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Sports Nutrition

Fish Food

Unless you’ve been living under a 45-pound weight plate for the past five years, you should have some idea that fish oil provides many health benefits. The health benefits of these, er, healthy fats include a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and several cancers, as well as an ability to elevate mood and boost brain function. But new research on fish oil is uncovering a whole school of unexpected physical benefits, like boosting muscle growth, shedding body fat and even enhancing athletic performance.

Healthy Fats

Fish oil’s major components are essential fats known as omega-3 fats. Essential means that the body cannot produce them on its own and therefore must get them from the diet. The two types of omega-3 fats in fish oil are known as eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Of the two, DHA is thought to be the real MVP. So much so, in fact, that EPA gets readily converted into DHA in the body. DHA then does its magic, such as producing beneficial anti-inflammatory hormones. However, new research is now showing that DHA and EPA work to turn on beneficial genes and turn off harmful ones.

A recent study from National Taiwan University found that the omega-3 fats from fish oil turned on genes that govern fat burning while turning off genes that led to fat storage. In addition, they found that these fats also turned on genes that aided glucose uptake and storage by the muscles. If more glucose gets used by the body, less insulin is released to combat it and less glucose is left over to be stored as fat. In a nutshell, this is one way that omega-3s aid in keeping body fat off, preserving cardiovascular health and preventing diabetes.

While the brain-boosting benefits of omega-3s were thought to work mainly by reducing the degeneration of the brain with advancing age, new research shows benefits to those in middle age. University of Pittsburgh researchers recently reported that in adults ages 35 to 54, the higher their blood levels of DHA, the better their performance on tests of nonverbal reasoning and mental flexibility, working memory and vocabulary. These same researchers found in an earlier study that young adults consuming the highest amounts of omega-3 fats had greater volume in brain areas related to memory and mood.

But that doesn’t mean that omega-3 fats do not offer age-fighting benefits. In fact, one new study from the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that omega-3 fats may slow down aging by limiting the shortening of cells’ telomeres (“caps” on the ends of chromosomes that prevent the chromosomes from fusing with each other or rearranging).

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Omega-3 fats may even benefit your oral health. Japanese researchers followed 55 people over the course of five years and discovered that the average number of dental-disease events was 1.5 times higher in those with the lowest intake of DHA. And omega-3s can help matters at the other end of the body, too. Iranian researchers found that fertile men had significantly higher blood and sperm levels of omega-3s than infertile men.

Phat Physique

While health is important, we know you pick up this magazine to get leaner and more muscular. And yes, fish oil can help you there, too.

As we discussed above, we now know that the omega-3 fats from fish oil can turn on genes that increase fat burning while turning off genes that increase fat storage. And that can lead to greater fat loss down the road, as studies have shown. In fact, research published in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that the subjects with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fats had the least body fat, smallest waist size and lowest hip circumference.

A more recent study found that not only did supplementing with fish oil aid fat loss, but it also simultaneously increased muscle mass. Researchers from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania found that subjects taking 4 grams of fish oil per day for six weeks lost a pound of body fat while simultaneously gaining a pound of muscle, despite not changing their diet and not exercising. This may not seem like a huge change, but think of what they could have experienced if they had been following a proper diet and exercise program.

Although the researchers weren’t sure why the subjects gained muscle with fish-oil supplements, they did find lower cortisol levels within the fish-oil group. Because cortisol can break down muscle and interfere with testosterone, reducing it could lead to greater muscle growth. Another study, from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, suggests that omega-3 fats may increase muscle protein synthesis, the process of building up muscle protein from amino acids, which leads to muscle growth. They gave older subjects either 4 grams of fish oil or corn oil and reported in a 2011 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that those receiving the fish oil experienced a greater boost in muscle protein synthesis when they ate protein and carbs. In other words, fish oil may help you put those preworkout and postworkout meals to better use.

Perform Better

Another way that fish oil may help you build bigger, stronger muscles and lose body fat is through its ability to help you train harder for longer. One study by Iranian researchers reported that male wrestlers supplementing with fish oil for 12 weeks while training experienced a significant improvement in lung function and capacity. The better the lungs work and the more air they can take in, the greater the oxygen delivery to your muscles. That allows for better endurance and recovery between sets, which all leads to better results in the gym.

Speaking of endurance, fish oil increases levels of nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels, which allows more oxygen and nutrients to get to your muscles. Numerous studies show that NO-boosting supplements increase energy during workouts. Now you can add fish oil to that list of NO boosters. UK researchers found that when they fed subjects a meal rich in omega-3 fats, their blood vessels were much more flexible than when they had a meal without omega-3s. The researchers concluded that this was because of the omega-3s ability to boost NO levels.

And yet another way that omega-3 fats enhance endurance is, again, by turning on genes that increase fat burning and glucose storage. By burning more fat throughout the day and storing more glucose, your muscles will have higher levels of glycogen, which is a critical energy source during exercise. The omega-3s also enable more fat to be burned during exercise, sparing that stored glycogen, which allows you to be stronger for longer during weight workouts and cardio. Additionally, all the extra glycogen that gets stored pulls water into muscles, making them bigger and fuller. That places a stretch on the membranes of the muscle cells and instigates processes that lead to long-term muscle growth.

Dishing Out Fish Oil

To make sure that you’re getting ample amounts of omega-3 fats, take 2 to 3 grams of fish oil with meals two to three times per day.