Omega-3: What it is, why it’s important for endurance athletes and how best to eat it

We're all aware of omega-3s but what are the best sources, what are the benefits for triathletes and how much should you be eating? Kate Percy has all the answers on this all-important fatty acid…

Healthy eating: high angle view of a group of food with high levels of Omega-3 fat. The composition includes salmon, sardines, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and various nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, chis seeds, pecan, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and hazelnuts. High resolution 42Mp studio digital capture taken with Sony A7rII and Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro G OSS lens

What is Omega-3?

Before we get to omega-3, let’s start with fat. Fat is one of the three macronutrients, alongside protein and carbohydrate, that we need to live. Fat helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E. We need fat for energy, to produce important hormones, for our immune function, healthy skin and nerve function.

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The main types of fat are saturated and unsaturated, and indeed most fats and oils contain both in different proportions. It is recommended that men consume no more than 30g saturated fats, and women no more than 20g a day, and to replace saturated with unsaturated where possible. These can reduce the risk of heart-related disease, as well as improve immunity levels, mood and brain development and (good news!) sports performance.

That’s where omega-3 comes in. Part of the ‘unsaturated’ family of fats, it is vital for everyday health, whatever our age or level of activity.

There are different types of omega-3 fats, each with a specific chemical structure. ALA (alpha linolenic acid), is found mainly in plant-based foods such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain fats that can be made from ALA in our bodies. These have the most direct health benefits and are found in oily fish.

What does Omega-3 do?

Eating foods high in omega-3’s can help in many ways; from lowering the level of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in your blood, helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes to having a positive impact on cognitive function, skin, vision, joints and your bones.

Is Omega-3 important for athletes?

For athletes looking to improve performance there is growing research to support the link between omega-3’s and sports performance.

The anti-inflammatory properties of EPA and DHA help combat muscle soreness and post-exercise muscle swelling and are linked to benefits such as stimulating muscle growth influencing the fat to muscle ratio in your body and improving recovery of muscles after intense exercise .

Some studies suggest EPA and DHA reduces the demand for oxygen during exercise so our body needs less energy during endurance exercise.

How much Omega-3 do athletes need?

Good question! There is no recommended daily intake for omega-3, although we are advised to eat 2 portions of oily fish a week (around 140g) to ensure we eat enough.

Should I take a supplement?

Real food is best! It’s preferable to get nutrients from foods rather than supplements, so try to eat your two portions of oily fish per week first.

Supplement use is currently not recommended in healthy adults and children, so talk to your GP before taking them. Omega-3 supplements usually contain vitamin D and A, so it’s important not to take them along with other supplements such as a multivitamin or to take during pregnancy.

What foods are rich in omega-3?

The best source of EPA and DHA is fish, especially oily fish such as mackerel, kippers, pilchards, trout, salmon, herring, crab (fresh), whitebait and sardines.

Vegetable sources of omega-3 (ALA) include seeds, especially flaxseed, pumpkin and chia seeds, and nuts, particularly walnuts, soya and soya products such as tofu, green leafy vegetables, seed oils such as rapeseed oil and eggs enriched with omega-3. However, making EPA and DHA from ALA (vegetable sources) happens slowly and only small amounts are formed, so fish is better.

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Top image: Getty Images