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The Power of Omega Fats

Author:Britt Maughan R.D.
692   662 
omega fats

Fats in general have received some bad press over the years but it’s become clear that healthy fats both saturated and unsaturated (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are important to your health and performance. The unhealthy fats to stay away from are trans fats like margarine and partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils in order to make them solid at room temperature and increase their shelf life. These are typically found in processed foods like baked and fried goods.

Fats play a critical role in overall health and well being, and are especially important for the athlete when it comes to achieving optimal performance and aiding in faster recovery. Healthy fats can be incorporated into your diet by including food such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and coconut oil. Essential fatty acids (read more below) should also be consumed daily through both diet and supplementation. 

Benefits
Help support the immune system
Help reduce inflammation
Promotes cardiovascular health
Promotes joint health
Promotes healthy brain function
Promotes healthy hormone production
Promotes healthy skin

Essential Fatty Acids
The polyunsaturated omega fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid - ALA) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid - LA) are considered Essential Fatty Acids. That is, our bodies need them to maintain good health but can’t make them. In other words, our body can’t synthesize them so we must get them from our diet. As essential nutrients, they are needed for proper biological function rather than as a fuel source. See below for a comparison chart of our products that contain these fats. Read on for more information on why they are important for athletes.

Fish Oil Comparison Chart

Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The longer chain forms of omega-3 are found mostly in animals and they are eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA) and are highly unsaturated. The best sources are found in fish, shellfish and krill. DHA is the primary structural component of your brain and retina, and EPA is its precursor. You can also find plant based omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Foods high in ALA include flaxseed oil, walnuts and soybean oil. 

DHA and EPA are synthesized from ALA but the conversion is much lower than the direct absorption of EPA and DHA directly from food or as a supplement. The conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA occurs using the enzyme delta 6 desaturase. Elevated insulin levels (common in the US population) limit this enzyme further reducing the ability of converting ALA to DHA and EPA. For this reason, supplementation with animal based EPA and DHA is generally recommended for good health and athletic performance.

Science continues to uncover a growing list of health benefits from a diet high in DHA and EPA acids. This list includes: stronger bones, improved mood regulation, protecting your tissues and organs from inflammation, brain and eye development in babies, reduced risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, prevention of vascular complications from type 2 diabetes, prevention of postpartum depression, prevention of premature birth, combating against cancer, and reducing symptoms of some autoimmune diseases. You can see that this is quite a big list of benefits – and from the athlete’s perspective, the stronger bones and anti-inflammatory benefits are huge in helping improve performance and recovery. (1)

Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Linoleic acid (Omega 6 Fatty Acid) is commonly found in vegetable oils like Safflower and Grape seed oil. Seed oils are the richest sources of α-linolenic acid (ALA) notably those of rapeseed (canola), soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed (linseed oil), perilla, chia, and hemp. These fats play a crucial role in brain function, help stimulate skin and hair growth, help maintain bone health, regulate metabolism and maintain the reproductive system. 

While this is an essential fatty acid, it’s important to note that the diet should contain a healthy balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Elevated intake of omega-6 fatty acids can actually promote inflammation. The typical American diet tends to contain 14-25 times more omega 6-fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. In short, supplementation is rarely needed because the diet is naturally rich in this type of fat (unless you are increasing intake to address a specific condition such as eczema, arthritis, or diabetes). (2)

Bottom Line
Fish oil is critical to good health and is necessary to implement in order to get effective amounts. Everyone can benefit from taking a fish oil supplement daily, with benefits including reduced inflammation, improved immune system, joint health and cardiovascular health. For the athlete, added stress from training and competition requires additional support to aid in recovery and overall performance. We recommend a daily intake of 3-6 grams of fish oil a day.

If you're a little nerdy like us, read on for more information regarding ratios, sources, effective doses and how to read labels.

Ratios
There should be a balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The ratio should be in the range of 2:1 to 4:1 (omega-6 to omega-3), while some recommendations will go to an even lower ratio at 1:1. (2) As stated above, the typical American diet is high omega-6 fatty acids and quickly throws this ratio out of whack, leading most people to consume a diet with a ratio of 20:1 – 45:1 (omega-6 to omega-3). This has a negative effect on the body and actually contributes to an inflammatory response rather than inhibiting it (1). 

Some signs of a high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids include brittle nails, cracked skin on heals or fingertips, problems learning, poor attention span, allergies, dry eyes, dandruff, dry and flaky skin, lowered immunity and frequent infections and overall fatigue. It’s a great test to see if you can lower your omega-6 to the right balance and see if any of these signs/symptoms go away. (1)

Ways to achieve a better balance is to simply limit or reduce your intake of vegetable oils (the highest source of omega-6 fatty acids in most diets), and increase your supplementation of a high quality source of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Sources & Effective Dosing

Fish, fish oils and marine sources offer the best sources of EPA and DHA. While eating a diet rich in fish will help increase your intake of EPA and DHA, it generally will not be enough to be effective, or combat the ratio of omega-6 acids in your diet. You’d have to eat several servings of fish a day to achieve the same levels of EPA and DHA you can get from a quality supplement. It’s also a sad truth that our fish supply has become contaminated over time with a variety of dangerous toxins such as mercury. If you tried to eat enough fish to get an effective dose of omega-3 fats, you’d run the risk of introducing a large amount of these toxins into your system. With that being said, supplementation is highly recommended as the fish oils used have been purified.

The daily intake of fish oil can vary depending on the goals trying to be achieved. For the general population, the American Heart Association recommends an intake of 1g per day. For an athlete looking to improve performance and decrease soreness and inflammation, a 6g-dose spread throughout the day is effective (3). You need minimally 3g to be effective, and an athlete requires more due to added stress from training and competition (hence the 6g recommendation). To give you some perspective, a 3oz serving of Wild Alaskan Salmon offers about 1.564g of omega-3 fatty acids - the breakdown is EPA (411mg) and DHA (1429mg). (4) Therefore, you’d have to eat about 6oz of salmon a day to get 3g of omega-3 fatty acids.

Labels
When it comes to reading labels and looking at supplementation, you need to look for the following: omega-3 source (is it actually from fish, krill or shellfish), breakdown of EPA and DHA, and how many servings yield the effective dose you are looking to take. The ingredients should list the food source or plant source of the omega-3 fatty acid. As discussed, the most effective omega-3 is from fish, fish oil or marine sources. Examples of fish sources could be herring, sardines, and anchovies (or a mixture of all three). 

Then look further down the label and look for the breakdown of EPA and DHA fats. This is key – for example, some supplements will list the ‘’fat’’ content as 1000mg, but if you look at the EPA it says 200mg of EPA and 180mg of DHA, which only adds up to 380mg. The other 620mg is any number of inactive fats. If your goal is to take 3g of EPA+DHA per day, you need to see the EPA and DHA add up to 3g on the label. This is where the serving size comes in. In order to get your 3g of EPA and DHA, how many capsules will you need to take? Some supplements offer such a small amount of EPA and DHA, you’d have to take multiple servings to equal the effective amount (i.e. if your supplement lists 100mg of EPA and 500mg of DHA for 2 capsules, you’d have to take 5 capsules to get 3g of omega-3). 

Sources
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/11/11/everything-you-need-to-know-about-fatty-acids.aspx
http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega6-fatty-acids
https://examine.com/supplements/fish-oil/
https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/report/html/table_g2_adda2.htm

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