As a keen and developing long-distance runner, one of the things I have been experimenting with for the last two months or so has been supplementing my diet with omega-3 fish oil capsules. If you believe the hype, these tablets are a veritable gift from God (or maybe that should be ‘gift from Cod’), boasting a whole array of health benefits. My own reasons for having a go with them were to see how they affect inflammation – in other words, whether fish oil can reduce muscle soreness after long runs – and also to see whether I could achieve extra body fat reduction, as discussed by Matt Fitzgerald in his excellent book ‘Racing Weight’.
In recent years there has been a huge amount of hype about food supplements (it is a multimillion dollar business after all!) with one particular product rising to the top, namely Omega 3. But what is its role in our bodies and do we really need to consume it in addition to our regular daily diet? Well, the first myth to bust is that most people consider the omega-3 fatty acid to be a single nutrient, whereas it is actually a group of essential fats, the most important of which are known as ALA, EPA, DHA and DPA (See the Jargobox). The health benefits of omega 3 were discovered when Western scientists studied the lifestyles of Arctic dwellers and found most had robust health thanks to a rich menu of fish and seals, the oils of which contained high levels of these essential fatty acids.
Many scientific studies have since been conducted, including the well-known ‘sisters-research’, and the firefighters study (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008, 88, 801-809), which examined among other things, the relationship between omega-3 and certain isolated human health factors. Empirical relationships were found to exist between heart and artery diseases, hair and nail health, problems of attention and concentration, depression, skin, digestive problems and more normal levels of omega-3.
EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid; DHA = docosahexaenoic acid
ALA = alpha-linoleic acid; DPA = docosapentaenoic acid
Learn more about these fatty acid components here.
Where Does Omega 3 Come From?
When I talk about ‘essential’ fatty acids it means they are required by the body, but that our bodies are unable to produce these important fats by themselves; so they need to be supplied by the foods we eat. And there are a number of sources of omega 3, both fish-derived and plant-derived, so that we can all get our daily requirements even if we don’t eat fish. Some of the best sources are:
|From fatty fish||From plant sources|
These are just the richest sources, but for a more detailed list of foods containing these fatty acids, you can read here.
One of the main problems with the Western diet, however, is that it is generally very low in omega-3. A recommended daily intake is between 1-2 grams of plant-based omega 3 per day, to which you can add between 0.5-0.8 grams of omega 3 fish oil. These kinds of quantities should be enough to provide all of the brain and heart health effects you’ll need. It translates into eating a meal with fatty fish twice a week.
The requirement suggested by Matt Fitzgerald for better vascular health and leaner body composition in endurance athletes is 2-3 grams per day of EPA and DHA (combined) and he advocates a daily fish oil supplement because we can’t all stomach eating oily fish every single day!
Another aspect to consider when increasing omega 3 fat intake in our diets is pollution; many people worry about heavy metal levels in wild oily fish, and also the possibility of other toxins such as dioxins and PCBs getting into their food. However, the health benefits of eating fish outweighs the very small risk of ingesting such toxins. In the West, foodstuffs are generally safe, but you might opt for an exclusively plant-based solution to getting your omega 3 fats.
One of the finest sources is sage plants (Marvalous), which are heavy metal-free, non-toxic, non-allergenic, and do not cause the digestive problems sometimes associated with flax seeds or fish. This vegetarian option provides ALA rather than the more useful EPA and DHA, but our bodies can convert ALA into these essential fats to a degree. The firefighters study I mentioned above showed that consumption of ALA produced good levels of EPA in blood plasma, and also good levels of DPA; however, conversion to DHA is not very high (between 0.5 and 9 percent), so in an ideal world it is always better to obtain some of your omega 3 from fish oils in order to get the DHA levels required.
Should I Get My Daily Dose Using A Fish Oil Supplement?
The connection between fish oil and omega-3 is a longstanding one. EPA and DHA are the essential fatty acids important to brain function and heart health, which were topped up for a long time by consuming vile-tasting cod liver oil. More recently, as people became more interested in nutrient supplements, an interest in vegetable sources of omega 3 acids developed. And the rapid increase in demand for this product shone a spotlight on some unpalatable facts, which hinted that pollution in some of the world’s oceans and depletion of fish stocks may interfere with the health benefits of omega 3.
A more sustainable way of taking these fatty acid supplements is provided by flax seeds, which although not providing a great level of DHA, will certainly have beneficial effects associated with other fats, namely EPA and DPA. Flax has been used for thousands of years by mankind for a variety of purposes. Flax oil contains ALA but is oxidized easily, so if you consume flax seeds, make sure you grind them first and remember to make sure you consume quickly to prevent the oil going rancid due to oxidation in air. Soft gels containing flax seed oil are perhaps a better supplement if you want something a little more convenient.
A final note about omega 3 supplementation, however you go about it (diet, fish oil or flax seed oil): our modern lifestyles mean we generally consume a huge quantity of processed garbage, which contains omega 6. We get tons of this other type of fatty acid, so if you are buying soft tabs or capsules, make sure you opt for the ones which contain just omega 3, and not the mixed ones which also have omega 6 or 9.
Despite the fact that our ancestors got a nice mix of roughly 1:1 omega 6 to omega 3, we are more likely these days to be ingesting a 15:1 ratio. This is a contributing factor to deteriorating health in the modern world, especially in the West. So your (and my) aim should be to bring that ratio back to around 1:1 by cutting down on bad processed foods and fats, and increasing wherever possible the amount of fish you eat. And if necessary to supplement with fish or flax oil. For more general healthy information on this and other issues – visit FreshBeetle.
What About Sports Nutrition And Body Composition
As I explained in the introduction, my own reasons for taking fish oil supplements include improving body composition, and in particular reducing body fat percentage. There are studies which conclude that omega 3, at a dosage of 2-3 grams per day, can lead to fat loss – which is great if you are an endurance athlete carrying a bit too much lard! There is a great article discussing the fat loss benefits, functions and dosage requirements here. I particularly liked the ‘party tent’ analogy of a cell membrane.
Have I noticed any differences during my two months on these supplements? Well, no. However, I bought an over-the-counter high street brand which contains 180mg EPA and 120mg DHA per tab. Even though I take two of these “one-a-day” tablets per day, I’m still not really getting close to the recommended levels. I do feel a little sharper mentally though, but that’s entirely non-scientific in that I’m not measuring hydration levels, and concentration can vary depending on exercise and endorphin release and probably a whole host of other things. And I’ve also noticed my skin is a lot better, less dry than it used to be, so maybe that’s a real effect I’m benefitting from.
In any case, I’ve just ordered my next batch from Amazon, of the Ultra Omega-3 by Now (pictured above), which ups the ante to 500mg EPA and 250mg DHA – so two or three of those per day will give me a better idea about whether I’m going to increase fat-burning. It is interesting that some scientific research concluded that either exercising or omega-3 supplementation increased fat loss; but that the effects were not additive. In other words, taking the fish oil and also exercising did not lead to losing more fat than either of these interventions alone.
I’ll keep you posted in a future blog post about what kind of results I get, but it’s probably not a bad idea at all to try out a one-a-day omega 3 capsule just for maintaining general health, and see if you gain any benefits. If you do, drop a comment below and let us know if you feel any better for it.