Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Essential Fatty Acids ~ Weight Management & Athletic Performance

We need lots of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) in our diet. More, in fact, then any other single nutrient, and that need increases as we train athletically. EFAs are essential because the body cannot make them on their own, so they must be gained through our diet. There are several types of EFAs, most important are Omega-6 and Omega-3. Omega-6 is fairly readily taken in through the diet, but Omega-3 is harder to get. There is a high percentage of Omega-6's in refined and vegetable based oils such as corn, soybean and canola, all used predominately in refined and processed foods. The Omega-3's are routinely processed out of most foods. The Western diet is very heavy in these types of foods. Because of this, most people are out of balance, having too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3. This can lead to inflammation problems, which are especially of interest to those training and putting more stress on joints and tissues. When the tissues are not receiving a enough of the right balance of EFAs there is not as much elasticity and cell function is disrupted. 

EFAs help to construct the membranes of every cell in the body. They are involved in energy production, transportation of oxygen to the blood, muscle growth and nerve functioning. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are used by the body to make hormone like substances, which go on to regulate a host of functions in the body. Some processes EFAs are directly involved in include:
  • Decreasing Inflammation
  • Increasing Muscle Growth
  • Speeding Recovery time
  • Supporting Health Joints and Connective Tissue
  • Aiding in Nerve Impulse Transmission
  • Enhancing Cardiovascular Health
Fascinating new research in the world of nutritional therapy suggests EFAs exert significant control over key metabolic genes in our cells. Particularly those involved in fat storage, fat burning and glycogen synthesis. Glycogen is stored carbohydrate energy. Fats high in Omega-3 play an essential role in maintenance of energy balance and glucose metabolism.

Recent research findings in the study of essential fatty acids has given us some interesting finding. Researchers discovered that these fats, particularly those of the omega-3 family, play essential roles in the maintenance of energy balance and glucose metabolism. In particular, they observed a phenomenon known as ‘fuel partitioning’, whereby dietary EFAs were able to direct glucose (from digested carbohydrates) towards glycogen storage while at the same time directing other fatty acids in the body away from triglyceride synthesis (ie fat storage) and towards fatty acid oxidation! In addition, these studies suggested that omega-3 fatty acids have the unique ability to enhance thermogenesis (the burning of excess fat to produce heat), thereby reducing the efficiency of body fat deposition. In simple terms, this fuel partitioning phenomenon appears to conserve carbohydrate while simultaneously shedding fat

In a study carried out last year, scientists studied the effects of omega-3 fat supplementation on swimming performance in rats . By comparison with a control group of unsupplemented rats, there was a 300% rise in the ‘swimming muscle’ levels of FABP, a protein that binds fatty acids and transports them to the mitochondria for oxidation, but no increase in muscle triglycerides. In a study on rat muscle fibers, high omega-3 and omega-6 diets produced 16-21% more muscle tension and up to 32% greater endurance during high frequency stimulation. Moreover, when these rats resumed their standard diets for a period of six weeks, their muscle function returned to the level of un-supplemented rats.

Your EFA intake should primairly be comprised of raw foods such as nuts and seeds. Of main not are chia, hemp, flax and sunflower seeds. Walnuts are especially high as are pumpkin seeds. Make sure to buy these nuts and seeds "raw" because of the complex structure of these fats, it also makes them very chemically reactive. They readily degrade when exposed to heat, light and air. Which means storing, cooking or in any way processing these fats from their natural state renders them almost useless. Commercial oils are refined, processed and stored so their EFA content is significantly degraded. So trying to get your daily intake of EFAs through tinned, dried, frozen, fast and processed foods is moot-it isn't going to happen. Instead turn to raw nuts and seeds. 

Dietary sources of EFAs

Food                                      Omega-3 (grams per100g)           Omega-6 (grams per 100g)

Chia                                        62-64%

Flax                                         20.3                                                  4.9

Hemp seeds                          7.0                                                    21.0

Pumpkin seeds                     3.2                                                    23.4

Salmon                                   3.2                                                    0.7

Walnuts                                  3.0                                                    30.6

Wheat germ                          0.5                                                     5.5

Sunflower seeds                    0                                                      30.71

Below are some dietary tips which can help to boost your EFA intake. (1)
  • Use fresh raw seeds sprinkled on salads, especially hemp, pumpkin and sunflower;
  • Use raw nuts in salads or mixed with raisins as snacks, especially walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts;
  • Switch to wholemeal bread – the wheatgerm in whole wheat is a good source of EFAs;
  • Eat whole grain breakfast cereals, such as Shredded Wheat, Weetabix and oat flakes, rather than refined cereal, such as cornflakes;
  • Use brown rice and wholemeal pasta instead of white varieties;
  • Use a cold-pressed seed oil in salad dressings, but make sure that it is fresh and has been packaged in an oxygen-free container that is also opaque to light;
  • Eat fatty fish at least once a week. If you can get fresh mackerel, herring or unfarmed salmon and trout, so much the better;
  • Don’t rely too heavily on low fat/diet foods and shakes for your calories – these are nearly all devoid of EFAs;
  • Choose free range chicken and wild meats where possible – these generally contain higher amounts of EFAs than their intensively-reared counterparts;
  • Choose organic free-range eggs if you can get them. Free foraging hens fed on natural foods lay eggs containing up to 30% of the fat as EFAs.
If you choose to supplement EFAs additionally, the best way to do this is with a bottle of proprietary seed oil blend. These tend to contain around two thirds omega-3 to one third omega-6. This is the reverse of the recommended dietary ratio, the idea being that you need extra omega-3 because it’s harder to obtain from normal dietary sources than omega-6. The ideal ratio balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 is 2:1. Flax seed oil is also an excellent source of omega-3 but contains very little omega-6. Whatever you choose, it should be fresh and packaged in an oxygen-free container that is also opaque to light. Ideally, the oil should have been kept refrigerated since production and should be stored in your fridge and used within four weeks of opening. Remember that EFAs (especially omega-3) are chemically very fragile and spoil rapidly if not stored correctly. For this reason you would be wise to avoid seed oil or fish oil capsules, which will almost certainly have been processed and stored at room temperatures for long periods of time! (1)