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OMEGA-3 – Exactly how important is this supplement?

By John Berardi Phd & Ryan Andrews MS/MA RD

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are compounds with tremendous health benefits. In their absence, illness and disease are quick to follow. Recently, a 33-year-old male client reminded us of this very fact. After an initial nutrition assessment, this client was ready to take some steps that would improve his nutritional program. The reason he came to us? Well, he was an avid runner, but he was to develop nagging injuries. He had debilitating, almost constant pain in his lower legs. We diagnosed it as chronic inflammation, which worsened with each acute exercise session.

Since his diet was very low in the anti-inflammatory omega-3's, and we know that omega-3's have a predictable impact on inflammation, we decided to begin by recommending he supplement with a fish oil product. We started by suggesting three fish oil capsules each day, which equates to three total grams of fish oil. We also focused on other areas of his program that needed improving. Specifically, we had him increase his meal frequency from two or three meals per day to four or five. Finally, we had him increase his vegetable intake from two or three servings day to five or six.

After about one month of religiously using the supplement and making some other moderate changes to his food intake, he was disappointed to note that his pain was still there. There were only "minor" (in his words) changes. As we've tested the anti-inflammatory of omega-3's time and time again, and they’ve always produced a noticeable effect, we decided to go back in and look at his diet record. This time, we did a complete fatty analysis, at his ratio of omega-3's to omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. With this analysis, the answer to his problem became obvious.

He was using corn oil for cooking. In addition, he added sunflower seeds to each daily lunch salad. Finally, he was steaming his veggies and then topping them with a large amount of margarine. Red flags all around. Each of these foods is remarkably high in the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. That is right, even vegetable oils, margarine, and sunflower seeds can cause problems if your dietary fat intake is out of balance. And, out of balance he was! Our analysis of his daily intake showed an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1. That means he was getting 20 times as many inflammatory 6's as he was getting anti-inflammatory 3's. No wonder he was having problems with inflammation!

The solution was simple; we had to get his omega-6 to omega-3 ratio balanced. Experts typically recommend an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1, so that is what we shot for. We did this by switching his cooking oils to olive (for medium to low and coconut (for high temperatures). We also had him get rid of the margarine, replacing it with omega-3-rich walnut oil, which he sprinkled over his veggies. Further, we reduced his intake of sunflower seeds while increasing his intake of omega-3-rich walnuts and hemp seeds. Finally, we increased his omega-3-rich fish oil intake to six grams day. In the end, the sum total of these interventions dramatically reduced his intake of omega-6 polyunsaturates while balancing out his intake of the other dietary fats— omega-3 polyunsaturates, monounsaturates, and saturates.

These changes had a huge impact. When this client came back after four weeks, he had a massive reduction in pain and inflammation, an increase in weekly running mileage, and a host of other benefits including an improvement in recovery after workouts, a clearer complexion, and more stamina.


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John Hamlett

Fitness & Nutritionist Specialist

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