its accumulation in a population of Port Moresby residents. Science of The Total Environment, 26(2), 157-162.

Cashman KD. Calcium intake, calcium bioavailability and bone health. Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S169-77. doi: 10.1079/BJNBJN/2002534. PMID: 12088515.

Laird E, Ward M, McSorley E, Strain JJ, Wallace J. Vitamin D and bone health: potential mechanisms. Nutrients. 2010 Jul;2(7):693-724. doi: 10.3390/nu2070693. Epub 2010 Jul 5. PMID: 22254049; PMCID: PMC3257679.

Patel Y, Joseph J. Sodium Intake and Heart Failure. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Dec 13;21(24):9474. doi: 10.3390/ijms21249474. PMID: 33322108; PMCID: PMC7763082.

Mata F, Valenzuela PL, Gimenez J, Tur C, Ferreria D, Domínguez R, Sanchez-Oliver AJ, Martínez Sanz JM. Carbohydrate Availability and Physical Performance: Physiological Overview and Practical Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019 May 16;11(5):1084. doi: 10.3390/nu11051084. PMID: 31100798; PMCID: PMC6566225.

Kerksick C, Harvey T, Stout J, Campbell B, Wilborn C, Kreider R, Kalman D, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, Ivy JL, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Oct 3;5:17. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-5-17. Erratum in: J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;5:18. PMID: 18834505; PMCID: PMC2575187.

Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 7;10(2):180. doi: 10.3390/nu10020180. PMID: 29414855; PMCID: PMC5852756.

About The Author

Brenda Peralta

Brenda Peralta is a Registered Dietitian and certified sports nutritionist.  In addition to being an author for, she fact checks the hundreds of articles published across the website to ensure accuracy and consistency of information.

Why Trust Our Content

FeastGood logo

On Staff at, we have Registered Dietitians, coaches with PhDs in Human Nutrition, and internationally ranked athletes who contribute to our editorial process. This includes research, writing, editing, fact-checking, and product testing/reviews. At a bare minimum, all authors must be certified nutrition coaches by either the National Academy of Sports Medicine, International Sport Sciences Association, or Precision Nutrition. Learn more about our team here.

Have a Question?

If you have any questions or feedback about what you’ve read, you can reach out to us at We respond to every email within 1 business day.