What are omega 3s?
Omega-3s are one of the key nutrients every runner should include in her diet. Our bodies produce inflammatory chemicals, either through running or other forms of stress, trauma or injury. Omega 3 fats help counter that inflammation by producing natural anti-inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. By reducing inflammation you can help your body heal and recover faster, as well as reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.
What other benefits do they offer?
Research has shown that omega 3s may help prevent exercise-induced asthma, improving post-exercise lung function and supporting heart health. They are also vital for keeping our body’s cell membranes flexible and healthy; this is important for cell communication of hormones and neurotransmitters, influences our mood and cognitive function. They are also involved in fat metabolism, so by optimising your omega intake you can help keep your body composition healthy, promoting fat burning rather than fat storage.
Where can we get them?
Omega 3 fats are termed ‘essential’ because they cannot be manufactured by the body – they have to be obtained from our diet. One of the problems with our Western diet is that it is relatively high in omega 6 fats (found in many vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and processed foods) but low in omega 3 fats. Traditionally, our diet had a more balanced intake. Today, it is estimated our intake is between 10:1 to 20:1 of omega 6 to omega 3 fats. Studies have demonstrated that this high intake of omega 6 compared with omega 3 fats has shifted our physiologic state to one that is pro-inflammatory, which has led to an increase in inflammation-related conditions, which range from heart disease to psoriasis.
The main animal sources of omega 3 fats are cold-water fish such as sardines, salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, halibut and fresh tuna (canned tuna is not a good source). However, as fish that are higher in the food chain can contain higher levels of mercury, you should restrict your intake of larger fish such as tuna, swordfish and shark. (The Food Standards Agency recommends that people eat at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily.) Other animal sources of omega 3 fats include grass-fed meat and organic milk.
Where can vegetarians get them?
Vegetarian sources of omega 3 fatty acids, known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), are found in a range of foods, including flaxseed, hemp seed, chia seed, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, soybeans and green leafy vegetables. This type of omega-3 fat needs to be converted by the body into the longer chain fats found in animal sources of omega 3s, but research suggests this conversion is relatively inefficient. So if you are a vegetarian, aim to consume these foods every day and consider taking a vegetarian DHA supplement.
One of the best plant sources of omega 3s are chia seeds, with 30 per cent of their fat coming from omega-3 and 10 per cent from omega 6. Chia, or salvia hispanica L, is a member of the mint family and is native to Mexico and South America; it has been enjoyed for centuries as a food and medicine. Known as ‘the running food,’ chia seeds – with water – were the staple that fuelled Aztec warriors. Not only are they rich in omega 3s, but chia seeds also pack a serious nutritional punch for runners, being high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein. Just 28g of the seeds contain nearly 20 per cent of your daily calcium needs, as well as 4g protein and 11g fibre.
Chia seeds are incredibly rich in soluble fibre and when they are soaked with water they form a gel. The gel can then be added to drinks or dishes to slow down the rate of digestion. This makes it the perfect fuel for long runs. As chia seeds hold 10 times their weight in water, they are a great hydrator too. Chia seeds can be added to smoothies, protein shakes and a range of sweet and savoury dishes – try this fabulous chocolate pudding as a pre or post exercise snack.