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Nutrition

You’re Not Getting Enough of This Mega-Healthy Fat

They’re good for your heart, your brain, and your performance. Yet many athletes fall short on this crucial nutrient.

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We all probably know at least one overachieving athlete. There’s the friend who, despite having a taxing full-time job and a household full of rambunctious kids, can still nail the podium on race day. In the nutrition world, there are also a handful of overachievers–foods, nutrients, and bioactive compounds that seem to be able to do it all. That is, fight disease, boost fitness gains, and maybe even reverse climate change. OK, the last function is a stretch, but when you look at the science behind the powers of omega-3 fats it’s understandable why health experts seemingly are always waxing ecstatic about this group of do-it-all fatty acids.   

With thousands of published studies on omega-3s, they’re one of the most researched nutrients out there. A new study in Nature Communications found that people who had greater levels of omega-3 fatty acids had a 13% lower risk for all-cause mortality, as well as a lower risk for death due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes combined, compared with those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The strongest evidence to date for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip, lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel functioning, lower triglycerides, and ease inflammation. 

Other research has linked the omega fats to improved microbiome diversity, lower rates of depression, better sleep quality, and even reduced chances of developing periodontitis, a common gum disease. The research on improving brain functioning appears promising (those with brain diseases like Alzheimer’s typically do have lower levels of omega-3s). The premise of this research is that omega-3s are important fats within our brains and make up about a quarter of total brain fat. Data also suggests omega-3 might play a role in eye health because, like the brain, most of the lipids in our eyes are in the form of this fat. And moms-to-be want to make sure to consume adequate amounts of omega-3s to encourage better neurodevelopment in their children.

Upping your omega game may also boost your athletic gains. Athletes with greater intakes appear to suffer from less training-induced muscle soreness and have improved heart rate recovery when training. Both of which can help you bounce back quicker from intense training. 

What makes omega-3 fats such a health overachiever? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and, in turn, affect the functioning of tissues like the heart and muscle where these cells are located. Omega-3 fats are the structural material of virtually every cell in our bodies. They also provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate everything from blood clotting, brain functioning, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. No wonder a recent study from Tufts University in Boston found that people may be up to 21% more likely to age without health problems when they have higher blood levels of omega 3 fatty acids. Healthy aging was defined as the number of years people live without developing disabilities or physical or mental health problems. Yes, these are fats you don’t want to try to live without. 

Our bodies can make most of the types of fats we need from other fats or raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids. These are considered “essential” fats—the body can’t make them and, thus, must get them from food.

Now that you understand why you need to shop for omega-3s, here’s what you must know to make them work harder for you. 

Make Omega-3s Work for You

1. Not All Omega-3s Are Created Equal

Omega-3 fats are a key family of polyunsaturated fats. There are three primary types of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats—EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). They are referred to as omega-3 because of the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure, which is three carbon atoms from the “omega,” or tail end of the molecular chain.

The science is particularly strong in the roles two of them—DHA and EPA—play in human health and measures that are of particular interest to athletes like training-induced muscle pain. Shorter carbon-chain ALA is not as active in the body and must be converted to EPA and then onto DHA to bestow many of the health benefits outlined in the research. Unfortunately, your body’s ability to convert ALA is limited. Conversation rates can vary based on factors like genetics and the background diet, but it seems that only about 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5% is elongated to DHA. The body typically uses most of the ALA it gets from the diet for generating energy. The upshot is that to most effectively raise your levels of EPA and DHA it’s most helpful to consume these preformed while relying on ALA for a little extra boost. Although, some data hints that we can obtain enough DHA for brain health solely from ALA conversion. 

2. Most People Fall Short

The recommended daily dose for omega-3s (really EPA and DHA) has a wide range depending on the governing body advocating for them: from 250 to 1,000 mg per day for the general population. To date, there is no official daily recommendation like you’ll find for calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients. 

But what we do know for sure is that the typical American diet includes far less omega-3 fats than what’s considered optimal. A recent analysis in the journal Nutrients suggests the average intake of EPA and DHA is a mere 100 mg daily, with only 8% of people taking omega-3 supplements to help make up for a dietary shortfall. A separate investigation discovered that 98% of U.S. adults sampled fell well below the optimum 8.0 Omega-3 Index Level. This measures the level of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes expressed as a total of fatty acids. Ultimately, most athletes likely can benefit from scaling up their intake. 

3. Go Fish

The best way to increase your intake of EPA and DHA is to cast your line for fish more often. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, sablefish (black cod), anchovies, and tuna are best. And, yes, the swimmers that stink the most tend to also be the omega-3 winners. A 3-ounce serving of mackerel can have almost 2,000 mg of omega-3s, while the same amount of wild sockeye salmon has at least 600 mg of EPA and DHA. There are also some omega fats in shellfish including mussels. Eating three or more servings of these types of seafood weekly will help you get your omega-3 levels up to par. (This may require a big dietary leap as very few people eat much if any of these fish opting instead for lower omega species like tilapia and fish sticks.) How this breaks down depends on your preference, but during a week you could grill up salmon for a dinner, make a lunch sandwich with a can of sardines and then get your third serving by scattering chunks of smoked mackerel over a salad.  

There are also “sneaky” ways to boost your long-chain omega-3 intake which includes choosing dairy products like yogurt made with milk from grass-fed cows and eggs from free-roaming hens; both of which have been shown to harbor higher levels of omega-3s. Grass-finished beef can also supply a little extra omega-3s. It seems the fewer grains animals eat the higher the omega-3 content of the products they produce. Just keep in mind that levels in these animal-based items will be significantly less than what is in seafood, but every little bit can help. 

If you’re not keen on eating seafood, or any animal-based foods for that matter, you can take in the omega-3 fat ALA from walnuts, hemp seeds, flax, chia seed, and canola oil. But since we already explained that the conversion to EPA and DHA can be fairly slight, you’ll need to make sure you are eating an adequate amount of ALA from these foods daily to have any shot of getting enough to produce biologically effective amounts of EPA and DHA. Just how much ALA we need to eat to make adequate amounts of EPA and DHA still needs to be sussed out by research. 

4. Fix Your Omega Ratio

Omega-6s are omega-3s’ lesser-known brethren, and, like omega-3s, they are also essential. To be accurate, it’s the omega-6 fat alpha-linoleic acid that is deemed essential because we must get it from our diet. (Though no specific requirement has been set for omega-6s, an intake of 0.5% to 2% of total calories is thought to be sufficient to meet needs.) Omega-6s primarily come from nuts, seeds, plant-based oils, such as corn and soybean; and many processed foods made with these ingredients. Necessary for health including heart functioning, it’s not that omega-6s are unhealthy as many people assume, it’s only a problem that most Americans take in far more omega-6s than 3s. The ratio in our diets used to be closer to 1-to-1; but now it generally hovers around 15-to-1. This may encourage excessive inflammation in the body that, over time, could contribute to poor health outcomes including heart disease. Excessive intakes of alpha-linoleic acid can lead to high production rates of the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid that is pro-inflammatory. Too much omega-6 in the diet may also negatively impact how much ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA since there is a competition for conversion enzymes. 

Improving your ratio is as easy as increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids (this can be from both animal and plant sources) while simultaneously trimming the intake of packaged processed foods that tend to be much loftier in omega-6s. 

5. You can consider supplementation

Eating fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, and sardines, is the optimal way to get your EPA and DHA omega-3s, since fish also provides a nutritional matrix that capsules can’t emulate. But if you aren’t prone to eating enough of these omegas then a daily supplement can help bridge the gap. An analysis of 40 clinical studies in Mayo Clinic Proceedings demonstrated an association between supplementation with 1,000 mg of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and a reduction in risks for coronary heart disease events including heart attack. And if you are in the midst of high-volume training, a little extra omega-3 boost may help you better adapt to training. 

DHA and EPA make up only about 30 percent of many fish-oil supplements, with the remaining 70 percent being other fatty acids with fewer proven health perks. So look for a product that states how much of these fats it contains which should be at least 500 mg total of both DHA and EPA. For most healthy people, there is no known benefit to taking more than 1,500mg daily. 

Thankfully, contamination is not a concern. Consumerlab.com, which conducts independent supplement testing did not find concerning amounts of mercury or other contaminants in a wide range of omega-3 supplements they tested. But it’s not all good news: some products contained less fish oil than the label stated and were spoiled (rancid), which might be why some studies fail to find health benefits when people rely on omega-3 supplements. The oxidized oils have a stale-fish odor, so if you break open a fish oil capsule and it smells fishy, it is rancid and should be discarded.

Vegetarians and vegans can up their intake of EPA and DHA by using supplements containing algae-derived omega-3s. Research demonstrates that algae supplements can raise blood levels of DHA to a greater extent than does ALA from foods like seeds. Just keep in mind the amount of omega-3 fats per pill might be lower so you may need to swallow more than one to get enough. 

Go-To Sources of Omega-3s

These items are fatty in a good way.

Wild Planet Albacore Wild Tuna
The tuna is cooked after canning, not before, which seals in the omegas not to mention a boatload of more flavor.

Coromega Max Omega-3
Each squeeze packet delivers 1,050mg of EPA + DHA and no fishy taste. Emulsification of the omega-3s may mean better absorption rates compared to capsules. Plus, the brand is third party certified to contain what the label says. 

Life’s DHA Adult
Perfect for the plant-based crowd, this supplement derives its DHA from algae instead of fish. 

Nutiva Organic Chia Seeds
These little seeds are one of the best sources of plant-based omega-3 fat, not to mention dietary fiber. 

King Oscar Mackerel Mediterranean Style
This tinned mackerel will infuse your lunch sandwiches or green salads with a boatload of omega-3s. 

Blue Circle Alaskan Wild Sockeye Salmon
These pre-portioned frozen fillets are ready for a quick weeknight omega-rich meal.