why you should eat sardines…and how to avoid mercury in your fish

Posted on July 3rd, 2012

I love sardines. They’re good for cardiovascular health, joints, skin, memory, and energy levels. But also, they’re sustainable and low in mercury.

Endive boats, photography by Marija Ivkovic

In my I Quit Sugar Cookbook I feature the above recipe – my favourite endive boats. You can buy my cookbook by clicking on the button below.

I know a lot of you are confused about the mercury thing. I’ve recently been told I have really high levels of it in my system.  If you have auto-immune disease, it’s VERY important to check your heavy metal levels. I kind of think that heavy metals can cause AI, but they can also mean we are less able to process them when they do enter our system. Either way, it’s something we have to be mindful of.

I’ve now had every possible test done (blood, urine and hair mineral) and the results are the same – I’m hanging on to mercury. And lead. Not good. So avoiding high mercury fish is crucial. (What do I do about it? At this stage I’m not chelating…it will muddy the waters. Instead I’m trialling a course of glutathione recycler called Cellgevity made by Max International. Heavy metal toxicity affects our glutathione levels…which is what causes oxidative stress…which is the thing that makes you feel like crap when you have AI…so I’m figuring if I fix the symptoms, the cause will eventually dissipate. It’s a theory. And I’ll be reporting back in a few months.)

The What Fish is Sustainable issue is equally difficult to work out. I know I get confused when I go into a fish shop. So this post might help you make better choices. (A tinned tuna fan? Check out my post on the best brands to buy here)

Some things to know about mercury in fish

Once mercury enters water, bacteria absorb it, and convert it to methyl mercury. This is important to note, because humans absorb methyl mercury easily, and are especially vulnerable to it’s effects.

This methyl mercury then works it’s way up the (sea)food chain. Instead of dissolving or breaking down, mercury accumulates. Predatory fish such as large tuna, swordfish, shark and mackerel can have mercury concentrations in their bodies that are 10,000 times higher than those of their surrounding habitat.

Humans risk ingesting dangerous levels of mercury when they eat contaminated fish. Since mercury is odorless, invisible, and accumulated in the meat of the fish, it’s not easy to detect and can’t be avoided by trimming off the skin or other parts. Once it’s in the human body, mercury acts as a neurotoxin – interfering with the brain and nervous system.

What to eat

Below is a list of the healthiest (and still sustainable) fish to eat. You might like to cut it out and keep in your wallet – it’s designed for it! You can find the full card here.

While you’re there, is farmed salmon safe?

Farmed salmon may also contain PCB’s, chemicals with serious long-term health effects.

How do I know if it’s sustainable?

Check out this canned tuna guide.

Or check out AMCS’s sustainable guide .

Another cool thing

Check out NRDC’s Mercury Calculator.

Hope this helps…let me know your thoughts on mercury…I need to learn more!

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  • Elly

    Hi Sarah, thanks for an important post! I’m a huge fan of sardines as well – I like to buy a bunch of fresh sardines, I gut them myself, drizzle with olive oil, lemon juice, lemon slices, oregano, bit of sea salt and pepper then bake in the oven. Serve with fresh crusty bread, grilled zucchini and a big salad (and maybe a glass of crisp white wine!) Simple and delicious!


  • Jan

    It would be great to have an Australian version of this list.


  • http://fizzleout.com.au jazziefizzle

    That is an interesting result with the high mercury – have you eaten a lot of large fish in the past or do you have metal (amalgam) fillings in your teeth?

    My mum recently had hers all removed by a holistic dentist (you have to use extra protection to avoid the mercury ending up back in your body) and she also has high copper so is now doing infrared saunas to detox from the heavy metals (apparently that will help).

    Good luck and I hope the problem rectifies itself!


  • stephanie elise

    My thoughts on mercury: if your adrenals are about to call it quits (as mine currently are), you’ll hang on to all heavy metals & pick them up almost ‘outta nowhere’. Additionally, I find that Mercury toxicity = weak adrenals, so its kind of a merry-go-round minus the ‘merry’.

    Since selenium is crucial in detoxifying Hg, there is the theory that high selenium, low mercury fish are your best bet for avoiding further absorption. But since selenium can be difficult to absorb, I like to supplement.

    Take care,


  • Karen

    Thanks for this Sarah, really useful. Can anyone recommend a good brand of tinned sardines that are filleted? I love the taste but I’m squeamish about all the bones…


  • Jane

    Thanks for the info! My son with autism takes Max, and so do I but not as much. Cilantro is great for getting heavy metals out of your system, too. So is alkaline high pH water. Mercury poisons can come from so many things!


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Can you tell a difference in your son since he’s been on Max?


    Jane Roe Reply:

    The same time I started giving my son with ASD the max, I also changed his diet and been better at reading labels trying to stay away from all the junk & additives in foods and yes, I’ve seen a nice change in him this past year.


  • tracy

    Hi; yes ditto on the Australian version – what about fish such as flathead, whiting? At a guess I think a lot of the fish on the list just aren’t available to us fresh; and isn’t it best for us generally to veer away from as much processed food as possible?


  • http://healthywholeholly.wordpress.com/ Holly McBride

    How i love a good tinned sardine…but then when I started eating them ALL the TIME, I had to start considering that the tins are lined with BPA….not so good when you have hormonal problems such as PCOS.

    I have managed to locate ‘Wild Planet’ and ‘Crown Prince’ brands that do not line there tins in BPA. This allow me a little ‘piece of mind’ when I devour a few tins a week.

    As an aside, the Wild Planet Sardines in Marina Sauce is a little bit scrumptious mashed with avocado….


  • Liz

    How do you know what sort of mackerel the tinned versions are?


  • vanessa

    I wish it was easier to get Wild Salmon, does anyone who lives in Melbourne in Eastern Suburbs know of any places that sell Wild Salmon?


    Dyane C. Reply:

    Try Aldi, they sell Alaska Wild Red Salmon for $4-5 a can. Tastes great with lemon juice and roasted red peppers and cilantro.


  • Dyane C.

    I buy tinned Wild Pacicfic Red Salmon from Aldi (but I don’t think the cans are BPA free). The can itself says Alaska Salmon, and it tastes really great — I love it since I was born and raised in Alaska. However, how do I know if it’s been farmed with PCB’s?


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  • http://krismakes.wordpress.com Kris

    I agree with the person who said an aussie version of the chart would be great, trying to hunt one down but not finding one!


  • Claire

    Hi I think this is really important but a bit concerned about the sustainability of some of the fish listed here. For example, monkfish being one of the worst as they use bottom dredgers to catch it that are destroying the ecosystems of sea beds. Similarly shark, snapper, skate and others are all on the fish to avoid list. As you mentioned, it gets really complicated for people but please please check which fish to eat too as some are dangerously close to extinction.


  • Daniela

    I have been taking a smilar thing to Max but not as expensive.. MSM! I take 6 tsp per day and this is to help with energy levels and joints, skin and hair. I have been diagnosed with zero levels of Iron in my blood, so therefore can only conclude that the MSM has kept me going for the last 6 months.


  • Ina

    It’s not an AI disease (at least as far as I know), but I’ve been struggling with CFS/ME for the past 10 months. Fortunately I’m already doing much better again by now and I’m pretty sure that it was the thorough mercury chelation that has saved me eventually.

    I can’t say anything about MAX as I’ve never tried it (never heard of it before reading about it here in the comments, actually). For mercury chelation, I’ve taken 500 mg DMSA capsules once or bi-weekly as recommended by my naturopath and this is what truly has helped me the most of all the detox therapies I’ve tried. (Not that I’ve tried all of them, though, and vitamins, especially of the B and C kind, and anti-oxidants have helped a lot, too.)

    I know that glutathione (or NAC) as well as alpha lipoid acid (ALA) are known for their great detoxing capability, but I’m not sure if taking glutathione without an additional chelator wouldn’t be causing more ‘muddy water’ than taking a chelator in general if your cellular mercury levels are very high.
    I’v tried taking solely ALA some months ago (and also thought about taking glutathione/NAC, as that’s what my conventional doctors suggested). Not a good idea – I got the worst migraine-like headaches, felt sick and just like a very old woman, and even got a bout of depression that lasted several days. ALA does indeed seem to detox the cells very well (also in the brain) but it doesn’t chelate that much as in grasping the mercury and guiding it safely out of the body. When taking ALA together with DMSA I was fine, save for a light headache, some muscle pain and tiredness. But I suppose that detoxing heavy metals is tough on your body no matter what you do.

    Cilantro (fresh or as an extract) is said to detox the (brain) cells well, too, but you’d also need something else with it to catch the mercury and get it out of the body. According to the Klinghardt protocol, that’s chlorella and wild garlic. But I’m not sure if this is enough. I tried this protocol before and got the worst reactions after adding the cilantro, similar to taking just ALA. (Taking the chlorella and wild garlic was great for my health, though.)

    Hope this helped a little. There definitely needs to be much more research on the long-term effects on heavy metals in the body – and how to get rid of them again.

    Have fun traveling Europe!
    x Ina


  • Ina

    Regarding heavy metals, a no sugar diet and a possible yeast infection:
    Yeast (Candida) is starved off by not eating sugar/carbs. It’s also said to absorb heavy metals very well (actually, I’ve heard about yeast infections being a typical symptom of a chronic heavy metal toxication). This means that any initial worsening after going sugar-free could be the yeast dying off and setting free all the the stored-away heavy metals (taking chlorella or another binding agent should prevent reabsorption).
    What’s making things a little complicated (at least for me right now) is that DMSA is said to feed yeast in the gut, so you might also have to worry about yeast infections when taking DMSA orally. But the IQS diet is definitely helping with that :)

    By the way: If by any chance you get to Berlin on your world tour, Sarah, there’s a Paleo restaurant in Neukölln you might like: http://www.facebook.com/pages/SAUVAGE/184529044927809 I haven’t been there yet but it looks promising. (More info: http://glutenfreiberlin.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/restaurant-review-sauvage/)

    x Ina


  • http://www.kristinemiles.com Kristine

    Interesting what Stephanie said about selenium being necessary to detox mercury, given selenium is super important for thyroid health too. I agree with MSM and coriander helping with heavy metal detox, and Sarah, you may want to look into zeolites if you haven’t already. Good luck with it :)


  • http://www.sassybites.com.au Sally Milford

    FYI the AMCS sustainable seafood ap for your iPhone is free and really easy to use. It also has recently added a ‘Greenpeace’s Canned Tuna Guide’.



  • Stephanie

    Sarah, you should take colloidal silver , it attracts all the heavy metals in your system and help your body to expel them. Very good for any illness or injury also.


  • Laura

    This might be a simple one but have you watched the Food Matters and Hungry for Change movies?
    In Hungry for change they claim that eating lots of coriander/cilantro cleanses your body of heavy metals such as murcury. Also lots of sauna/hot yoga/sweaty exercise to transport the murcury which resides in lipophillic fat cells to become more water soluble so transporter cells can move it through the body.
    Ive never had mine tested but I will now!


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  • Melissa

    I wanted to like sardines. I bought “Cape Le Grande” brand from Western Australia – but they are loaded with bones :( I tried cooking them in a tomato stew (hoping the acidity would break down the bones!) no such luck………. so disappointed. My son and I could feel sardine bones stuck in our throat – not very nice.
    I’ve heard sardine bones break down and are fine to eat – but trust me you couldn’t eat these!!!!


  • Melissa

    I have pcos too. But metal cans are still not a good option – even bpa free


  • jamesallegro

    How often per week or per month can you eat fish that is in the least mercury category?


  • Tara

    Sarah, you might benefit from doing some research on sardines and arsenic contamination. Mercury is not the only heavy metal to be concerned about in our seafood. Sardines are high in arsenic as are other types of seafood listed as low in mercury. If you are only watching mercury levels you can run into problems with other heavy metals.


  • target2009

    No discussion of Mercury would be complete without considering dental amalgams probiotics and Selenium and other minerals.

    Mercury Amalgam fillings are a significant source of chronic Mercury exposure. It is now known that they release Mercury on chewing and in the presence of other dental metals like copper gold and nickel

    Probiotics provide a Mechanism which allows the body to chelate and remove significant amounts of Mercury ingested through the diet. Rat studies have shown the rats with sterile guts absorb significantly more mercury than those with healthy gut flora.

    Selenium is know to bind to Mercury allowing it to be harmlessly excreted from the body. This is one reason why people are not poisoned by the levels of Mercury present in some fish. The selenium is what protects the fish from the Mercury they ingest.

    If this was not the case the fish would be dead long before we could eat them. Mercury is a potent nerve poison and fish nervous tissue is similar to our own..

    It is also important to have adequate trace minerals as heavy metals can mimic certain minerals and be absorbed in place of them.

    A pretty good article, and I too love Sardines.


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  • Stephanie

    the bones are an excellent calcium source. Just gobble them up. Its a fabulous example of a whole food :-)


  • Jo

    Hi there, I am wondering how long you have been on the cellgevity and if it is helping with the side effects of metal detoxing. I am using an infra red sauna daily to try to bring my levels down. I find the DMSA chelation tablets give me an immediate migraine and make me feel sick. I have decided to just do the infra red sauna for awhile to see if I can get the levels down but am wondering about supporting with cellgevity? Thanks


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