The Omega Conundrum
Why You Need More Fat in Your Life
I am going to tackle head on something that has almost become a dirty word and what everyone fears….
Fat gets such a bad rap, so much so that the word FAT makes most people shudder
They think fat makes you fat, which seems kinda logical, but it is more complicated than that. That is in fact a myth that has grown and grown over the last 30 odd years.
The worst thing about it though is that it turned people to using low fat products which are laden with sugar and using carbohydrates. We need carbs for energy, your brain alone needs around 120g of glucose per day to function. However it made people eat them to excess and it is that that has caused the increase in overweight people that we see these days.
Since then the world has cottoned on that excess carb intake leads to fat storage and fat gain, so the world moved on again to high protein diets and so the cycle continues.
The truth is, we need protein, carbs and fat at varying levels depending on a number of factors such as:
- Fitness goals
- Exercise load
- Stress levels
- Body fat etc
- Nutrient timing is also key to getting the best results.
So what do you need to do?
So now that we have established you actually need fat, lets cover the most obvious questions…
what kind of fat do you need?
why do you need them?
How much do you need?
what are the good fat sources?
What are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)?
What do they actually do?
So lets start at the beginning….
You have probably heard that there are good fats and bad fats. If you have then give yourself a pat on the back and a big high five! You have paid attention to someone somewhere. There ARE good and bad fats, but it is not just about how much fat but the quality of it. As you can imagine, all fats are not created equal, which is why there is so much confusion.
Lets keep things simple….
At a very basic level it should be obvious that eating battered fish from a chippy is not the same as eating a salmon or avocado salad. Both contain fats but the salmon and avocado provide sources of ‘good’ fats rather than the trans-fatty, heart stopping battered fish.
Fat is the body’s most concentrated fuel source. To use your body fat and get rid of the excess, it must be broken down into fatty acids by the body and transported via the blood stream into the cells where the fatty acids are utilised to create energy for the body.
Trouble is, from a performance perspective that doesn’t happen very quickly.
Lets take Jogging and walking for example, 2 activities that can use fat for energy as they are low to moderate intensity and aerobic (with oxygen) in nature. But before you start jogging to reduce your love handles, slow cardio isn’t necessarily the best way to lose body fat. You only burn the energy when you are doing the activity. Furthermore, the more you do it the efficient your body becomes and the less fat you will use, just like a cars mpg.
Intense weight training and interval training however increase your metabolic rate BETWEEN sessions when fat can be burnt up to help your body recover, resulting in much greater and faster fat loss without simultaneous muscle loss.
What else does fat do?
Fat has many more uses beyond being a fuel for training. That’s not to say you should carry excess, you definitely need to burn that off to increase performance whilst training.
Fat also plays a huge part in cell structure, all 100 Trillion of them!
Each of your cells membranes need fat to function. Your cells run EVERYTHING from metabolism to your immune system, your nervous system, transporting certain critical fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E and K) and also slowing down food digestion. This prevents the hunger pangs often associated with the aftermath of rapid digestion of carbohydrate based meals.
NB if you are deficient in fats in your diet, your body will struggle to transport fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E and k) and you may suffer symptoms even though you are eating enough.
e.g. Poor transportation and uptake of Vitamin D for example, can lead to many problems from depression to bone loss and energy production.
Types of Fat
There are three types of natural fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Found in certain meats and dairy produce, saturated fat is required like all fats but should be limited.
A couple of portions of red meat per week is generally enough. Saturated fat should account for no more than 10% of daily calorie intake.
Unsaturated fat are much more biologically active in the body so much better for consumption. We can split unsaturated fat into 2 types:
Monounsaturated: Found in most fish, avocado, olives, olive oil, vegetable oils and nuts (and nut butters), monounsaturated fats are very heart healthy and should be consumed daily, but not to excess.
Polyunsaturated: Found in fatty fish (Salmon, mackerel, sardines etc.), whole grains and seeds. You have probably heard of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 have different properties and effects on the body.
When we ate a diet with lots of fish and natural food before the dawn of processed foods, the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 was about 1:1 – 2:1 .
Now with the rapid increase in the use of processed vegetable oils in almost all prepared foods, that ratio is now more like 20:1 or 50:1 causing significant nutritional imbalance.
Omega 6 is derived from linoleic acid. The body needs Omega 6’s to create hormones which aid nerve impulse transmission and has anti-inflammatory properties. However, too much can actually be highly-inflammatory causing swelling, pain sensitivity, increased blood thickening
Omega 3 Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) comes from Plants such as flaxseed in the form of ALA (Alpha-linoleic Acid) and from fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies in the form of EPA (EicosaPentaenoic Acid) and DHA (DocosaHexaenoic acid)
Omega 3’s are also highly effective in reducing exercise-induced constriction of the airways leading to the lungs so if you suffer from poor breathing during exercise, increasing your Omega 3 consumption could make a big difference.
Since Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, adequate intake of Omega 3’s is also needed to reduce the inevitable post-workout inflammation and accelerate repair and reducing any soreness after training. This will help you recover and progress much more quickly.
How Can I tell if I am Deficient?
Here are some potential signs of fatty acid imbalance. Please bear in mind that one of these does not necessarily indicate an imbalance, however, if you are seeing at least 4 or more that you can relate to then it is possible you are deficient in EFA’s.
- Poor exercise recovery / muscle aches
- Dry skin
- Dry, unmanageable hair / Dandruff
- Excessive thirst
- Brittle nails or soft nails
- Learning problems
- Poor concentration
- Attention Deficit Disorder
- Lowered immunity
- Patches of pale skin
- Cracked skin on finger tips
- Dry eyes
- Poor wound healing
- Frequent infections
What Else to Essential Fatty Acids do?
Essential Fatty Acids play a huge part in the body. It has been speculated that it is EFA’s introduced in the human food chain through eating fish and shell fish that allowed us to develop our intelligence and become the dominant species on the planet.
It is no wonder that in modern society, where EFA’s are not consumed in anywhere near as much as we need that our health is beginning to suffer.
There has been various conditions linked with a deficiency in EFA’s . People who get little or no DHA in their diet for example have been linked with Multiple Sclerosis, depression, PMS, ADHD, schizophrenia and hyperactivity.
60% of your brain is fat, if you are deficient in EFA’s it affects how your brain works, brain cells cannot be serviced correctly, which can affect your concentration, senses and anything the brain is linked with, which is pretty much everything, including muscle contraction. If you are having hearing or vision problems, look at upping your EFA’s before starting down any surgical procedures.
Supplementation with EPA and DHA can cause significant improvements in exhaustion and weakness
Stress is caustic to the body, it effects every one of us every day and our ability to deal with it comes in part to what we fuel our bodies with. Stress can damage the fatty acids in the brain and so EFA’s are essential to the diet. If you are stressed all the time consider supplementing your diet with EFA’s to help counteract its effects (reducing stress of course is the best way)
Moods, memory and Behaviours
EFA’s by way of fish oils improve mood by boosting levels of the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin. It is well documented that many people with abnormally low brain and blood levels of serotonin are depressed.
The Nutrition Approach
So far we have covered why EFA’s are so vital for your health and performance. But it is only part of the picture. You have to pay attention to your whole nutrition approach, as simply increasing Essential Fatty Acid intake may not have much effect if you lack certain other nutrients.
This is why addressing your nutrition as a whole is massively important.
The following vitamins and minerals are also important in fatty acid conversion in your brain.
- Vitamin B3 and B6
- Magnesium (aids reactions involving fatty acids)
- Zinc (antioxidant within the brain)
- Vitamin C, E and A
As you probably know Fish oils are now widely accepted as an essential part of any good diet and are a great source of the Essential Fatty Acids detailed above. Even if you do not like fish, there is nothing stopping you from supplementing with a high quality oil to make sure you cover your daily intake.
As mentioned earlier, EFA’s, especially EPA and DHA are abundant in “fatty” cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout.
What people do not realise however is that many of these fish are now farmed and are fed on a poor diet and fed certain food to keep the flesh the correct colour for selling, rather than roaming freely in oceans and rivers. When they are in their natural environment they feed on natural marine plants/algae. Farmed fish are often devoid of these fatty acids because the original source is actually the plant life – and you are what you eat! It is the marine algae that provide the EPA and DHA (Essential Fatty Acids).
With this in mind it is becoming more and more important to supplement EFA’s with either good quality, non-polluted fish oils or with supplements derived from marine algae sources.
Realistically, everybody exercising hard and wanting to ensure they get all the nutrients they need, should be supplementing with Essential Fatty Acids.
Also bear in mind that omega 3 oils are anti-inflammatory and can aid the reduction of inflammation, especially systemic inflammation (See Martial Arts Illustrated May 2014 issue for my article on inflammation)
Fish oils are so vital to our species from brain function to cellular health that it is important that you take 4-6g fish oils per day with food as your digestive enzymes in your stomach will improve absorption.
Make sure you split the intake of the fish oils throughout the day with food.
To get the most from fish oil you have to be consistent in taking it and can take 30 days of increased fish oil consumption to bring about noticeable differences so ensure you take it daily.
As well as EPA and DHA in Omega 3 oils, Extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, turmeric and ginger, nuts, avocado have also been found to reduce systemic inflammation so regular consumption of these foods is important.
You should also ensure your diet contains lots of the following anti-oxidants, which help your immune system:
- Vitamin C
- Polyphenols from berries and dark-coloured vegetables.
- Coenzyme Q10
- Vitamin E
Also make sure you reduce your intake of Omega 6 fatty acids particularly vegetable oils. Throw out all processed starches, vegetable oils and margarine, high sugar foods, canned fruits and vegetables.
The more you control insulin with proper nutrition habits, the less fish oil is required so reduce your consumption of starchy sugars such as pasta, potatoes, rice and bread.
Some rice or sweet potatoes are okay after hard exercise to refuel.
Final Thoughts on Omega Oils
As long as you implement the following action steps you should see improvements in your overall health and wellbeing as well as your time spend training and competing.
So do the following:
- Increase your intake of ‘good’ fats detailed throughout the article.
- Reduce your carb intake (restrict to refuelling after exercise and some fruit at breakfast)
- Reduce your intake of saturated fat, red meat, vegetables oils and of course, processed food
- Take high-grade fish oils (4-6g per day spread throughout the day) or a plant based source such as V-Pure EPA/DHA.
- Eat LOADS of organic, fresh vegetables high in antioxidants to give the Essential Fatty Acids plenty of support.
To your strength and Health