Quite a hot topic for a while has been the use and benefits of omega 3’s. It is used both as a supplement as well as a selling point for various food items. Omega 3’s are a natural type of polyunsaturated fats that may have benefits to our health and athletic performance but what exactly does that mean?
As discussed in an earlier post, all types of oil or fats are classified by their degree of saturation. This means how many bonds are single bonds in comparison to how many are double bonds. Polyunsaturated fats have many double bonds and are on the opposite end of the scale to saturated fats which have none. Unsaturated fats are more vulnerable to harmful damage (oxidation) but there is evidence that they may infer health benefits in certain situations and dosages.
Omega 3 fats are one such fat. The name is derived from the fact that the first double bond occurs at the third carbon from the omega side (methyl end). They cannot be synthesized by the body and are vital for normal functions to occur, thus they are also termed essential fatty acids.
Omega 3’s are found naturally in fish, flaxseed, canola, krill and algae. The active forms of omega 3’s are most concentrated in the oils of fish, these being DHA and EPA. It is these two omega 3 fats that have the health benefits I will discuss. Plant oils provide another omega 3, ALA, that requires metabolism to form one of the other two active forms. This results in less significant health benefits.
The history of the benefits of omega 3’s dates back to the mid 1970s when researchers noted the extremely low incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and artherosclerosis in the Inuit people. The connection to a diet high in oily fish was made. This has resulted in much interest and research into the area since. There has been both positive and inconclusive research in the area and currently the use of omega 3’s is suggested to be supportive of improved cardiovascular health, but not responsible for it. Omega 3’s are crucial for normal development, may improve fluidity of membranes thus preventing hardening of arteries (artherosclerosis), as well as reduce inflammation associated with many adverse health events. Omega 3’s are not anti-inflammatory as they are often described. Fats provide the backbone of all the little soldiers that your body produces to fight off infection and disease, this is the inflammatory response. Omega 3 fats result in a smaller inflammatory response without preventing it which is the primary benefit.
There is also suggestion that the ratio of intake of omega 6’s to omega 3’s is an important factor affecting health outcomes. Omega 6 fats are found in plant oils and are more inflammatory than those of the omega 3’s. The general western diet is high in plant oils that raise this ratio to 20-30:1. The ideal ratio may be closer to 3:1! Choosing a diet high in fish, reducing intake of refined plant oils and even choosing grass fed animal products over grain fed will improve this ratio.
There is evidence supporting the potential benefits of an increased intake of omega 3’s on reducing blood triglycerides, risks of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease and improving circulatory disorders. There is less evidence for assisting arthritic conditions but this is not yet rejected as a possibility. Omega 3’s are an important part of development in the young. There may be some benefit for quality of life in cancer patients too.
In athletes the literature is inconsistent. There are data that supports a reduction in muscle soreness after exercise, reduced inflammation and improved oxygen delivery. More research is needed but supplementation may be warranted based on general health goals as well as a common deficiency in dietary intake of these fats.
Most benefits of omega 3’s do however require sufficient intake. At least 2000mg/day up to 4000mg/day of active ingredient are needed to be beneficial. Products and supplements on the shelves often are nowhere near this. They may suggest these doses are possible on the label but closer inspection of the ingredients will show that the DHA and EPA component is negligible. Personally I choose The Real Thing Mega Omega Supreme which gives you 1400mg per serving of DHA and EPA. My suggestion is to look for something in this range of dosage. It should be a fish oil based supplement, which unfortunately often comes with the side effect of that salmon breath reflux. Do yourself a favour and take it before you go to bed rather than put up with the taste all day!
Good natural sources of omega 3’s are oily fish – salmon, sardines, pilchards, herring, tuna etc. Grass fed animal products are higher in omega 3’s than their grain fed counterparts. Flaxseed oil is high in ALA which does not have the same health benefits as EPA and DHA but a certain amount of it can be converted to these fats.
We should be trying to get in oily fish 2 to 3 times a week, choosing grass fed animal products, limiting refined plant oils and supplementing with a quality product where necessary.