For years now we have been told to stay away from fats, however essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats you shouldn't avoid.
Essential Fats: A Primer
The two essential fatty acids are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. When you consume linoleic acid, your body uses some of it to make other necessary fats, including gamma-linolenic acid and arachidonic acid. Linoleic acid and the fats made from it make up the omega-6 fatty acid family. Similarly, when you consume alpha-linolenic acid, your body uses some of it to make eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, and these constitute the omega-3 fatty acid family.
Like other essential nutrients (think protein, iron and Vitamin C), we must get enough omega-3s and omega-6s from food or supplements every day to simply maintain health (omega-3s from foods like cold-water fish and certain oils and nuts; the more common omega-6s from most other vegetable oils, animal products, or in omega replacement supplements like Universal Animal Omega.). If you want optimal health and athletic performance, however, you need to consume the right proportion of omega-6s to omega-3s, up to approximately five times more omega-6s than omega-3s.u Unfortunately, most people go way over this optimal ratio. In fact, Carol J. Lammi-Keefe, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, says the American diet typically contains 20-40 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
Is our over consumption omega-6s and under consumption of omega-3s worth getting worried about? Most experts say yes. "The current upset ratio of EFAs in our diets contributes to many problems, including heart disease, inflammation, pain and altered eicosanoid production," says Paul Addis, PhD, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Translation: Eat the wrong fats in the wrong quantities and you mess up a group of hormone like chemicals called eicosanoids, possibly contributing to joint pain, inflammation and slow post-workout recovery. Bad news indeed for the bodybuilder!
All About Eicosanoids
Eicosanoids affect every aspect of your day-to-day health and athletic performance. Some raise and lower blood pressure, while others boost and repress the immune system, alter pain perception or make you more or less prone to allergies and inflammation. How can you make sure your body makes the ones you want in the right amounts? By manipulating the ratio of EFAs in your diet
"High omega-6 intake and low omega-3 intake can promote excessive eicosanoid production, which in turn may increase inflammation and pain," says Kevin L Fritsche, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and animal sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia. "Evidence exists that high intake of omega-3s can reduce eicosanoids, inflammation and pain."
When your muscles and joints ache after an intense weightlifting session, for example, eating more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s may help. An intriguing study found that people with musculoskeletal pain (such as joint pain) experienced less discomfort if they consumed cod liver oil, a good source of omega-3s. The pain relief was probably due to reduced inflammation, which would likely accelerate recovery after a tough workout so you can get back in the gym sooner.
Besides reducing joint pain and swelling and speeding postworkout recovery, eating the right ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s may benefit your body composition. Artemis R Simopolous, MD, and co-author Jo Robinson speculate in The Omega Plan (HarperCollins, 1998) that a favorable balance of omega-3s to omega-6s in the diet can make muscle cells more sensitive to insulin, a pep-tide hormone that ferries glucose into cells and can consequently facilitate weight loss in some people who are "insulin-resistant," or whose cells are less responsive to insulin (as is the case with many obese people and diabetes sufferers).
The hypothesis that EFAs may influence bodyweight comes from both human and animal studies. In one, laboratory mice raised on a high-fat diet enriched with omega-6s (or saturated fat like butter) were significantly fatter than mice fed a high-fat diet enriched with omega-3s, even though the diets contained the same number of calories. ' A human study found that people whose muscle cells contain low levels of omega-3s and high levels of omega-6s are more likely to be insulin-resistant and obese.
Another recent study showed that Israeli Jews have a higher rate of obesity (and diabetes) than Americans, even though the former generally eat fewer calories and less fat. This phenomenon, dubbed the "Jewish paradox," may be caused at least in part by Israelis' typical over consumption of omega-6s." Obviously, these studies don't prove that eating fewer omega-6s and more omega-3s is a guaranteed way to lose weight, but they do suggest that such a ratio may help some people control or possibly reduce their weight.
EFAS & Heart Disease
While the link between EFAs and bodyweight is intriguing but unproven, solid evidence shows that eating more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s will protect your most important muscle: your heart. The omega-3s found in fish, including salmon and lake trout, are especially good for your ticker.
Current research suggests that omega-3s protect the heart in three ways, says Addis. First, they reduce blood clots, which can choke off the heart's blood supply. Second, omega-3s inhibit the formation of fatty deposits that narrow blood-vessel walls and can eventually hinder blood flow and oxygen to the heart. Finally, they reduce the amount of fats circulating in the blood, which could otherwise form dangerous clots contributing to heart attacks and strokes.'"
On the other hand, omega-6s actually increase blood clotting, raising the risk of a heart attack." Not surprisingly, studies have shown that omega-3s significantly reduce the risk of a fatal heart attack in both men" and women.'' For these reasons, Addis, Fritsche and other experts recommend eating plenty of omega-3-rich foods, as well as omega-3-rich fish like salmon and trout once or twice a week.
But remember the correct ratio: Eating more omega-3s than omega-6s every day can cause serious problems, including too-thin blood and a depressed immune system, says Lammi-Keefe. People with diabetes or clotting disorders and anyone taking blood-thin-ners should consult a physician before taking omega-3 supplements or eating too many omega-3-rich foods
If you follow the proper ratio, you'll have many good reasons to eat more omega-3 EFAs and consume fewer omega-6 EFAs: to speed postworkout recovery, reduce inflammation in hardworking joints, minimize pain, protect your heart and maybe even normalize bodyweight. Consume about 1 gram of omega-3s for every 1-5 grams of omega-6s every day and you'll likely experience measurable health and performance benefits for years to come.