[Editor's Note: Serious bodybuilders have long known that dietary fat intake doesn't make you fat. In fact, healthy fats are an indispensable source of energy, and are much less likely to be stored away as excess body fat than carbs. Of course, there is a hierarchy of dietary value when it comes to fats, and polyunsaturated Omega-3 fatty acids reign supreme in their importance to fitness-minded people. Omega-3s have been associated with a wide variety of beneficial health effects, and a superior Omega-3 supplement like ProSource's Omega-1250, derived from the highest-quality deep-sea cold-water fish oil sources, is an essential tool in the bodybuilder's tool kit. While many athletes have a general sense of the advantages conferred by Omega-3's (including support of cardiovascular health and antioxidant activity), they may not know that Omega-3's are highly active at the cellular level, facilitating the physiological processes that make enhanced performance and physique possible. This week, Mike Roussell, PhD is here to take an in-depth look at how Omega-3's can make you a better, more successful athlete. Take it away Dr. Mike!]
It appears that the nutritional assault on dietary fat is finally coming to an end. A better understanding has been reached on the potentially beneficial role fat intake can play in achieving and maintaining health. But what about performance? Can consuming fat help an athlete achieve peak performance? Yes. However, special attention must be paid to the source and composition of fats being taken in. While some fats, like those found in olive oil, generally serve just as an energy source, other fats like EPA (eicosapentaeonic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) that are found in fish oil can support a number of physiological processes invaluable to athletes.
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First, a little chemistry refresher: Fats can either be completely saturated, meaning there are no double bonds between carbons in their long carbon chain, or they can be unsaturated, meaning there is one or more double bonds present in their carbon chain. Unsaturated fats can be categorized as monounsaturated (one double bond) or polyunsaturated (two or more double bonds). Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can be further broken down into Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. The differences between these two subtypes of PUFAs are related to where the double bonds are located.
EPA and DHA are both Omega-3 fatty acids with very long carbon chains. EPA and DHA are important fatty acids in the body that can be synthesized from the shorter omega-3 fat ALA (found in flax, chia, walnuts, etc). Unfortunately this conversion process is far from efficient which makes getting EPA and DHA from your diet via fish oil supplements or fatty fish like salmon a priority.
Why is fish oil such a great source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA? Interestingly, fish in many ways is the middleman in the whole process. The EPA and DHA originate in algae, which comprise the bulk of a fish's diet. The algae are consumed and the fatty acids are then concentrated in the body tissues of the fish that we eventually eat or use in the production of fish oil supplements. Fish doesn't even necessarily need to be consumed. Supplementation of EPA and DHA offers similar health benefits when fish consumption isn't practical. But could downing a few pills of specific fats every day help you look and perform better? The evidence says, "Yes!"
Omega-3's: Improving Health
The performance of a competitive or strength athlete should be built on top of a solid foundation of health and function. Consider a top of the line, high performance sports car with a deflated tire. Sure the vehicle can hit some high speeds, but it definitely won't handle very well, it won't go as fast as it should be able to, and it is probably at a higher risk for accident. Improving performance requires consistent training and recovery. Any underlying, sub-optimal health condition hinders this training-recovery cycle.
Lots of studies have been completed analyzing many different outcomes of consuming omega-3 fatty acids. More often than not, those studies use EPA and/or DHA compared to a non-omega-3 fatty acid and/or a placebo. Here are some of the discovered potential benefits omega-3 fatty acid intake can provide, primarily on cardiovascular-related health (1):
- Lower morbidity and mortality
- Decreased inflammation
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased blood flow
Sounds pretty good right? Just because you can't see a decrease in your blood pressure or improvements in your anti/pro inflammatory balance in the mirror doesn't mean that they aren't valuable in the pursuit of performance.
How do omega-3s impact cardiovascular health? Fats play a key role in forming the membranes of all the cells in the body. One of the most important cell types in the human body is the red blood cell, which is responsible for oxygen transport to all of the body's various tissues. Looking at the status of red blood cells can offer a valuable glimpse into the whole-body health status.
To analyze red blood cell status, the Omega-3 Index was created. The Omega-3 Index is a measure of the amount of EPA and DHA found incorporated into the membranes of red blood cells, relative to other fatty acids. A higher percentage of Omega-3's in RBC membranes has been connected to an improvement in variables associated with cardiovascular problems (2). A sufficient intake of omega-3s will help keep your ticker, ticking.
Omega-3 fatty acid consumption also looks to have an important and novel effect on the aging process. As cells need to replicate and DNA needs to be copied, a protective structure called the telomere, located on the end of the chromosome, is called into action. Every time a chromosome needs to be copied, it is also shortened, to prevent destruction of our precious DNA material, the protective telomeres are shortened instead. The more a cell (and its chromosomes) are replicated, the shorter the protective telomeres get and eventually the chromosomes themselves are cut short. Shortened chromosomes are associated with cell death, and that cell death is related to the aging process. A study looking at a large group of people over five years found an inverse relationship between blood levels of Omega-3's and the rate of telomere shortening, showing that there might be a life extension benefit of consuming adequate omega-3's (3). Who doesn't want to live longer?
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Hopefully by now the notion of "fat makes you fat" has been sufficiently obliterated to the extent that we can now discuss the impact consumption of particular fats can have on fat loss. Fortunately, the functional changes that occur when Omega-3's are taken in are beneficial for more than just cardiovascular function. Different components of metabolism are also improved when Omega-3's are consumed in adequate quantities, and potentially to an even greater degree when combined with exercise.
Omega-3s and Fat Loss
The potential mechanisms involved in the metabolic improvements resulting from Omega-3 intake are compelling. A paper from Brad Schoenfeld titled Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Novel Fat Burner highlights some of the mechanisms. First, Omega-3 fatty acids increase the fluidity of cell membranes, which might allow for a host of body composition benefits that include improved muscle protein synthesis, glycogen storage, and insulin sensitivity. Second, Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of precursors involved in storing fat. Third, Omega-3's can increase the activity of enzymes involved in obtaining energy from fat (i.e. fat burning) (4). Fat doesn't contract, so more often than not, the less fat an athlete can carry around, the better.
Omega-3's and Muscle Tissue Support
Fat isn't the only important tissue to consider when trying to optimize body composition for performance. Muscle tissue obviously plays a huge role in carrying out the demands of any sport and even everyday life. Protein gets plenty of praise when it comes to protein synthesis, but it turns out fatty acids like EPA and DHA need some love too.
A study done in older adults compared the effects of either corn oil or Omega-3 fatty acid consumption on protein synthesis rates after 8 weeks of supplementation. The rates of protein synthesis were measured during conditions that mimicked those after consuming a meal. The researchers found that only following supplementation of omega-3's were the protein synthesis rates elevated (5). While the subjects of this study were older adults, the potential of chronic, adequate intake of Omega-3's to improve protein synthesis rates on their own could be very important. Though this study did not look at Omega-3 intake in conjunction with resistance training, the combination could be very useful for athletes looking to add muscle mass and improve performance.
Omega-3's are beneficial on their own for improving function and performance, but what if they are combined with training?
Omega-3's and Training
An interesting study done in Australia compared the effects of either fish oil rich in Omega-3's or olive oil intake on endurance performance in cyclists following 8 weeks of training. The cyclists were required to do both a Peak VO2 test as well as a sustained exercise test where they were asked to remain at an intensity of 55% of their Peak VO2. What the researchers found after the supplementation and training over the 8 weeks were completed, was that the group given fish oil had reduced heart rates at equivalent workloads and reduced oxygen consumption at equivalent workloads (4). Basically your body can achieve the same level of performance without working as hard. A great athlete is typically efficient in what they do and Omega-3 supplementation can help you do just that.
Final Thoughts on Omega-3's
It is clear to see that increasing your Omega-3 intake has some impressive benefits for the physique athlete in terms of performance, fat loss potential, and general health improvements. While consuming Omega-3 rich fish is not a bad idea, if it is impractical, a good fish oil supplement can help optimize your intake of Omega-3's. A suggested dose is 1 gram of fish oil (which is generally 30% EPA/DHA) for every 20 pounds of bodyweight (4). Start supplementing to improve your performance and become the athlete you want to be.
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[Editor's Note: It is critical to remember that many commercially available Omega-3 supplements contain fatty acid content derived from inferior sources, in less than clinically indicated dosages, and at lower potencies. ProSource's Omega-1250 contains the unrivaled potencies of EPA and DHA, sourced from top-quality deep-sea cold-water fish oil, and standardized for 750mg of Omega-3 fatty acids (450mg of EPA, 300mg of DHA) per single softgel capsule. You simply can't find a more potent and bioavailable Omega-3 supplement than Omega-1250.]
1) Tiryaki-Sönmez, Gül, Brad Schoenfeld, and Serife Vatansever-Ozen. "Omega-3 fatty acids and exercise: a review of their combined effects on body composition and physical performance." Biomedical Human Kinetics 3.-1 (2011): 23-29. Print.
2) Harris, William S, and Clemens Von Schacky. "The Omega-3 Index: a new risk factor for death from coronary heart disease?." Preventive Medicine 39.1 (2004): 212-220. Print.
3) Gersh, B.J. "Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease." Yearbook of Medicine 2011 (2011): 357-358. Print.
4) Schoenfeld, Brad. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Novel Fat Burner." Strength and Conditioning Journal 26.3 (2004): 72. Print.
5) Smith, G. I., P. Atherton, D. N. Reeds, B. S. Mohammed, D. Rankin, M. J. Rennie, and B. Mittendorfer. "Dietary Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 93.2 (2011): 402-412. Print.
6) Peoples, Gregory E, Peter L McLennan, Peter R C Howe, and Herbert Groeller. "Fish Oil Reduces Heart Rate And Oxygen Consumption During Exercise." Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology 52.6 (2008): 540-547. Print.