Healthspan August 15, 2018

We tend to hear about omega 3 fatty acids in relation to helping prevent cardiovascular disease but emerging evidence suggests the two key ones, EPA and DHA, also have a particularly beneficial role if you exercise or play sport regularly. 

EPA and DHA are found naturally in fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines and fish oils like cod liver oil and nuts and seeds including walnuts, Brazil nuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds but many of us remain low in these healthy omega 3s. This is because we don’t produce them naturally in our body and we need to keep our levels of them topped up daily through food or supplements. And while we all need to be getting enough of these immune-boosting, ‘essential’ fatty acids to keep us generally healthy if you are a runner, regular gym goer or athlete the benefits become even more significant.

Make more of a meal of them

Helpfully, there are plenty of foods to help you reap the inflammation fighting benefits of omega 3s. Salmon, possibly one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, is one that can be worked easily into your meals and can be bought fresh, frozen or tinned. A simple grilled/baked or fried salmon fillet with an avocado salad drizzled with extra virgin olive oil will give you your daily recommended omega 3 intake. As will a tuna and bean salad or a salmon and cucumber sandwich. Shellfish like prawns and mussels are also a rich source – and added to wild rice (another potent plant source of omega 3s) will help top up your levels of these healthy fats.

For more inspiration try Rob Hobson’s delicious, omega 3-rich recipe suggestions including grilled salmon with lime butter and beetroot kale slaw, sweet potato fish pie and smoked mackerel kedgeree. Don’t like fish? Walnuts deliver more ALA, the plant-based omega 3, than any other nut so try whizzing them up into a walnut pesto with garlic, basil, Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil. Kale is also a good source – so you could rustle up Rob’s beetroot kale slaw (above) with a fish-free alternative like grass fed meat or vegetable option. Flaxseeds are also a rich source as are chia seeds (although they contain slightly less than flax) and these can easily be added to yogurt or smoothies. Soy beans (also called edamame) are also a good source for vegetarians and vegans (check out Rob’s nutrient-packed Edamame Bean and Seed Salad). Eggs also contain a modest amount.

Why you need them for joint and muscle health

The reason these omega 3s are so significant for exercisers is because if you are routinely pounding the pavements or lifting heavy weights omega 3 fatty acids like EPA help you withstand the wear and tear on your muscles and joints. The powerful anti-inflammatory compounds they contain help reduce joint pain, swelling, stiffness and tenderness – meaning you are less likely to feel sore and achy after a vigorous workout or run.1

The more intense your training schedule the greater the need for higher levels of omega 3s like EPA to power you through it. One recent study suggests you should be getting around 2g a day to achieve a fully beneficial anti-inflammatory effect 2 and whereas you can get this from a portion of oily fish there is only so much fish one person can eat which is where supplementation becomes helpful.

One 2013 study looking at the role of omega 3s in ‘physical performance optimisation’ suggests that taking EPA and DHA in a ratio of 2: 1 ‘may be beneficial in counteracting exercise induced inflammation and for overall athlete health.’ 3 Another showed how eight weeks of supplementation with 600mg of EPA and 260mg of DHA daily helped improve muscle strength, range of movement and reduced muscle soreness. 4

You could also burn fat faster

If you needed any more convincing that omega 3s are beneficial for you as an exerciser, research also suggests regularly consuming them may help you burn fat more efficiently and keep you leaner by increasing your metabolism (the higher your metabolic rate the more calories you burn even when resting). In a study of healthy women over 60 those given 3 grams of omega 3 fish oils daily for three months saw their metabolic rate increase by around 14 %, that‘s equivalent to burning an extra 187 calories a day. Another published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed daily omega 3 fish oil supplementation ‘significantly decreased fat in 6 weeks’. And that’s no drop in the ocean…


References
1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19451765
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575932/
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23400626
4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27085996
5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4682991/
6 https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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