Omega-3 has been investigated by scientists extensively for its many potential health benefits along with how it could impact fitness goals. What exactly is omega-3 and does the science live up to the hype? This article will go through what omega-3 is, what the health benefits are, including how it could impact your training, and how much is safe to use.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fat, and is classified as an essential fatty acid, meaning that it has to be sourced from our diets as it cannot be produced by our bodies.8
Omega-3 comes in many different forms that vary in both length and chemical structure. There are short-chain omega-3 fatty acids which can come from plant-based sources such as leafy green vegetables, walnuts, and flaxseed. If you see the name ALA or alpha-linolenic acid, this is a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.8
Long-chain fatty acids are the other common form of omega-3. These omega-3 fatty acids contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are linked to brain and eye health and are important structural components of cells in the body.13 They’re naturally found in algae, which are eaten by fish and other sea life. These fatty acids are often referred to as marine-source omega-3, or fish oils.8
It’s worth noting that the body doesn’t absorb both sources of omega-3 in the same way. Our metabolism can only convert around 5% of plant-based ALA omega-3 into EPA, so this is worth keeping in mind when considering which type to go for, as well as dosage. 8
Omega-3 health benefits
Omega 3, especially fish oil, has been associated with many different health benefits, but does the science support the claims? Let’s take a look at the different health benefits of omega-3:
Fish oil and insulin sensitivity
Being sensitive to insulin is one of the markers of good health and is often the result of a healthy lifestyle, good nutrition, and being active. A study by Gao investigated all the research on fish oil supplementation and the positive effects on insulin sensitivity. As a whole, the study showed that fish oil didn’t improve insulin sensitivity, however, on further investigation, it did appear that it might be of some benefit to those who already exhibited at least one symptom of a metabolic disorder. 5
Fish oil and hypertension
Fish oils have been thought of by many health practitioners to help reduce blood pressure and therefore lower cardiovascular risk. A study has investigated these claims, alongside scientific evidence, and found that fish oils showed a very modest, real-life effect. The study determined that there was an effect of fish oils on blood pressure, and ruled out the possibility of pure chance. 3
There can be no argument that any reduction in high blood pressure is a good thing, but not at the expense of blood pressure medication. If you’re using blood pressure medication to treat high blood pressure, then it’s recommended to consult a medical professional before considering using or switching to fish oils to help further reduce your risk.
Fish oil and mental health
Researchers are always looking for new approaches for treating depression, and one of the many things that is being looked at is fish oil. 2
Fish oil contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). There are several ways in which such a fatty acid is thought to induce an anti-depressant effect. 2 One idea suggested was that PUFA’s could reduce inflammation in our neural cells, causing an anti-depressant effect.2
Another theory is that PUFAs use a type of protein, known as a G-protein, or directly act with the plasma membrane to modify it, causing an anti-depressant effect.2 Whether these two effects happen together or separately is unknown. A summary of the existing research on fish oil shows that omega-3 had a distinctly positive effect when compared to a placebo.2
Omega-3 and heart health
There has been a lot of talk over the years regarding omega-3 supplementation and how it can positively affect heart health. Studies have demonstrated a range of results from small benefits to none at all.
A study on omega-3 supplementation for heart health by Azin Mohebi-Nejad looked at preceding research and concluded that evidence for the benefit of omega-3 on heart health was lacking in positive and negative trials.10
Why use omega-3?
Omega-3 and fat loss
There are studies that have shown, in both humans and animal trials, that supplementing with polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3might help with fat loss. Scientists have identified a few possible mechanisms that might cause this to happen.
These mechanisms include suppressed appetite — if you aren’t hungry as often, then you’re much less likely to snack regularly which can lead to putting on weight. Omega-3 might have some effect on the body’s ability to break down fat cells to be used as fuel. Furthermore, if you’re burning more energy on average than you’re putting back in through food, then weight loss should follow. Lastly, the science shows that omega-3 might reduce the number of calories stored as body fat.1 A lot of the short term research demonstrates an effect on weight loss.1
Omega-3 and muscle gain
If you’re looking to put on lean muscle, supplementing with omega-3 might be something that could help you. Omega-3 has been shown to increase the capacity of the body to transport nutrients to muscle cells, which are important for growth.
Omega-3 also impacts how our DNA functions in favour of adding quality, lean muscle tissue. PUFA seems to favour the retention and even building of lean mass in a calorie deficit or at maintenance levels. Omega-3 supplements alone won’t be sufficient to grow and maintain new muscle mass, however every little bit of extra lean muscle gain helps with your physique goals.1
Have you ever wondered what’s better for you — using supplements or eating food? It really depends on your goals and which foods you enjoy. If you choose to eat a plant-based diet, then you’ll probably need to supplement with omega-3 from high-quality plant-based sources as traditional fish or krill oils are not suitable. By using a supplement, you can easily ensure that you’re consuming the correct quantity of high-quality omega-3.
Even if you don’t follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you still may have asked yourself whether it’s best to consume oily fish in meals or opt for supplements like omega-3. Whilst supplements will make it much easier to consume larger quantities of omega-3 you can choose either supplements or eating more oily fish and will reap the benefits with both. If you’re eating a calorie deficit, then you can miss out on valuable nutrition as you cut down on what you eat — this might also be a good time to consider an omega-3 supplement. A supplement can be a convenient way of getting enough omega-3 in your diet, without negatively affecting your daily calories.
How much omega-3 do you need to take? As discussed earlier in this article, omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, so you have to ensure there’s omega-3 in your diet on a daily basis, as the body cannot manufacture the fatty acids on its own naturally.
The AHA recommends that consumers take no more than 2g of omega-3 with combined EPA & DHA from supplementation.12
Potential side effects of taking omega-3
Omega-3 is a low-risk supplement to use. As long as you don’t use fish oils to substitute medication, then there’s no problems associated with them when consuming the recommended daily dosage.12
Take home message
Omega-3 is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. It’s important to consume adequate amounts of these essential fatty acids on a daily basis for good health and wellbeing.
Omega-3 can be found in both marine- and plant-based sources, though there’s a difference in strength between the two. A marine-based source is much more absorbable within the body and seems to have a considerably more potent effect when taken in smaller doses.
Omega-3 has been linked to a variety of health- and fitness-related benefits, including weight loss and muscle gain. Though some of these benefits may actually only be marginal, they could still be beneficial.
There are very few side effects associated with taking omega-3’s and they should be an important part of a daily supplement routine to provide the best health and wellbeing.