Fatty acids: The good and the bad

Band-aid fixes of self prescription of omega-3 in an elite athlete may not be the best way to aim for a podium finish at the Paris Olympics.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial in heart health, brain health, diabetes, cancer treatments, and anti-inflammation.   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

The focus on fat for the last decade has been debated extensively in the sports diet world. Earlier, fat was labelled as an evil molecule till the ketogenic (High Fat Very Low carb) diet came along. Today we know the fatty acids which are the broken down results of fat in our blood stream. Fatty acids are both essential and non-essential from a good nutritional perspective but there are also fatty acids that are bad from a perspective of inflammation, disease causing potential and lowering of performance.

As a sports nutritionist, I recently interacted with Dr. Paul Clayton who is a leading scientist in the nutritional world and an authority on Omega-3 research. My interactions with him were on the basis of cardiac health as well as sports performance in athletes. The takeaway from this meeting for me and my athletes was the ability to test the fatty acids levels in the blood and design nutrition-fuelling strategies that can improve performance as well as improve recovery times.

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Nutrition science is constantly evolving and with that the customisation of dietary intake is becoming efficient. There are many diagnostic tools available to support in personalising an individual’s dietary intake. In addition to the traditional blood test, you can now also assess an individual’s DNA, food allergies, food intolerances, and even their gut microbiota.

But did you know you can get your essential fatty acids tested as well? To simplify it, the test primarily measures your omega 6:3 ratio along with the other fatty acids present in your body.

Why is it important to get your omega-3 index tested?

Omega-3 fatty acids are the essential fatty acids which your body can’t produce. Omega-3 rich foods includes vegetable oils, nuts like walnuts, flaxseeds, certain fish and leafy vegetables.

Omega-3 fats are a part of polyunsaturated fatty acids and the three main Omega-3s are:

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

The natural level of EPA in the blood is 3.6% and that of DHA is 4.7% and combined together they need to be above 8%. This is so important to assess and understand to improve an athlete’s performance ability. The daily requirement of EPA and DHA depends on the bodyweight. Omega-3 fatty acids are an integral part of the cell membrane and affect the function of cell receptors in these membranes. The mechanism of action is that they provide the initiation for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and also regulate inflammation. Due to these functions, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial in heart health, brain health, diabetes, cancer treatments, and anti-inflammation.

Athletes do not eat with a plan. The choices of bad oils, fried foods, cheaper ingredients have resulted in higher omega-6 which is one of the reasons for omega-3 fatty acid imbalance in the body. Please note a lot of the omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are inflammatory in nature. To an athlete, I say that the wrong oils are like poison to your body. The natural omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be 3:1 or lower. It is shown that about 95% of the world population has omega fatty acid imbalance. The testing of some celebrity athletes including myself are at ratios of 50:1. The moment I reduced my omega 6 intake of fried and refined oils and increased my omega 3 foods, I have seen a drop in my resting heart rate. A lowered heart rate is indicative of better recovery and lesser inflammation in the body.

Omega-3 is especially relevant for athletes involved in the strength, endurance and team sports. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to impact the health and performance of athletes in numerous ways, such as:

a. Reduction in Inflammation: An athlete’s body is in a constant state of stress due to the training, competitions and physical exercise. This leads to an increase in oxidative stress and inflammation, which makes it important to focus on recovery to optimise the athlete’s performance. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation inhibited the pro-inflammatory cytokine pathways which stimulates inflammation. Simple: when you train hard, your muscle, soft tissue and blood tend to damage. Inflammation happens on a daily basis. Think of Omega 3 as your housekeeping. It repairs and cleans you up for the next day of training.

b. Faster recovery: Omega-3s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Evidence suggests that omega-3s promote recovery by increasing the structural integrity of muscle cell membranes, reduction in muscle soreness and minimise oxidative stress damage to muscles.

c. Improved endurance: Studies have also shown that omega-3 intake has an effect on energy metabolism and performance as it improves endurance capacity by reducing the oxygen cost of exercise. The underlying mechanism could be because of omega-3 acting as a vasodilator which helps increase the flow of oxygen into muscles during exercise thereby increasing endurance. It also benefits in reducing heart rate, perceived exertion and fatigue and improves lipid metabolism.

The best way to optimise the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids it to get your fatty acid levels tested which will help determine your body’s requirement for omega-3s. Let me give you five reasons to get your omega-3 index tested for a better sports performance:

Doing the omega-3 index test will tell you whether you are in balance of omega 6:3 ratio. If you are imbalanced i.e above the normal ratio of 3:1 it will help the dietician manage it through your diet.

It will provide in-depth results of other fatty acids like saturated fats, omega-3,-6, and -9 which are also important for an athlete’s health.

It will help personalise your omega-3 fatty acid intake requirement in the form of food or dietary supplements specific to your body weight.

Measuring your essential fatty acids can also contribute in determining the mental strength, cell membrane fluidity, and protection value. These parameters contribute to normal brain function, hormonal balance and protection from infection and injuries, among many other health benefits.

The omega-3 index ratio is standardised and you can get it tested from any lab in any part of the world.

If you understood so far that omega-3 is important, then your immediate thought would be: “Let me supplement my sports diet with omega-3”. I have recently discovered that most of the omega-3 capsules (mostly fish oil) are not able to raise levels as the fish oil is inferior or is damaged in the extraction process. My own results after supplements showed a 33:1 ratio. I eat fish and take an omega-3 supplementation. So band-aid fixes of self-prescription of omega-3 in an elite athlete may not be the best way to aim for a podium finish at the Paris Olympics. Altering your diet and planning to eat with sound sports nutrition principles and testing on a regular basis is a sure shot way to understand how data will influence what you need to put into your body based on your genes and your day-to-day training. Think of omega-3 and omega-6 as your training equipment: you have so many choices. Finally, you rely on your experts and your experience to use the best one. Start by testing your omega-3 and omega-6 ratios. Then change the way you eat.

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