Why we need omega 3's

There are many incredible benefits of getting the right amount of fish oil and the other essential fatty acids (EFAs) in your diet. The fish oil fats, EPA and DHA, can help fight stress, promote a healthy physique, and accelerate recovery from training. They are essential for basic wellness, but most people don’t realise two key elements to optimising fish oil intake:

  • As awesome as fish oil is, it needs to be consumed in the correct ratios with other fats. More is not better. And if you’re not reducing your intake of other more inflammatory fats, you may not reap the cool benefits of fish oil.

  • Second, it’s smart to think about dietary fat within the context of the other two macronutrients, protein and carbs, and your overall diet. Adding fish oil to a crappy diet or unhealthy lifestyle may help but it’s in no way a magic bullet that will solve your problems.

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#1: Fish Oil Can Help You Lose Body Fat

Fish oil can help you lose body fat for a number of reasons, some of which are well known, while others are just emerging. First, fish oil provides essential fats because it is made up of omega­3 fatty acids. Essential fats are those which the body can’t produce on its own—they must be eaten—and it must have them for optimal function.

Fish oil won’t turn into fat in the body. Instead, the body will favourably uses the fat from fish oil for several purposes, including to build the outside lipid (fat) layer that protects our cells. Any kind of fat can be used to do this—trans fats, omega­6 fats, whatever you eat—but your cells will function the best, and metabolism will be optimal if fish oil makes up a portion of the cell lipid layer because it improves the activity of insulin.

This allows for better insulin sensitivity, which is a principal factor in fat loss. If you have poor insulin sensitivity, you will have a very difficult time losing fat because an enzyme involved in fat storage called Lipoprotein Lipase will always be elevated. The other benefit of fish oil is that it is anti­inflammatory, which
will be explained in greater depth in #3.

You can see fish oil working in a recent study that gave healthy subjects 4 grams of fish oil or the same dose of safflower oil (an omega­6 fat) for 6 weeks. The participants who took the fish oil lost a small but significant amount of body fat and increased muscle mass—and they weren’t even exercising!

Of interest, the participants in this study had a decrease in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol after taking the fish oil. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that degrades muscle, leads to fat gain, and makes you feel stressed

#2: Fish Oil Can Help You Build Muscle

As mentioned in #1, because fish oil decreases cortisol it leads one to think that it may have an anabolic effect to promote muscle building. The happy news is that there is research to back this idea up. For instance, a study that gave middle-­age adults 4 grams of fish oil a day found that it increased protein synthesis, producing a significant increase in lean mass.

The mTOR pathway that produces muscle growth was enhanced by 30 percent, as was muscle cell membrane signaling—the same mechanism via which insulin health is improved also enhances muscle building. Muscle mass increased by 2 percent, however, due to the small study population, researchers didn’t measure changes in body composition.

#3: Fish Oil Will Decrease Inflammation, Enhancing Body Composition

Inflammation in the body is damaging for health, but it also significantly impacts your ability to lose body fat and build muscle.

Inflammation seems to be this word that has no meaning for the general population. People just don’t seem to understand that “inflammation” equals disease, illness, delayed recovery from injury, and obesity. Did you know that fat tissue actually produces inflammation on its own, progressively increasing the inflammatory status in the body?

Fish oil has powerful anti­inflammatory properties, which is a principal reason it helps you lose fat. First, we saw in the study mentioned in number #1 that the people who took 4 grams/day of fish oil had lower cortisol at the end of the study. Anytime cortisol is unnecessarily elevated it causes inflammation and has a protein degrading effect that causes muscle and lean tissue loss.

The anti­inflammatory evidence of fish oil goes further: It is not just chronic inflammation that fish oil can prevent. It also decreases the acute inflammatory response to intense exercise. A recent study had young athletes take 3 grams of fish oil for 7 days and then perform very intense eccentric exercise to failure.

Results showed that compared to a placebo group, the fish oil group had much lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers, less muscle swelling, and less soreness and pain in response to the workout. Researchers suggest the fish oil helped with the elimination of waste products produced in response to energy metabolism during exercise, enhancing the anabolic properties in muscle tissue.

What it all comes down to is that getting the optimal percentage of your dietary fat from fish oil will convey these anti­inflammatory benefits:

a) speed detoxification of stuff you don’t want in your body (waste products, inflammatory biomarkers), b) improve cellular health and the building of muscle,
c) decrease hormones that cause inflammation, and
d) help you be lean and feel better.

#4: Fish Oil Can Improve Insulin Sensitivity And Metabolism

Recall that fish oil improves insulin sensitivity because it gets incorporated into the cellular lipid layer, which allows the cell receptors to bind more easily with insulin. Once insulin is bound, its purpose is to shuttle glucose from dietary carbs into the muscles to be stored and used as energy later. If insulin can’t bind easily, it causes inflammation, and the overall result is that you get fat.

Insulin also plays a role in muscle building, which is the reason it is called an anabolic hormone. The good news is that by taking fish oil, insulin will improve the muscle building process and it helps to load nutrients into the muscle like creatine and carnitine that are essential for physical performance and fat burning.

An example of the effect of fish oil on insulin sensitivity and body composition is seen in a recent study of women with type 2 diabetes who took either 1.5 or 2.5 grams of fish oil a day. After 30 days, both groups decreased body fat and shrunk their waistlines, while having significantly improved insulin sensitivity.

Of interest in this study, the group on the low 1.5­gram dose experienced the greatest reduction in belly fat and improvement in insulin health, indicating that supplementation should be based on individual needs to pad omega­3 intake from the diet.

#5: The Right Ratio of Dietary Fat Will Support Health & Body Composition

Hopefully, you agree that fish oil is a smart and important addition to your diet. Here are some suggestions for getting more omega­3s into your diet:

• Get most of your omega­3s from EPA and DHA, with only a small intake of the third omega­3, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) that is provided by flax seed.

• The omega­6 fats are from plant rather than marine sources. They include seeds, nuts, soy, and vegetable oils—corn, soybean, canola, etc. A small amount of these fats are good for you and necessary for ideal health. But the average Western diet is VERY high in omega ­6 fats due to the overuse of vegetable oils and soy in processed foods. Ideally, you want a balanced intake of omega­6 to omega­3 fat, while avoiding isolated vegetable oils completely.

• Vegetable oils cause inflammation when you eat too much of them. The reason is that the body uses the same enzymes to convert the omega­3 and the omega­ 6 fats into a form that can be used by the body. Simply, if you eat too many omega ­6 fats—studies estimate the average Western diet provides a ratio between 16:1 and 50:1 of omega ­6 to omega ­3 fats—there won’t be enough enzymes available to convert the omega­ 3s.

• Researchers estimate that large reductions in omega­ 6 intake decrease our need for omega ­3’s dramatically —by 90 percent in some cases—because they won’t be fighting for enzymes and the omega­3s won’t be needed to counteract the inflammation caused by the overabundance of omega ­6 fat.

• Try a “whole diet” approach to get the complex nutrient and fat requirements for optimal body composition: Eat wild cold water fish, pasture raised, grass­fed beef, and wild meats.


+ References / further reading

Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., Mittendorfer, B. Dietary Omega­3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Increases the Rate of Muscle Protein Synthesis in Older Adults: a Randomized Controlled Trial. 2010. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 93(2), 402­412.

Ros, E., Mataix, J. Fatty Acid Composition of Nuts: Implications for Cardiovascular Health. British Journal of Nutrition. 2006. 96(Suppl 2), 29­35.

Wall, R., Ross, R., Fitzgerald, G., Stanton, C. Fatty Acids from Fish The Anti­Inflammatory Potential of Long­ Chain Omega­3 fatty Acids. Nutrition Review. 2010. 68(5), 280­289.

Mickleborough, Timothy D. Omega­3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Physical Performance Optimization. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Metabolism. 2013. 23, 83­96.

Goldberg, R., Katz, J. A meta­analysis of the analgesic effects of omega­3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain. Pain. 2007. 129(1­2):210­23.

Macaluso, F., et al. Do Fat Supplements Increase Physical Performance? Nutrients. 2013. 5, 509­524.

Nutrition adviceLiam Holmes