Fats generally get a bad rap when it comes to health and fitness, but certain fats can actually improve your health, stimulate your metabolism, improve recovery and even help you build more muscle. Many of you have heard plenty about Omega-3s, and how they are great for you, but most don't really know why.
If you want to know how you can improve your ability to burn fat, reduce soreness and inflammation after workouts, and improve practically every area of your health, you might want to eat more fish like I do... Let me explain:
The term Omega-3s is commonly understood as a buzzword rather than a full understanding of what they are, who should take them and what they can do for the body. The truth is, most people are not getting enough of them and are suffering unknowingly. In order to understand why they are so important, a basic understanding of fats are first needed.
A brief background on why we need to eat fat at all
There are different types of fat that can be consumed in the diet. In the simplest form, fats exist as chains of carbon called fatty acids. Fatty acids provide several vital cellular functions.
- Fat storage – Fatty acids are assembled into larger structures called triglycerides and stored for future use as well as for protecting vital organs. Although fat storage is not a common desire, a certain level of fat storage is vital for survival.
- Fat oxidation – Burning fat is required for low-intensity exercise, basal metabolism, or for long duration physical activities. Fat oxidation is actually where most of the daily energy comes from.
- Structure – One of the major and most underestimated functions of fatty acids is to provide a structural component for cellular and subcellular membranes that are heavily involved in cell signaling events. All cell membranes are made of a lipid bilayer, which requires dietary fat.
Overall, fatty acids are roughly divided into three general categories: saturated fatty acids (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). These different varieties are distinguished by the presence or absence of double bonds within the carbon chain. SFAs have no double bonds, MUFAs have one double bond and PUFAs have multiple double bonds. While the presence of double bonds do not change the caloric value of the fatty acids, it does drastically alter its shape and many other properties, which is what makes these differences so important. The fatty acid composition of cellular membranes can have a huge effect on a number of metabolic processes such as regulating enzymes and acting as signaling molecules for the cell. For example, a domination of SFA negatively affects cell membrane fluidity and has been linked with the development of obesity, type-II diabetes and metabolic dysfunction. Conversely, the incorporation of MUFAs and PUFAs has positive effects on metabolic functions.
The Essential Fatty Acids
The human body is incapable of producing certain PUFAs and thus these PUFAs are considered essential fatty acids since they need to be included in our diets for survival. In a general sense, there are two major classifications of PUFAs to be concerned about: Omega-3 and Omega-6. The omega-number represents which carbon number from the end the first double bond exists, and thus determines it’s overall shape and functionalities. Omega-3 fatty acids have double bonds starting at the 3rd carbon, whereas omega-6 fatty acids are saturated until the 6th carbon where the double bonds will start.
Both omega-3s and omega-6s in predominantly equal proportions are essential for optimal cellular functioning. However, ever since the agricultural revolution, the western diet consists of as high as 20x the amount of omega-6s compared to omega-3s. This is because omega-6s are wide spread and found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, whereas the valuable omega-3s are almost exclusively found in seafood.
The rise in the omega-6:omega-3 ratio, ever since the Neolithic era, is correlated with the rise in cardiovascular disease and states of chronic inflammation. Roughly speaking, omega-6s are associated with the production of pro-inflammatory mediators while omega-3 produces inflammatory resolving proteins. Thus, manipulating this ratio may bring about changes in inflammatory balance and other health outcomes. It’s not that omega-6s are fundamentally harmful, but the over abundance of omega-6s will occupy the cellular structures where omega-3s should be functioning and that can have a negative influence on the balance of several cellular functions.
There is strong evidence that the type of fat in the diet can play an important role in regulating whole body metabolic health. For example, the traditional diet of Inuit populations (high omega-3s and low omega-6s) is associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and improved insulin sensitivity despite being a diet very high in fat. Simply increasing dietary intake of omega-3s can effectively displace the over-influence of omega-6s and SFAs. The American Heart Association recommends two fatty fish meals/week for general health, however >3 times/week may provide additional health protection in cardiovascular, bone and muscle health.
EPA and DHA: Not Technically Essential Fatty Acids, but They Really Are
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are currently thought to be the most bioactive of the omega-3 species in affecting inflammation, metabolic health, and cardiovascular health. Technically, EPA and DHA can both be synthesized from another essential omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in the oils of flaxseed, walnuts, canola and soybean. If this is true, you may ask why there is so much emphasis on seafood sources of omega-3s. The answer is that the conversion of ALA to either EPA or DHA is so small that more than 97% of ALA remains as ALA and less than 3%, is actually converted to EPA or DHA. Furthermore, the overabundance of omega-6 has actually been shown to further suppress the conversion of ALA resulting in some cases less than 1% of ALA being converted to either EPA or DHA. Research indicates that ALA supplementation alone is insufficient to produce adequate levels of EPA and DHA, which is why fish oil specifically is so critical for many areas of health.
Highly unsaturated fatty acids will be most readily burned in the body whereas SFAs are more prone for storage and leading to increased body fat. Therefore, by displacing the SFAs with omega-3s, fat metabolism can be revved up and lead to enhanced fat burning. In a clinical study of healthy individuals, supplementing with omega-3s for 3 weeks increased fat oxidation by 35% at the expense of glucose utilization in response to a bolus of glucose.
The second influence of fat gain is through insulin sensitivity. Any dysfunctional insulin signaling can lead to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes and ultimately metabolic syndrome. A diet high in SFAs impairs the fluidity of cell membranes and their signaling capabilities. A viscous membrane tightly packed with SFAs is difficult for transport proteins or membrane receptors to move in and out of the membranes. SFAs specifically impair insulin signaling through a mechanism involving a signaling protein called IRS-1. Omega-3s can displace the SFA in muscle cell membranes to help restore the membrane fluidity and the IRS-1 sensitivity. Thus supplementing with omega-3s is especially effective for those with a diet high in saturated fats. Clinical research indicates that EPA at a dose of 1.1g/day for 3 weeks was shown to reduce insulin secretion and increase fat oxidation in response to either exercise or feeding. This combination of lower insulin secretion levels, improved insulin sensitivity and increased fat oxidation is well suited for the both the prevention or treatment of several metabolic diseases.
Recent evidence suggests that manipulating the omega-3 content may improve muscle function and metabolism. There is growing evidence that omega-3s have anabolic and anti-catabolic properties in skeletal muscle. The consensus is that omega-3 supplementation may potentiate the response to other anabolic stimuli via sensitizing the anabolic pathways used for muscle growth. For example, it was observed that omega-3 supplementation lead to a greater increase in protein synthesis in response to amino acids and insulin. Investigating this phenomenon using cell-based studies showed that EPA is specifically responsible for the anabolic effects of omega-3s and may also play a role in attenuating the rate of protein degradation. DHA on the other hand, also attenuates protein degradation but with greater efficiency than EPA.
Clinical studies have then concluded that 2g of omega-3s per day when combined with a resistance exercise program lead to significantly improved muscle strength and neuromuscular function. Furthermore, a separate study showed EPA and DHA improves recovery time from exercise as evidenced by attenuating strength loss and limited range of motion between 2 and 5 days after exercise. It is assumed that intake of omega-3s result in an anti-inflammatory response to exercise, which may reduce the symptoms of the delayed onset of muscle soreness. Thus, omega-3s are ideal for those looking to improve musculature.
Evidence suggests that omega-3s supplementation may also improve muscle endurance. Omega-3s have been shown to stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis and thus increase the oxidative capacity of muscle. In a mouse model, EPA was shown to attenuate the age related decline in mitochondrial function through the maintenance of mitochondrial protein quality. This makes supplementing with omega-3s highly attractive for the aging population as well.
Inflammation is an important process in muscle adaptation. However, failure to resolve inflammation leading to a chronic state of inflammation contributes to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity. Omega-6 is associated with production of pro-inflammatory mediators while omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that both EPA and DHA can reduce the chronic expression of key pro-inflammatory markers to maintain inflammatory balance. Nearly all of the population can benefit from the reduction of chronic inflammation.
Supplementing with omega-3s is not only desirable for bodybuilders or athletes, but rather for nearly all populations, of all genders, health status, activity level and ages. Omega-3 supplementation makes improvements in protein metabolism, fat metabolism, carbohydrate metabolism, cardiovascular system, immune system, endocrine system and more. There is almost no reason why anybody shouldn’t be supplementing with fish oil-derived omega-3s.
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