There are a handful of dietary strategies I implement on daily basis for building a stronger and healthier body which have become so engrained in my habits that sometimes I forget to talk about why they are so important. One of these is ensuring I consume enough omega-3 fatty acids – daily in food form and sometimes in supplement form as well.
Omega-3 fatty acids happen to be one of the most important nutrients we must ensure we are eating on a regular basis because unlike other fats, our bodies can’t make them. Our bodies can actually manufacture cholesterol, saturated fats and monounsaturated fats – but they cannot manufacture polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. As it happens, every single cell in our entire body requires omega-3 fatty acids for optimal health, so we must be sure to eat foods that contain them daily.
WHY omega-3 fatty acids are so important
One of the better studies nutrients, there are over 8,000 clinical human studies published demonstrating the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for:
- Heart health (such as this 2014 review concluding there is strong evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 fatty acids against heart disease);
- Brain health and cognitive function (such as this recent 2016 study showing better cognitive performance in elderly people with higher levels of omega-3s in their systems);
- Skin health (such as this 2016 review stating there is considerable evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation might be beneficial in reducing the occurrence of non-melanoma skin cancer; or this 2014 study showing that omega-3 fatty acids are a useful treatment for those suffering from acne);
- Balancing hormones (such as this 2004 study outlining the importance of omega-3’s as precursors to important hormones); and
- Aiding in recovery from strenuous workouts (such as this 2013 study on how omega-3s are useful in optimizing physical performance).
The last point is very specific to our sport of running – omega-3’s have been found to be very useful in aiding recovery from strenuous workouts by improving muscular function and strength, reducing exercise induced muscle damage and combatting the negative effects intensive training has on the immune system.
One of the main mechanism’s omega-3’s are so effective thereby is their ability to reduce the inflammatory response (thereby reducing pain) much the same way NSAIDs do, but without the negative side effects – such as this 2010 pubmed article suggests omega-3 fatty acids are useful as therapeutic agents in conditions with an inflammatory component.
Yet another way omega-3’s help to reduce inflammation is by bringing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio into better balance. When an individual consumes an excess of omega 6’s (abundant in processed cooking oils such as soy, corn, and sunflower seed oils) and is deficient in omega-3’s (a position many people are in – and where I was before I began ‘eating 2 run’ 5 years ago), it results in chronic systemic inflammation – and this chronic inflammation underlies many health complaints as well as slow or no recovery from hard workouts.
Lastly, omega-3’s can be utilized as an ergogenic aid (something that provides short term exercise enhancement). This 2015 study provides evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can enhance neuromuscular function and physical performance in well-trained athletes. By taking 375 mg EPA, 230 mg DPA and 510 mg DHA (which, for example, would be equivalent to Nordic Naturals 1 tsp Omega-3 liquid or ½ tsp Ultimate Omega liquid) daily for 21 days, the athletes showed increased muscle activity and less fatigue experienced during exercise, to increase overall performance by at least 1% (for some substantially more).
WHAT foods contain omega-3 fatty acids
These sources provide omega-3 fatty acids in the already converted forms of EPA and DHA.
- Wild salmon (such as sockeye): ~1100 mg omega-3s per 3oz serving;
- Halibut, mackerel, trout, sardines: ~1000 mg omega-3s per 3oz serving;
- Grass fed Beef / Bison / Venison / Lamb: ~1000 mg per 4oz serving (MUST be grass-fed as grass provides the omega-3’s);
- Pasture-raised Eggs: ~330 mg per 1 large egg (must be grass-fed or flaxseed fed).
These sources provide omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) – conversion rate is between 1-10%.
- Chia seeds: ~4900 mg omega-3s per ounce (black and white offer same nutritional profile)
- Flaxseeds (and cold-pressed flaxseed oil): ~6300 mg omega-3s per ounce (flax must be freshly ground as humans do not have the enzymes required to break down the flax shell);
- Hemp hearts (and cold-pressed hemp oil): ~2500 mg omega 3s per ounce (hemp hearts are shelled hemp seeds and they must be kept refrigerated to prevent rancidity);
- Walnuts: ~2500 mg omega-3s per ounce (buy walnuts from sources known to have a high turnover rate and therefore to be fresh, as walnuts are prone to rancidity);
- Pumpkin seeds: ~50 mg omega-3s per ounce (pumpkin seeds are also a fantastic source of magnesium, which helps to relax muscles and prevent cramping).
Generally, supplements (NOT including flax or hemp oils) provide omega-3 fatty acids in the already converted forms of EPA and DHA.
One way to ensure you receive a sizeable serving of the already converted EPA and DHA is to reach for a high-quality fish (or algae) oil. Quality is key: ensure you choose a brand that is committed to freshness & quality standards, and is presented in a re-assembled natural triglyceride structure, NOT a (typically cheaper) ethyl ester fatty acid. I’ve personally used Nordic Naturals for the past 4 years and while there are many high quality omega-3 fatty acid supplements (and many more low quality ones) available, I recommend Nordic Naturals because I trust it fully (note – this is NOT a sponsored post).
Nordic Naturals offers an Ultimate Omega liquid (the one I personally use) which offers 3,000 mg per 1 teaspoon (if using the capsules, 5 caps = 3,000mg). I take 1 tsp daily when in hardcore training mode (such as I’ve been in since June, when I really ramped up ultra marathon training). While I might miss a day here and there, there are certain periods of time when I ensure I don’t miss a day – such as after running this past Sunday’s marathon!
Nordic Naturals also offers Omega-3 liquid which contains 1,600 mg per teaspoon (or 5 capsules), and an algae omega vegetarian/vegan which also contains about 1,600 mg per teaspoon (or 5 capsules).
HOW much omega-3 fatty acids to consume
In figuring out how much omega-3 rich foods or supplements you should consume, consider this 2011 pubmed review resulting in consistent recommendations for the general population to consume 250 mg of EPA/DHA (already converted omega-3s) per day (or at least 2 servings of oily fish per week).
Note that 250 mg of EPA/DHA is approximately equal to 2500 mg of vegetarian sourced omega-3 fatty acids – for example, one ounce (3 Tbsp) of hemp hearts (which contains 2500 mg ALA) is equivalent to 250 mg EPA/DHA.
A caveat – if your digestive system is not in good working order, chances are your conversation rate of ALA to EPA/DHA is lower than 10%, therefore you are more likely to benefit from a high quality omega-3 supplement while working on regaining optimal digestive health.
Generally, guidelines for amounts are as follows:
- 250-500 mg of EPA/DHA omega-3 fatty acids daily to support good health and prevention of heart disease (per this 2013 pubmed article);
- 1000-2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to counteract exercise-induced inflammation and for overall athlete health (per this 2013 study);
- 2000-5000 mg of EPA/DHA to support an anti-inflammatory response for acute healing (per this 2013 pubmed article and this 2010 article stating higher dosages result in benefits being experienced earlier).
Dosages higher than 250-500 mg EPA/DHA daily can really only come from supplements – therefore I recommend supplementing as necessary when in a heavy training cycle, or in recovery from an injury or from a race (or in recovery from any inflammatory condition such as heart disease), or if your digestive system is compromised and/or you’re working on regaining optimal health.
Personally, I eat hemp hearts like they’re going out of style on an every single day basis (plus use chia and walnuts in many snacks and recipes), work salmon and/or halibut into my weekly menu at least once if not twice (as well as grass fed bison and pasture raised eggs) – and I always have a bottle of Ultimate Omega sitting in the fridge. The habits we form on a daily basis is what will build us those strong, healthy bodies we’re looking for!
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN