From heart and joint health to fat loss, fish oil has tons of benefits. Here’s what the science says about making it a staple.
You take fish oil everyday, right?
What's your reason? You want to die from a heart attack? You enjoy joint pain? Maybe you've embraced your love handles and don't want to get rid of them?
That's right, fish oil can help with all those things (and a lot more). I promise you by the end of this article you'll want to start using fish oil on a daily basis. If not, there's no hope for you.
First, let me open your eyes to the myriad of health benefits. If that doesn't impress you, we'll move on to the latest research (some exclusive and unpublished) regarding fish oil and fat loss.
Fish Oil and Heart Health
Some of the most unreal data regarding fish oil consumption is in the area of heart disease. Around the turn of the latest century, one of the most incredible studies using fish oil was underway.
The researchers of the GISSI-Prevenzone study enrolled 11,323 people who had previously suffered from a heart attack. After 3.5 years, the ones who took 1 gram of fish oil each day had almost a 50% reduction in sudden death from heart attack. (1) That's amazing.
In other words, let's say there's a 100% chance that you're going to have a heart attack and die, instantly. If you take fish oil you have a 50% chance of living! Throw me a filet of salmon!
Another recent study in Japan found that adding fish oil supplementation to a statin regimen improved survival from heart attack by an additional 16%. (2)
Why all this heart talk? I mentioned all these because 1) they're amazing examples of the health benefits of consuming fish oil on a daily basis and 2) they've given us an insight into why fish oil can help with weight loss (more on that in a little bit).
Fish and Your Joints
Have the years of heavy squats, deadlifts, and bench pressing taken a toll on your joints? Are you 30 but have the knees of a 60 year old? You're not alone. Achy joints are the silent price many dedicated trainers have to pay for years of lifting up ungodly weight rep after rep.
Fortunately, you can find another way to wear your badge of honor. Countless people have had their joint pain vanish seemingly overnight through daily fish oil supplementation. While 1 to 1.5 grams of EPA/DHA are all you need to prevent death from heart attacks, relief from joint pain requires upping the volume.
A friend of mine takes three servings of Biotest's Flameout® each day to take his joints from feeling like they're 70 years old to feeling 30 years old. That's a lot of functional fatty acids, but it's well worth it since he can now live and lift pain free.
Fish Oil and Fat Loss
Okay, let's get down to what you've been waiting for – fat loss. If you've been around the fitness game for a while, then I'm sure you can appreciate the irony here. The compounds that have shown the best results in scientific studies regarding fat loss are CLA and now EPA/DHA, all three being fats!
Fats that make you fit are a far cry from the low fat/anti-fat movement that infected bodybuilders' nutritional plans in the 80's and 90's. The research regarding fish oil and weight loss is new and starting to gain ground. Clinical trials have shown that it works, and the more hardcore cell and molecular biology studies have shown potential mechanisms that explain why it works.
Fish Oil, No Exercise, and Weight Loss
Let's look at some of the studies that have recently displayed the effectiveness of fish oil in helping shed those nasty pounds. The first one comes from the International Journal of Obesity where they took 324 overweight and obese men and women and put them on a reduced calorie diet. (3) These people then received either nothing, fatty fish, lean fish, or fish oil capsules.
I should mention that the diets they were put on weren't very conducive to weight loss. Participants were consuming 50% of their calories from carbohydrates and only 20% of their calories from protein. They also weren't exercising – it was like the researchers were setting them up to fail!
Despite the odds, the men lost an average of 14 pounds, and the men that ate fish or took fish oil lost an extra 2 pounds. There was an added weight loss advantage even in the group of men that ate cod (non-fatty fish). However, the driving force behind this stumped the researchers.
One of the first studies to show the fat loss effects of fish oil was published back in 1997. The participants were put on a diet containing 50% calories from carbohydrates. Instead of supplementing with fish oil the whole time, 12 weeks into the study some of the participants were asked to replaced 6 grams of fat in their diet with 6 grams of fish oil for the remaining three weeks. (4)
The people who replaced fats in their diet with fish oil lost 2 pounds over three weeks while the non-fish oil group lost 0.7 pounds. That may not seem like a lot at first but you need to consider that these people didn't do anything different except for replacing fat in their diet with fish oil – they didn't exercise and they were on a high carbohydrate diet.
What's the take-home message here? These two studies suggest that even when people are put on high carbohydrate diets, fish oil supplementation can increase fat loss and fat oxidation (especially in men).
Fish Oil, Exercise, and Abs
The most popular fish oil and weight loss study as of late was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (5) Unlike the previous two studies we've looked at, this study used a fish oil supplement that contained high levels of DHA (much like Flameout).
In this all-male study, the participants were given either sunflower oil or DHA-rich fish oil. Some were instructed to exercise while others were not. The exercise component was walking at 75% of their maximum heart rate for 45 minutes, three times a week.
Regardless of the less-than-optimal program design, the fish oil and exercise people experienced decreases in body mass greater than any of the other groups combined. The authors noted, "Both FO supplementation and regular aerobic exercise reduced fat mass."
And here's some unpublished/unreleased info regarding this study, a T-Nation exclusive. One variable that the researchers measured but haven't yet reported on was heart rate. The fish oil group experienced a significant reduction in resting heart rate compared to the others not receiving fish oil.
Because their exercise goals were heart rate oriented (75% max heart rate), the fish oil group had to work harder to achieve their exercise goal. This is potentially one of the reasons that the fish oil group lost more weight.
How fish oil effects resting heart rate is also not fully understood; however, we know from cardiovascular research that increased consumption of EPA/DHA can change the electro-chemistry of your heart. This is why fish oil can help prevent sudden death from heart attacks. This is also probably the reason why fish oil can modulate resting heart rate.
Another way that fish oil mediates fat loss is through substrate utilization, as fish oil has been previously shown to increase fat utilization during exercise. Because we also saw a fat loss effect of fish oil independent of exercise in the first two studies, it looks like there are several mechanisms at work to boost fat loss – some exercise related, some not.
Ways That Fish Oil Can Work
The exact mechanism in which fish oil potentates fat loss isn't completely understood. There seems to be both exercise and non-exercise pathways. Here are some potential ways that fish oil can help boost fat burning:
- DHA has been shown to prevent the conversion of pre-adipocytes to adipocytes and mediate pre-adipocyte death (kill 'em before they become immortal fat cells). (6)
- Fish oil has the ability to increase the clearance of chylomicrons and fats following a meal. This potentially can have a positive effect on substrate utilization. (7)
- Fish oil can "artificially" decrease heart rate thus increasing the level of exertion needed to reach desired intensity.
- Fish oil upregulates mitochondrial machinery and increases oxidation of fats within fat cells. (8, 9)
You may be wondering why improving insulin sensitivity isn't on the list? If you examine the broad range of studies that look at this, you'd see that there doesn't seem to be much of an effect (if any), especially in healthy people. Potentially there may be an insulin sensitizing effect in people with type II diabetes.
How to Apply This Stuff Today!
With all the health and emerging fat loss benefits of fish oil, you definitely want to start taking some today. Here's how you can get started:
- Find a brand that's very pure and potent so you don't burp fish or have to take a lot of capsules. Flameout® is a great choice, especially because the study that shows an exercise/fish oil interact was using a DHA-rich fish oil like Flameout.
- Take 2-3 grams of EPA/DHA per day. This is the lowest dosage I'd use to elicit a fat loss benefit. You may need to crank it up to 5 grams of EPA/DHA as the response can vary between individuals.
- You can take the 2-3 grams at one time, but if you're going to use a 5 gram dosage I'd split it up between morning and night.
- Take your fish oil with food. If you take it in the morning, take it with food to reduce the chance that it'll get oxidized as energy.
- If you find that you do burp fish, keep your fish oil in the freezer. That'll stop your fish burps!
Fish oil should be one of your staple supplements, regardless of your goals. And if your main goal is fat loss, consider ramping up your dosage a little. Improved health, a longer life, and abs? That's tough to beat!
- Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, Chieffo C, Di Gregorio D, Di Mascio R, et al.Early Protection Against Sudden Death by n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids After Myocardial Infarction: Time-Course Analysis of the Results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. 2002, pp 1897-1903.
- Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Saito Y, Ishikawa Y, et al. Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis. Lancet 2007; 369: 1090-1098.
- Thorsdottir I, Tomasson H, Gunnarsdottir I, Gisladottir E, Kiely M, Parra MD, et al. Randomized trial of weight-loss-diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content. Int J Obes 2007.
- Couet C, Delarue J, Ritz P, Antoine J, Lamisse F. Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. International journal of obesity 1997; 21: 637-643.
- Hill AM, Buckley JD, Murphy KJ, Howe PRC. Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. 2007, pp 1267-1274.
- Kim HK, Della-Fera M, Lin J, Baile CA. Docosahexaenoic acid inhibits adipocyte differentiation and induces apoptosis in 3T3-L1 preadipocytes. The Journal of nutrition2006; 136: 2965-2969.
- Smith BK, Sun GY, Donahue OM, Thomas TR. Exercise plus n-3 fatty acids: additive effect on postprandial lipemia. Metabolism 2004; 53: 1365-1371.
- Flachs P, Horakova O, Brauner P, Rossmeisl M, Pecina P, Franssen-van Hal N, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids of marine origin upregulate mitochondrial biogenesis and induce beta-oxidation in white fat. Diabetologia 2005; 48: 2365-2375.
- Guo W, Xie W, Lei T, Hamilton JA. Eicosapentaenoic acid, but not oleic acid, stimulates beta-oxidation in adipocytes. Lipids 2005; 40: 815-821.