Going on a Fitness holiday and want to avoid taking a bag full of supplements?
Omega 3. It’s arguably the most important supplement to be taking for anybody living an athletic lifestyle. Our bodies can’t produce this essential fatty acid, so we must get it from our diet. But what should you look for if you’re buying Fish Oil or Omega 3 abroad? And can you change your diet to avoid the need?
The list of benefits is substantial, but the key ones are: Anti-inflammation, joint pain, brain function, vision and eye health, concentration, and prenatal fetus development.
Personally, I stopped taking fish oil when I was living in Taganga, a fishing town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. My diet was largely based around fresh fish bought directly from the fishermen on the beach (photo). The benefits of fish oils are felt over time, so I’ll never know if this was the right thing to do, but it’s important to note that it’s necessary to keep the dose consistent to get the benefits.
Are all Omega fatty acids good? - Well, yes and no. Our bodies need as close as possible to an equal balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in order to function optimally. We supplement with Omega-3 because today’s modern diets are typically much higher in Omega-6. The aim is to balance the two out, so adding Omega-6 is counterproductive.
Getting an optimal balance of 1:1
To put this into the context of today’s modern society, the average ratio across the general population has been reported to be as high as 16:1 (Omega-6 to Omega-3). This is largely due to the overwhelming presence of processed seed and vegetable oils in our foods. However, even you actively avoid processed oils, foods that we typically see as healthy, such as eggs, chicken, red meat, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and almonds, also contribute to a diet high Omega-6. It’s all about balance, so adding fish into your diet or taking away red meat will help.
However, it’s not that simple. The quality of the fish you eat has a huge impact. Intensively farmed fish doesn’t have the natural diet high in phytoplankton needed, which is what leads to high amounts of Omega-3. Therefore, it pays to make the most of your travels and eat fresh, locally caught wild fish.
Vegan Sources of useful Omega-3
Unfortunately for vegans, while certain seeds contain Omega-3, this is the Omega-3 ALA.
There are three Omega-3’s that we should know about. ALA, which is then broken down into the two useful Omega-3s: EPA and DHA. The bad news is that humans are very inefficient at breaking down ALA into EPA and DHA. Some research shows that women are better at converting ALA than men, with women converting on average 21% of ALA to EPA and 9% to DHA, while men have a conversion rate of 8% to EPA and only 4% to DHA. Regardless, it’s not very high and is probably not be bringing you closer to the ideal 1:1 ratio.
Theoretically Phytoplankton algae is the answer for vegans. There are EPA & DHA supplements that use a potent Phytoplankton source for these two fatty acids. However, I haven't been able to find them in Colombia yet.
Spirulina and Chlorella
These two super greens are capable of a lot, but despite the research that shows them to contain EPA and DHA, the amount is so small that we would need to consume excess amounts of it to be a viable source of supplementation.
There’s probably no getting away from it. Omega-6 fatty acids are everywhere, even in the cleanest healthy diet of nuts and seeds. Unless you are eating a coastal diet high in locally caught wild fish, you will probably benefit from a good quality source of EPA and DHA.
When we supplement with fish oil, make sure you look for the EPA and DHA as a proportion of the total oil. 30% EPA & DHA is probably the lower end of good
Look for one with an antioxidant such as Vitamin E
Choose one which is cold pressed so that it is less likely to have been oxidized
Look for at least 0.3g of EPA+DHA per serving (you’ll want to have more than one a day at this dose)
Check the date stamp, but also consider the temperature it might have been kept at. Light will also oxidase fish oil, so look for dark coloured capsules, or ones in opaque packaging.
Examine.com is an excellent resource. They consolidate and simplify all of the available research on a nutrition topic. The best thing about it is that they completely independant. https://examine.com/supplements/fish-oil/
Barbell shrugged podcast #318 - Why You Need Fish Oil w/ Evan Demarco - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRH5lOaglo0
To read further into the Vegan discussion on Omega-3’s There is a good article here: https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/gqynxw/the-fatal-flaw-of-the-vegan-diet
Urban Vegan also has a comparison of Algae based DHA & EPA Supplements here: https://urbanvegan.net/omega-3-supplements/#brands
This is a great article on Chlorella and Spirulina and their link with Omega fatty acids: https://www.indigo-herbs.co.uk/blog/chlorella-and-spirulina-superfood-heroes
Today’s Dietitian offers a bit of a deep dive into the studies. Especially around the conversion of ALA. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/020810p22.shtml
Healthline breaks down each Omega, and lays out what their effect is in our body. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/omega-3-6-9-overview