What role do omega-3s play in sports nutrition?

10 Jul 2018

Omega-3 fatty acids have increasingly become part of athletes’ nutritional regime over the past few years but research supporting their role in sports nutrition is still in its early stages.

What role do omega-3s play in sports nutrition?

Omega-3 supplementation for sportspeople tends to be focused on general wellbeing, as about 80% of the world’s population is thought to consume less than 250 mg per day, according to a 2016 review. The European Food Safety Authority concluded in 2009 that 250 mg should be the reference intake value for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and an analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2011 also identified 250 mg of EPA and DHA omega-3s as the threshold for cardiac risk reduction.

Many of the most well-established benefits of omega-3s are cardiovascular-related, such as reducing levels of triglycerides and blood cholesterol, and maintaining normal blood pressure and cardiac function, so it makes sense to ensure sportspeople have adequate levels.

However, researchers and suppliers have turned their attention to the specific performance and recovery-related benefits that could be associated with omega-3s. Indeed, omega-3s are emerging as an important consideration in sports nutrition, on the one hand for their contribution to athletes’ overall health, and on the other primarily for their anti-inflammatory effects.

Krill-derived omega-3 supplier Aker BioMarine, for example, has conducted its own research suggesting supplementation could improve thigh strength during cycling and improve recovery among triathletes. The company’s pilot study used a high dose omega-3 supplement of four grams per day.

GOED, a non-profit industry organisation that aims to increase global omega-3 intakes, says 250 mg should be seen as a minimum, rather than an optimum, level of consumption and says there could be additional benefits associated with high dose supplementation.

Other studies have suggested that omega-3s could help reduce muscle pain after exercise, and counterbalance exercise-induced inflammation made worse by the high levels of omega-6 fatty acids common in western dietary patterns. Supplier DSM, which provides both fish-derived and algae-derived omega-3s, has also cited animal studies that suggest omega-3s might help recovery after sports-related traumatic brain injuries.

Whether this promise translates into market opportunities for food, drink and supplement makers largely depends on whether further research backs such findings. For now, many sports nutrition products make no claims about the specific sports-related functions of omega-3 in their products, perhaps mentioning more general heart health benefits. Others simply highlight omega-3 on pack, and allow consumers to draw their own conclusions.

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