If You're Active, You Need Omega-3s
Omega 3s aren’t just those smelly pills in your least favorite aunt’s medicine cabinet.
Recent research is also showing that it has the potential to do so much more for us than keeping our heart and brain healthy.
In fact, as far as fitness freaks and athletes are concerned, consuming enough Omega-3s can result in optimal muscle gain, enhanced recovery, reduce risk of illness and support a high-level competition performance, according to a 2019 study.
So, what are Omega-3s? What are the best sources to get enough to see benefits?
What Are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are an essential fat. This means the body cannot make it on its own and has to get it from outside food sources.
It’s also considered one of the “good” or healthy fats. It’s polyunsaturated, putting in the same family as the fats found in nuts and seeds.
Like other unsaturated fats, Omega-3s have been proven to improve heart health, especially when used in place of saturated fats like high-fat meats, butter and fried foods.
However, it’s important to know there are different types of Omega-3s. Supplement companies have done a good job of piggybacking off of the confusion surrounding the types of Omega-3s to sell you the cheapest types that don’t work as well.
The Benefits of Omega-3s on Exercise and Health
I could go on for days on this topic.
But for the sake of not keeping you too long, let’s just go over the highlights.
I already touched on the ability of Omega-3s to improve heart health. However, in the 90s and early 2000s, they also got a lot of buzz when research showed it has the ability to improve brain health and perhaps even lower the risk of or improve the symptoms associated with cognitive disorders like Alzheimers.
That’s why sports scientists have done studies showing it has the potential to lower the risk of or the duration of concussions and other brain injuries in athletes.
Studies have also shown that Omega-3s anti-inflammatory properties can fight inflammation caused by exercise and therefore improve recovery.
This means less soreness. This means you can lift more often and for longer. Which means more gains in size and strength.
Finally, they have recently been shown to help improve muscle growth, especially following injury.
Got your attention yet?
Now let’s see where we can find these little guys.
The Types of Omega-3s
There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA, DHA and ALA. Here’s how they are different:
EPA - This is one of two types of Omega-3 found in animal sources like seafood and algae. It’s also the type you should be interested in as a weightlifter or athlete. That’s because EPA is the type of Omega-3 responsible for less muscle soreness and improved muscle protein synthesis.
DHA - This is the other type of Omega found in animal sources. However, it’s responsible for the brain and mental/cognitive health I touched on. It’s also been shown to help improve vision.
ALA - This is found in plant based sources such as walnuts and flaxseed. Alone, ALA’s don’t have much benefit.
But I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA by the body.
The bad news is that the conversion process is inefficient and only about 5-10% is converted.
That said, if you want the muscle gaining and recovery benefits from Omega-3s, getting it from animal sources rich in EPA is your best bet.
Best Omega-3 Sources and Supplements
So how much do you need?
Recommendations vary since the science around Omega-3s is still relatively new. However, for athletic performance benefits, 650 milligrams of Omega-3s, with at least 220 milligrams from EPA and 220 milligrams is what is recommended by International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids.
For perspective, a 6-ounce salmon filet gives you 1,800 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined.
That said, all you need is two servings of fatty fish a week to keep you set. Below are the best sources of EPA and DHA Omega-3s from the highest to the lowest.
One serving is 6 ounces:
> 1000 mg serving
Some of you may be wondering...what about grass-fed beef? Sadly, its omega-3 content is overhyped, only providing <200 milligrams for 6 ounces.
Let’s move on to supplements for you fish-haters. You’ll want to stick around for this one.
That’s because the hype has caused the shelves to flood with fish oil supplements...and almost all of them are complete crap.
The thing with fish oil is, you get what you pay for. If you found a bottle of fish oil supplements at Target for $5, odds are it’s not as potent as the stuff you’re looking for. Just because it says on the label “600mg of Omega-3s,” that does not mean it has 600mg of DHA and EPA.
So, it’s very important to check these on the label to make sure you’re getting enough to even be worth it. If it doesn’t even show DHA and EPA on the label put it down...it’s super trash.
Let’s do a label comparison.
The image above is a budget generic brand. It’s got 650 mg of Omega-3s. Good enough to meet recommendations right? However, the amount of DHA and EPA is small, only 480 mg and 104 mg respectively. Not nearly enough to meet recommendations and won’t do jack for your muscle gain or recovery as a result.
Also, not only do cheaper brands tend to be in a ethyl ester form that’s harder to absorb by the body, with this measly amount of Omega-3s you’d be better off eating a tiny can of sardines.
This label is from Triton made by Legion Athletics.
Notice that not only does it have a whopping 4,000 mg of total Omega-3s, but enough in one serving to give you the same amount of EPA and DHA as a salmon filet and plenty to give you those benefits we talked about.
It’s also made from reesterified triglyceride oil. That's a really fancy term for a type of fish oil that's been shown to be absorbed 70% better by the body and is more expensive to use because of its high quality.
That’s why you won’t find it in the generic section of your local convenience store.
It also uses oil from sustainably sourced fish.
You can get your very own bottle of Triton here.
As a final note, you can also get Omega-3s from krill oil, but these come in smaller doses so be prepared to take a lot more to see benefits. Algae oil is also a great alternative source for vegetarians.
The bottom line?
Omega-3s used to just be the supplement for heart and brain health. However, keep an eye out for the emerging science on this essential fat as it relates to improved muscle gain, exercise recovery, improved immune health, reduced fat gain and brain protection in contact sports.
I always recommend food first, so try to get your Omegas from animal sources when possible. However, if you just hate fish, don’t want to or can't afford to eat it twice a week, just make sure to read your labels.