Can good fat boost your fitness level?

Fish oil supplements may seem like a relatively recent health fad but they have actually been produced in the UK on a large scale since 1935 by the company Seven Seas Ltd. Since then, the fish oil supplement market has continued to grow, with many beneficial effects claimed for health.

Health and Wellbeing

Researchers are trying to evaluate whether athletes benefit from taking fish-oil supplements. Source: Getty

Fish oil is mainly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, shellfish and in the liver of lean fish. It contains omega-3 fatty acids, particularly (EPA), (DHA) and (DPA). Considerable interest in omega-3s arose in the 1970s when evidence suggested that Inuit populations on Greenland despite their extremely high-fat diet.

This was thought to be due to the high levels of fish, and thus omega-3s, in their diet which have beneficial anti-inflammatory effects. In fact, researchers have showed that omega-3s may help in the such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

Foods containing omega three
Foods containing omega three. Source: alexpro9500/Shutterstock

Increasingly, fish oil supplementation is also being advertised and sold as a sport supplement. Many athletes use daily dietary supplements to keep good health, avoid disruptions to their training and . But is there evidence to support this? We have been investigating the issue.

Evaluating the evidence

One thing that often interrupts athletes’ training is that they are three to four times more likely to suffer from coughs and colds. While this may seem like a minor problem, it is in fact one of the most common reasons for not training. It is thought to be due to the fact that exercise can temporarily suppress the immune system, leaving the body open to attack by bugs and viruses. Omega-3s are thought to boost the immune system and have been found to after exercise, although .

Looking at the long-term effects, we found that a supplement drink containing omega-3s (along with whey protein and vitamin D) in young, active people, although the effect was small. The immune system is also known to play a role in exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (asthma-like symptoms during exercise) and omega-3s have been found, , to help ease such symptoms. So from the point of view of the immune system, omega-3 supplements may be of benefit to some people.

Another important aspect of training is the recovery time between sessions when you are typically dealing with muscle damage and associated soreness. Again, the effect of omega-3s on these processes is inconsistent. While several researchers have found decreases in muscle damage and soreness with omega-3 supplementation, there are as many studies which show no benefit at all. Understanding becomes more complicated as there are some who question whether an athlete would want to interfere with these responses – inflammation and associated soreness are after all part of the body’s natural recovery/regeneration process. Supplementing with omega-3 may actually hamper some of the gains of training.

The jury’s still out on omega-3 supplements
The jury’s still out on omega-3 supplements. Source: Happy Zoe/Shutterstock

When it comes to strength training such lifting weights, that omega-3 supplementation further increases muscle strength gain but, interestingly, not muscle size. It may be that neuro-muscular processes, which make muscles contract faster and better, for this effect. Importantly, these observations were only seen in women and this was a study in older people.

Ultimately, the main reason for an athlete to take a supplement is to increase exercise performance. So, all things considered, do omega-3s make you perform better? In short, no. Despite data showing omega-3 supplementation prior to exercise may provide some beneficial cardiovascular effects, , the research demonstrates that omega 3 supplementation on endurance exercise performance.

But there are some people who may in part benefit from taking it, such as athletes or other active people looking to boost their immune systems, or older women aiming to gain muscle strength. But it’s still early days and we will need more evidence to know for certain.


, Research Associate , ; , Reader in Exercise Physiology, , and , Lecturer in Exercise and Metabolic Health ,

This article was originally published on . Read the .

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4 min read
Published 19 January 2017 at 1:48pm
Source: The Conversation