The supplement industry has been hooked on omega-3 fatty acid supplements for the last decade, with good reason! Omega-3s can help support brain function, fat loss, and a healthy inflammation response to training, so you'd be crazy not to have omega-3s as part of your supplement stack.
But some skeptics think there's no way one nutrient can really do all these things. "Seems fishy," they might say. Ultimately, this skeptical approach is good, because it promotes more research, and as the studies on omega-3 fatty acids and their benefits continues to pile up, it's important to be able to sort the good catch from the bad.
With that in mind, here's a quick guide to omega-3s and four great research-backed health benefits they provide!
What Are Omega-3s?
The term "omega-3" refers to a subclass of essential fatty acids (EFAs). These fatty acids aren't produced in the body and must be obtained from food or supplements. Omega-3s can further be divided into three distinct types:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
EPA and DHA are the two primary fatty acids found in food and supplements, whereas ALA is found in several different seeds, seed oils, and vegetables. Since EPA and DHA—found primarily in meats and fish—are the bigger players here, we'll focus on these two powerhouse fats.
Although your body can convert EPA and DHA from ALA, this process only occurs to a small degree. For this reason, you should focus on meat, fish, and supplements like fish oil to obtain and experience the bona fide benefits of this phenomenal fat.
The Benefits Of Omega-3s
While not everything you may have heard about omega-3s has been researched, or is probably even true, there are several claims that have been studied extensively. Here's the scientific skinny on four benefits of omega-3 fats:
1. They May Help Support Healthy Blood Triglycerides
Diet and exercise habits impact your blood triglyceride levels. For some, a genetic predisposition can lead to higher than preferred levels, despite healthy diet and exercise habits. Fortunately, increasing your daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids may help support healthy triglyceride levels, which bodes well for your health, especially considering high LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels are a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.[1,2]
Additionally, eating fish once a week has also been suggested to offer positive support for blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels already in normal range.
2. They Play Well with Your Diet
The best way to stick to any diet is to make sure you feel full, and it just so happens that omega-3 fats may help to do just that! A study published in Appetite provided a controlled diet consisting of either greater than 1,300 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids or less than 260 milligrams per day to subjects during the last two weeks of an eight-week diet. Those receiving the larger dose reported significantly less hunger following an ad libitum test dinner meal.
3. They May Help You Burn Fat
It also appears that adequate omega-3 intake further enhances the health benefits of regular exercise. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, subjects were split into four groups and received one of the following combinations: sunflower oil (omega-6) only, sunflower oil and exercise, omega-3 only, and omega-3 plus exercise.
Subjects in the "omega-3 plus exercise" group improved blood cholesterol and lost the most body fat compared to every other group. Researchers hypothesized that the synergistic effect between omega-3s and exercise further drove weight loss, specifically the potential shift in fat metabolism to increased oxidation (breakdown and use as fuel) and decreased storage.
4. They May Support Cognitive Performance
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been suggested to play a role in supporting cognitive performance. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation provided subjects with either 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids or an equivalent amount of olive oil per day and had them go through a series of cognitive tests and mood questionnaires. After five weeks of daily supplementation, those supplementing with omega-3s exhibited improved scores in areas of vigor and energy.
Furthermore, a large epidemiological study—one that assesses and looks for patterns of behavior over time—conducted in healthy populations found a strong association between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive function over a five-year time period. Subjects who scored in the lowest tenth percentile tended to have the lowest intake of DHA/EPA or fatty fish, whereas those scoring the highest tended to have a higher intake of DHA/EPA.
In other words, it's possible that eating enough omega-3s will finally help you train harder and smarter!
Choosing And Taking Omega-3 Supplements
While you can obtain EPA and DHA from strictly whole-food sources, supplements are often the easiest way to get the right dose of these helpful fats consistently. In supplement form, EPA and DHA are most commonly found in fish oil pills, although a variety of specific forms—like cod liver oil and krill oil—are available on the market.
Due to the costly processing required to make a concentrated EPA and DHA fish oil, most brands will only contain around 20-30 percent of these fats per tablet. To act as a filler, these fish oils will contain larger amounts of other fatty acids that may not provide the benefits you're after. To get the best value and benefit, always take a close look at the labels.
Rather than assessing a supplement for its omega content, you want to hone in on the EPA and DHA content of the bottle (or liquid) in hand. Most supplements will contain between 1-4 grams (1,000-4,000 milligreams) of total omega fatty acids. You want to get somewhere between 1.5-3.0 grams (1,500-3,000 milligrams) of EPA and DHA combined each and every day.
For optimal absorption, take your omega-3 supplement with a fat-containing meal. Be sure to store in a dark, cool place—such as the fridge—to prevent breakdown via light or heat.
- Wilson, P. W., D'Agostino, R. B., Levy, D., Belanger, A. M., Silbershatz, H., & Kannel, W. B. (1998). Prediction of coronary heart disease using risk factor categories. Circulation, 97(18), 1837-1847.
- TG-Harris, W. S. (1997). n-3 fatty acids and serum lipoproteins: human studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(5), 1645S-1654S.
- Mori, T. A., Bao, D. Q., Burke, V., Puddey, I. B., Watts, G. F., & Beilin, L. J. (1999). Dietary fish as a major component of a weight-loss diet: effect on serum lipids, glucose, and insulin metabolism in overweight hypertensive subjects. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(5), 817-825.
- Parra, D., Ramel, A., Bandarra, N., Kiely, M., Martínez, J. A., & Thorsdottir, I. (2008). A diet rich in long chain omega-3 fatty acids modulates satiety in overweight and obese volunteers during weight loss. Appetite, 51(3), 676-680.
- Hill, A. M., Buckley, J. D., Murphy, K. J., & Howe, P. R. (2007). Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(5), 1267-1274.
- Fontani, G., Corradeschi, F., Felici, A., Alfatti, F., Migliorini, S., & Lodi, L. (2005). Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 35(11), 691-699.
- Kalmijn, S. V., Van Boxtel, M. P. J., Ocke, M., Verschuren, W. M. M., Kromhout, D., & Launer, L. J. (2004). Dietary intake of fatty acids and fish in relation to cognitive performance at middle age. Neurology, 62(2), 275-280.