The importance of essential fatty acids for health and athletic performance

In brief

  • The polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) EPA and DHA comprise the long-chain omega-3 PUFAs, which are mainly sourced from seafood or fish oil supplements
  • A multitude of health benefits for omega-3 PUFAs include promoting recovery from training, promoting bone health, strengthening immune defence, enhancing mood and brain function, and improving control and storage of dietary glucose and fats, and body composition
  • Healthy fats are vital in an athletes’ diet to support general health, to facilitate adaptation and recovery from training, and achieve body composition goals


Owing to the widespread belief that fats are bad for health, a common mistake many people make is to eliminate most, if not all, fats from their diet. On the contrary, fat, and particularly a class of healthy fats and/or essential fatty acids (EFAs), are central to a healthy diet for both athletes’ and the general population.

A fatty acid is simply a small molecule that acts as fuel source, or a building block for cells, whereas the term “essential” refers to the fact that enzymes necessary for their production are absent from the human body. These fats are therefore required to be obtained through the foods that we eat. Healthy fats generally refer to a variety of whole food sources of these EFAs and other fats that are beneficial to health and homeostasis.

The detailed structure of fatty acids is beyond the scope of this article, but in short, fatty acids look like chains of carbon molecules linked together in varying lengths, and with different attachments between each molecule. Chains with only single attachments are known as saturated fatty acids (SFAs), but when one of these attachments is a double, the fat is then known as an unsaturated fatty acid. Those with one double attachment are known as monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), and those with more than one attachment are called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). In turn, different PUFAs are identified by position of a double attachment within their structure, which is described as an “omega-number”, and written as either n- or w-.

Essential fatty acids and the importance of the n-3/n-6 ratio

There are two essential fatty acids in humans: the n-3 PUFA alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and the n-6 PUFA linoleic acid (LA). ALA and LA can be used by the body to produce the longer chain PUFAs that have been associated with numerous health benefits, namely the n-3 PUFAs eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The conversion of ALA and LA to EPA and DHA involves several steps that rely on various enzymes, vitamins and minerals and can also be inhibited by several factors (trans fats, alcohol, diabetes, high blood insulin levels)1. Although EPA and DHA are not essential (as they can be made within body), production of these two fatty acids is not very efficient. Due to the inefficient production rates of EPA and DHA in the body and their numerous health-promoting benefits, therefore EPA and DHA are also often referred to as being essential fats.

Although we evolved eating diets providing approximately equal amounts of n-3 and n-6 fats, dietary habits have changed considerably in the past half century resulting in a much greater intake of n-6 compared to n-3 fats. This is not surprising as n-6 fats are most commonly found in vegetable oils (corn, sesame, safflower, peanut) and derived food products such as baked goods and convenience foods, while n-3 fats are most commonly found in fish and other seafood, marine plants and fish oils (but can also be found in the meat of grass-fed or wild animals). The modern Western diets typically provide a ratio of n-3:n-6 fats from 1:10 up to as high as 1:20, for optimal health, but ideally the intake should be closer to the 1-to-1 ratio on which humans evolved.

Reducing our intake of unhealthy fats (especially processed fats known as trans fats) as much as possible is important as these have been implicated in the development of numerous diseases (cardiovascular disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis). However, as some n-3 and n-6 fats are essential fats, and the balance of these two fats is important for healthy body function, eliminating all fats from the diet is not advised. Due to the importance of n-3 fats for health, the poor intake of these fats in our diet, and the excessive intakes of n-6 fats, supplementing our diet with n-3-containing foods, supplements and fish oils (which are naturally-rich in the n-3 fats, EPA and DHA) helps to re-balance our n-3:n-6 ratio.

What does the research say?

Unlike carbohydrates and proteins, fats have received relatively less attention in terms of the potential beneficial effects of intake on athlete health and exercise performance. However, interest surrounding n-3 fat intake in athletes comes from their numerous potential benefits related to general health maintenance and support (disease prevention, brain, bone, immune, neural and hormonal functions), and optimization of body composition. Due to the numerous potential benefits related to n-3 fat/fish oil supplementation, regular intake of healthy fats is likely to support better recovery and adaptation to training, and therefore provide more long-term health and performance benefits for both athletes and the casual exerciser.

(i) Performance & recovery n-3 fats enhance blood flow2 (important for nutrient and oxygen delivery and waste removal) to the working muscles during endurance-based exercise. Furthermore compared to other fats, supplementation of n-3 fats in animal models increases delivery of these fats to working muscles2, which could result in enhanced efficiency to burn fat (and thus spare carbohydrate stores) during endurance exercise. Finally, these essential fats can help athletes recover from intense training by reducing muscle soreness (commonly known as DOMS)3 and inflammation4.

(ii) Energy metabolism & body composition n-3  supplementation supports fat loss in people following weight loss diets5-8. Firstly, n-3 fats help to control food intake by altering the hormonal response to meals to increase feelings of fullness and decrease hunger6. Compared to other fats, supplementation with healthy n-3 fats  increases fat burning and decreases fat storage, which in turn helps bring about a drop in body fat7. These healthy fats also enhance the insulin sensitivity of cells8. Insulin sensitivity is a key marker of health as insulin resistance is at the centre of a wide range of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Improving insulin sensitivity enhances energy metabolism (by increasing carbohydrate use by muscles), and decreases the storage of body fat. Interestingly, n-3 fats (especially EPA) may also help prevent the stress-induced weight loss that occurs in cancer patients, and maintain/support gains in muscle mass9. This may be particularly beneficial during periods of injury or illness to help prevent undesirable weight and/or muscle losses10.

(iii) Bone health Dietary fats are required for the absorption of vitamin D (a fat-soluble vitamin) and may also help reduce calcium loss11, both of which are important nutrients for bone health. n-3  supplementation influences bone turnover rates (increase bone growth relative to bone loss), promotes whole-body changes in bone mineral density (low BMD is a risk factor for osteoporosis), enhances bone strength and decreases fracture risk and severity12.     

(iv) Mood & cognitive function As well as supporting physical recovery from training, it is also important to support the mental stress that training (and any other potential stressful lifestyle factors) places on the athlete. n-3 supplementation may help reduce feelings of mental stress, promoting a more positive mood state (decreased fatigue, anger, anxiety, depression and confusion)13. Furthermore, n-3 fats may also improve cognitive function by decreasing reaction time and improving concentration13, enhancing learning and memory14, and thereby facilitate better decision-making.

(v) Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction & immunity Athletes are reported to be at increased susceptibility to exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB; a narrowing of the airways brought on by intense activity), causing difficulty breathing and reducing exercise capacity15. Supplementation with n-3 fats protects against EIB, and potentially reduces airway narrowing and inflammation, and reduces reliance on prescribed bronchodilators15. Additionally, n-3 fats enhance immune defence16, possibly mediated by their anti-inflammatory action and their ability to repair damaged cells. During periods of illness, this may help promote recovery and faster return to training. Interestingly, n-3 fats are sometimes provided to COPD patients (severe airway damage and breathing difficulties) and prior to surgery in order to support the immune system and speed recovery by helping to control inflammation and infection, and repair damaged cells17.

(vi) General health n-3 supplementation helps to decrease inflammation8, triglyceride levels5, (bad fats), increases HDL cholesterol5 (good fats), decreases blood pressure (BP)18 and improves insulin sensitivity8 and thereby is likely to play a vital role in helping to protect against and treat various chronic disease states (such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, several cancers, type 2 diabetes).

(vii) Female health (pregnancy/lactation) n-3 supplementation is also particularly important during pregnancy and lactation as it may help promote infant development (visual and neural)19 and also help to decrease allergy risk20 in off-spring. Supplementation is also important for the health of the mother, as n-3 deficiency has also been associated with increased risk of maternal depression21.

What does this mean in practice?

Due to the multi-faceted benefits of n-3 fats, these healthy fats are an essential component to all athletes’ and general diets. Current recommendations16 are to consume between 1 to 2 g per day of n-3 fats (EPA and DHA). Note that when using a fish oil supplement or capsules, this figure refers to the actual amount of n-3 fats consumed rather than the amount of fish oil – so read your label carefully. ACTI OMEGA® provides 650 mg of EPA+DHA per 1 g capsule, so 1 to 3 capsules are advised on a daily basis to meet these recommendations.

Potential exercise-related benefits of n-3 supplementation include:

  • Weight loss diets: promote weight/fat loss while following calorie-restricted diets
  • Ball-sport athletes: promote reaction time and concentration
  • Endurance training: promote increased fat burning to fuel exercise performance, helping to prolong muscle glycogen stores for more intense exercise bouts
  • Sprint/power/strength athletes: promote decreased body fat, support increases in muscle mass, and thereby improve body composition and power-to-mass ratio critical for performance
  • Gym-based training: facilitate recovery and adaptation from training (helps reduce overall inflammatory response and repair damaged cells)
  • Injury/illness: help support the immune system to help protect the body against illness; help prevent losses in body weight and/or maintain muscle mass during periods of injury/illness; and may support bone healing and joint health


n-3 content
650 mg n-3 (340 mg EPA; 240 mg DHA)*
  • Facilitate recovery from training
  • Optimization of body composition
  • Support brain function
  • Promote bone health
  • Immune support


650 mg n-3
(340 mg EPA; 240 mg DHA)*
  • Support foetal/infant (IQ development and immune support) and maternal (improved mood and general health) health


120 mg n-3
(70 mg EPA; 33 mg DHA)
15 mg n6**
  • Lower levels of heavy metal toxins (i.e. mercury)


1860 mg n-3
(1320mg EPA;
450mg DHA)***
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Absorption of other nutrients important for bone health
  • Promote bone mass and strength
  • Decrease fracture risk and severity
Recommended to take *1-3 capsules/day; **6 capsules/day (two each at breakfast, lunch, dinner); ***1 capsule/day.


Although there has been discussion about the pros (multitude of benefits associated with supplementation described above) and cons (contamination of fish oils with potentially harmful toxins such as heavy metals) of n-3 PUFA supplementation, it is now widely acknowledged that the benefits of fish oil supplementation outweigh the potential cons. In addition, fish oils derived from smaller fish (i.e. ACTI KRILL®) are less likely to contain high levels of mercury and other heavy metal toxins.

Further reading

  • 1. Kidd PM (2007) Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behaviour, and mood: Clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Alter Med Rev. 12 (3), 207-227.
  • 2. Stebbins CL, Hammel LE, Marshal BJ, Spangenburg EE & Musch TI (2010) Effects of dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on the skeletal-muscle blood-flow response to exercise in rats. Int J Sports Nutr Exer Metab, 20 (6), 475-486.
  • 3. Tartibian B, Maleki BH & Abbasi A (2009) The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed muscle soreness in untrained men. Clin J Sports Med, 19 (2), 115-119.
  • 4. Bloomer RJ, Larson DE, Fisher-Wellman KH, Galpin AJ & Schilling BK (2009) Effect of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid on resting and exercise-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers: a randomized, placebo controlled, cross-over study. Lip Health Dis, 8 (36), 1-12.
  • 5. Hill AM, Buckley JD, Murphy KJ & Howe PRC (2007) Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Amer J of Clin Nutr. 85, 1267-1274.
  • 6. Parra D, Ramel A, Bandarra N, Kiely M, Martínez JA & Thorsdottir I (2008) A diet rich in long chain omega-3 fatty acids modulates satiety in overweight and obese volunteers during weight loss. Appetite, 51 (3), 676-680.
  • 7. Couet C, Delarue J, Ritz P, Antoine J-M & Lamisse F (1997) Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. Int J Obes. 21, 637-643.
  • 8. López-Alarcón M, Martínez-Coronado A, Velarde-Castro O, Rendón & Fernández J (2011) Supplementation of n3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid synergistically decreases insulin resistance with weight loss of obese prepubertal and pubertal children. Arch Med Res, 42 (6), 502-508.
  • 9. Murphy RA, Yeung E, Mazurak VC & Mourtzakis M (2011) Influence of eicosapentaenoic acid supplementation on lean body mass in cancer cachexia. Br J Cancer, 105, 1469-1473.
  • 10. Tipton KD (2010) Nutrition for acute exercise-induced injuries. Ann Nutr Metab, 57 (2), 43-53.
  • 11. Corwin RL (2003) Effects of dietary fats on bone health in advanced age. Prost Leuk Ess Fatty Acids, 68 (6), 379-386.
  • 12. Tarlton JF, Wilkins LJ, Toscano MJ, Avery NC & Knott L (2012) Reduced bone breakage and increased bone strength in free range laying hens fed omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplemented diets. Bone, 52 (2), 578-586.
  • 13. Fontani G, Lodi L, Migliorini S & Corradeschi F (2009) Effect of omega-3 and policosanol supplementation on attention and reactivity in athletes. J Amer Coll Nutr. 28 (4), 473S-481S.
  • 14. Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, Nelson EB, Ryan AS, Blackwell A, Salem N & Stedman M (2010) Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s Dementia, 6 (6), 456-464.
  • 15. Mickleborough TD, Lindley MR & Montgomery GS (2008) Effect of fish oil-derived omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on exercise-induced bronchoconstriction and immune function in athletes. Phys Sports Med, 36 (1), 11-17.
  • 16. Mickleborough TD (in press) Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in physical performance optimization. Int J Sports Nutr Exer Metab.
  • 17. Herzog R & Cunningham-Rundles S (2011) Immunologic impact of nutrient depletion in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Curr Drug Targets, 12 (4), 489-500.
  • 18. Hosseinzadeh MJA, Hajianfar H & Bahonar A (2012) The effects of omega-3 on blood pressure and the relationship between serum visfatin level and blood pressure in patients with type II diabetes. ARYA Atheroscler, 8 (1), 27-31.
  • 19. Campoy C, Escolano-Margarit MV, Anjos T, Szajewska H & Uauy R (2012) Omega 3 fatty acids on child growth, visual acuity and neurodevelopment. Br J Nutr, 107 (2), S85-106.
  • 20. Shek LP, Chong MF, Lim JY, Soh S & Chong Y (2012) Role of dietary long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant allergies and respiratory diseases. Clin Devel Immunol, 2012, 1-8.
  • 21. Shapiro GD, Fraser WD & Séquin JR (2012) Emerging risk factors for postpartum depression: serotonin transporter genotype and omega-3 fatty acid status. Can J Psychiatry, 57 (11), 704-712.