Guest Post: The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on muscle and body composition (by Matt Jones)

Omega 3Whole-body protein turnover is the continuous process within the human body by which protein is created (anabolism) and broken down (catabolism), it is believed to occur at a rate of 300 g/day in an average 70 kg man. Whole-body protein turnover is largely regulated by feeding, a number of specific nutritional factors, along with fasting, hormonal factors and certain disease states. Gains in skeletal muscle occur following prolonged periods of net protein deposition; where muscle protein synthesis exceeds net muscle protein breakdown, thus resulting in a net gain in muscle protein (Wagenmakers, 1999).

Humans, especially athletes often seek net gains in muscle protein; such gains enable increased muscle mass and enhance muscle recovery. As mentioned, a number of nutritional and hormonal factors regulate protein synthesis and thus have a significant impact on body composition; the way you look.

Protein intake is known to have a significant effect on whole-body protein turnover, but what effect does fish oil have, if any?

Recent studies have suggested long-chain omega-3 fatty acids enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of insulin pathway signalling, therefore generating mTOR activity. The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) regulates a number of physiological components, including; interestingly protein synthesis. Signalling through the mTOR is activated by amino acids, insulin, and growth factors, but impaired by nutrient or overall energy deficiency.

So mTOR regulates muscle protein synthesis; and mTOR signalling is activated by insulin, the efficiency of which is enhanced by omega-3 fatty acids.

In a study of fish oil supplementation (4 g/day) providing 1.86 and 1.50 g/day EPA and DHA for 8-weeks in nine healthy middle aged subjects, Smith et al (2011a) revealed the anabolic response to insulin and amino acid infusion was greater in those subjects supplemented fish oils. In addition, muscle protein concentration and muscle cell size were both greater after fish oil supplementation; clearly demonstrating fish oil aids the activation of mTOR. This has previously been demonstrated in older adults (Smith et al. 2011b), and Gingras et al (2007) also demonstrated a positive effect of fish oil supplementation on mTOR activation and subsequent muscle protein synthesis through enhanced insulin signalling.

This apparent activation of the insulin signalling pathway is thought to derive from the anti-inflammatory effects of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Insulin resistance is associated with chronic inflammation; both EPA and DHA exert significant anti-inflammatory effects, and actively reduce inflammatory signalling molecule production. In an intricate study on mice, Young Oh et al. (2010) reported omega-3 fatty acid supplementation inhibited inflammation and enhanced insulin sensitivity. A similar mechanism has also been demonstrated in humans, Tsitouras et al. (2008) revealed adults fed a high omega-3 fatty acid diet for 8-weeks increased insulin sensitivity through improved inflammatory status.

So how is that of benefit?

Well supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids increase insulin sensitivity which allows for more effective activation of the insulin signalling pathway ultimately leading to mTOR stimulation and muscle protein synthesis. Increasing insulin sensitivity also has a significant effect on a number of other physiological functions including an increase in glucose and fatty acid uptake by muscle cells (Goodpaster et al. 2003); directing nutrients to muscle cells for oxidation (energy production) rather than fat storage, improving overall body composition and providing more fuel for muscle during exercise.

So omega-3 supplementation can activate the body’s muscle making systems and improve body composition?

Well, yes. A randomized double-blind study on 44 middle aged men and women supplemented either 4 g/day omega-3 fatty acids providing 1,600 mg/day EPA and 800 mg/day DHA, or 4 g/day safflower oil for 6-weeks revealed omega-3 fatty acid supplementation significantly increased fat free mass (body mass minus fat mass), significantly reduced fat mass, and had a tendency to reduce body fat percentage (Noreen et al. 2010).

These studies highlight a mechanism that eludes omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can significantly improve body composition. Stemming from the anti-inflammatory capacity of both EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids can increase insulin sensitivity which has a knock on effect on muscle anabolism in the presence of dietary carbohydrate and protein (typical of a post-workout meal/supplement) and repartitioning of energy to muscle instead of fat which ultimately results in fat loss. These initial findings require further exploration in more rigorous studies with more participants and in a more controlled setting; although the science is clearly there to be disproved.



Gingras, A., White, P., Chouinard, P., Julien, P., Davis, T., Dombrowski, L.,... & Thivierge, M. (2007). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids regulate bovine whole-body protein metabolism by promoting muscle insulin signalling to the Akt-mTOR-S6K1 pathway and insulin sensitivity. Journal of Physiology, 579, 269.

Goodpaster, B., Katsiaras, A., & Kelley, D. (2003). Enhanced fat oxidation through physical activity is associated with improvements in insulin sensitivity in obesity. Diabetes, 52, 2191 – 2197.

Noreen, E., Sass, M., Crowe, M., Pabon, V., Brandauer, J., & Averill, L. (2010). Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7, 31.

Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011b). Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis on older adults: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93, 402.

Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011a). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperaminoacidemiahyperinsulinemia in health young and middle aged men and women. Clinical Science (London), 121, 267.

Tsitouras, P., Gucciardo, F., Salbe, A., Heward, C., & Harman, S. (2008). High omega-3 fat intakes improves insulin sensitivity and reduces CRP and IL6, but does not affect other endocrine axes in healthy older adults. Hormonal Metabolism Research, 40, 199.

Wagenmakers, A. (1999). Tracers to investigate protein and amino acid metabolism in human subjects. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 58, 987.

Young Oh, D., Talukdar, S., Bae, E., Imamura, T., Morinaga, H., Fan, W., Olefsky, J. (2010). GPR120 is an omega-3 fatty acid receptor mediating potent anti-inflammatory and insulin sensitizing effects. Cell, 142, 687.


UnknownBio: Matt holds a BSc (Honours) degree in Sport & Exercise Science, an MSc in Nutrition Science. Through his own Performance Nutrition business, Nutrition Condition, he delivers frequent Health & Wellbeing Workshops to corporate and personal clients advising on how best to develop a sound, scientifically structured nutrition programme free from fads and marketing bias. Nutrition Condition also delivers Performance Nutrition services to professional athletes.

Matt can be contacted on or at

For regular updates follow Matt on Twitter @mattNCUK.


Where are Poliquin’s principles?




As the title suggests, this is another article about world-renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin. Poliquin's ideas have received a lot of resistance over the past 12 months. Not only have these criticisms come from internet message boards and other things that I consider “bro”, but from many respectable people within the fitness industry, such as Alan Aragon and Bret Contreras. Are these negative claims towards Poliquin warranted, you ask? As the saying goes, “there is no smoke without fire”, and indeed, Poliquin has made countless ridiculous claims in his career. I am not talking about minor quibbles regarding the interpretation of the available literature, which I expect of any human being. Rather, many are unsubstantiated and dishonest claims, with the apparent aim of promoting his supplement line and other interests. To give you a taste of some of his outlandish claims, I critiqued the ever-popular ‘BioSignature Modulation’ in some detail a while back.

Getting back to the current post, it was Bret Contreras who inspired the topic of this article. In May of last year, Contreras wrote an article entitled ‘Grill the Guru I: Charles Poliquin for reasons contained in that post. Towards the end of that article, I witnessed quite possibly the most ridiculous claim I’ve ever seen from a fitness industry “expert”. Poliquin stated that he gained 14.5 lbs. of solid muscle whilst simultaneously losing 3.5 lbs. of fat, in only five days! Perhaps the most absurd part of this claim is that he supposedly achieved it by a change in food quality, specifically, eating foods from the Dominican Republic rather than his native US. In the following sections, I’ll show you why these claims are impossible. I’ll quote parts of the original article written by Poliquin and interject with my own thoughts, countering these claims from several angles.

“I realize how anabolic food is every time I go teach in the Dominican Republic [DR]. Last time I taught a Biosignature Modulation course in the DR, the students took my body fat Monday morning. I was at 8% and weighed 198 pounds… Anyway, five days later, after eating only Dominican Republic foods, I weighed 209 [pounds] at 6% body fat. My business partner came to finish the seminar, took one look at me and said, "What happened to you?!" 

8 oz steak

Before I get in to the specifics, the five-day timeframe might actually be an error on Poliquins part. He stated that he had his measurements taken at the beginning of the week (Monday morning). It’s unlikely that the course would’ve run till Saturday. Instead, it is more likely that it would’ve been a Monday-Friday thing. Thus, making it four days (Monday-Friday) instead of five (Monday-Saturday). Since I’m nice, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and go along with five days to give him an extra 24 hours to have achieved this feat within. As such, Poliquin supposedly gained an average of 2.8 lbs. (1.3 kg) of muscle per day, whilst simultaneously losing 0.7 lbs. (0.32kg) of fat per day.


Is it even possible?

Looking back at my previous article on maximum natural muscular potentials, I provided a table, adapted from, showing that the potential rate of muscle gain for an absolute beginner is roughly 2.2lbs. (1 kg) per month. These figures assume a well-structured weight-training program, excellent nutrition, average genetics and no drugs. With all other factors being equal, it is possible to slightly exceed this rate of muscle growth providing you have exceptional genetics. Additionally, one could also exceed this rate of muscle growth following a period of detraining (the wonderful phenomenon of muscle memory!), as all you’re doing is regaining what you initially lost. Finally, if you add a cocktail of drugs into the mix, you could potentially double this rate of muscle gain (at least in the short term anyway).

To be fair to Poliquin, he very well may have spikes in muscle gain that may exceed the rate of "newbie gains" within given timeframes, as he admittedly loses muscle mass from time to time on his travels (see quote below). As such, following a period of muscle loss followed by normal training/eating, he can expect to regain the lost muscle rather quickly.

“But when I work in the UK or Ireland, I lose muscle mass and put fat on almost inevitably, even though I try to eat as cleanly as possible. The quality of the food is just piss poor.”

Claiming that you can lose any significant amount of muscle and gain fat (if at all) within the space of a few days due to minor changes in nutrient density is also ridiculous. However puzzlingly, in this video, Poliquin states quite clearly that he goes to great lengths to maintain his diet on his travels, specifically, his meat and nut breakfast which he states “will dictate all your neurotransmitters for the day” due to the maximisation of levels of dopamine and acetyl choline. Though these statements aren't supported by science, if this is what he eats year round, I highly doubt he'll lose muscle just by eating it in a different restaurant.

So, if CP could gain that much muscle in such as short space of time, what would it theoretically take to achieve such as feat? In order to gain 2.8 lbs. (1.3 kg) of pure muscle tissue per day, for five days it would require lots of protein. For the sake of argument, let’s just ignore human protein metabolism for a minute and pretend that protein is digested with 100% efficiency whilst being exclusively used by and incorporated in the muscle with 100% efficiency (and that the energy required for these process and total energy expenditure were already taken care of). Even then, it would require the consumption of at least 1300g (14g/kg.BW) of protein (5200kcal) per day. This would be the equivalent of about 52 chicken breasts, 217 eggs or 26 protein shakes (assuming 2 scoops per shake and 25g of protein per scoop).

Even if it were possible to store this much protein on a daily basis, it would require much more than 1300g per day. The exact amount is unknown since it has never been tested. However, based on the estimated rates of muscle gain in natural trainees (assuming a protein intake of the often quoted 1 g/lb. of body weight and a body weight of 75 kg), depending on the experience of the weight trainee, it was calculated that between 1.25-33g of protein were incorporated into muscle tissue per day. This equates to 0.76-20.2% of the total daily protein intake. If we extrapolate these figures to the claims of CP, he would require between 6435-170,300g of protein per day (25,740- 681,200 kcal). I’ll give CP the benefit of the doubt one more time and assume that he could gain muscle at twice the rate of a newbie. To achieve an average daily increase in muscle mass of 2.8 lbs. (1.3 kg), it would still require a daily protein intake of 3217 g (12,870 kcal); an intake that would be impossible using whole food sources. Ultimately, whatever the theoretical number to gain this much muscle may be, it would be physiologically impossible to digest, and more importantly, synthesise this much protein in a single day.

Even if you starved Phil Heath until he was 150 lbs, made him live in the gym, injected him with as many drugs as you could find, and force fed him to the point that his stomach would almost rupture, he couldn’t gain that much muscle in such a short space of time. It’s impossible!


Hold on a minute!

Poliquin made no mention of increases in protein intake; he was talking solely about food quality.

Now, there's no such thing as grain-fed in the DR; they can't afford it, so cows eat grass. And if you eat a mango over there you have to eat it over a sink because it's so juicy. The eggs too are far more anabolic. They're orange and full of omega-3s, like all eggs naturally were thousands of years ago… A DR avocado tastes like butter it's so rich in nutrients. Eating avocados over here is like eating fiberglass once you've had a DR avocado. It's like having sex with Pamela Anderson then having to have sex with Rosie O'Donnell.”

Thankfully, I’ve never had sex with either Pamela Anderson or Rosie O’Donnell, so I can't comment further on this statement. I strongly doubt that Poliquin has either, making his comment a moot one.

fish-oil-pills-If we assume that the quality of foods is generally better in the Dominican Republic than here in the UK, what CP is saying is that by eating a few grams more omega-3 fatty acids per day, you can put on a kilogram of muscle per day, whilst losing body fat. Whilst omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may have “anabolic” properties, these effects would be miniscule, and you certainly wouldn’t notice any differences in a matter of a few days. Besides, since you would have to consume roughly 115g of grass fed beef to get a gram of omega-3 compared to 400g of conventional beef, it seems like a very inefficient way of boosting omega-3 intake. Surely Poliquin knows this since he recommends mega dosing fish oils in the order of 30 g or more per day. As for the eggs, each omega-3 enriched egg contains roughly 0.3-0.6g of omega-3s, compared to around 0.1g per regular egg. This is also an inefficient means to increase total omega-3 intake; a supplement or the regular consumption of fatty fish would be a better option. To top things off, in the same video, Poliquin states that he "rarely eats eggs" anyway.


It gets even sillier

While CP supposedly finds the time to eat all of this food to gain 14.5 lbs. of muscle tissue, how on earth does he possibly oxidise a net value of roughly 0.7 lbs. of fat per day (roughly 2520kcal worth)? While it is possible to just about shift this amount of fat within the specified time frame, it would require an extraordinary effort, and would also inevitably result in muscle loss. Unless he could partition calories with a god-like effect, he wouldn’t be able to gain an ounce of muscle while maintaining such an energy deficit.


Concluding remarks

You might be wondering why CP makes such extravagant claims? I'll let you decide after his next point in response to the initial question.

The original question: “Is there a supplement-related trick to retaining muscle while on a strict fat loss program?”

“Back to your question. One of the most important supplements to take when on a calorie restricted diet is BCAAs. You need about 50 grams a day. Take it between meals.”

This article is already getting lengthy so the short answer to his response is that you don’t need 50 g per day. In fact, if you were to take 50g of BCAAs, using Poliquin’s product, it would set you back around $66 (£39) per week (excluding shipping). That’s over $3432 (£2143) per year, on top of all your food and other supplements.

Even after cutting CP an incredible amount of slack and when viewed in the most optimistic light, his claims of gaining 14.5 lbs. of muscle whilst simultaneously losing 3.5 lbs. of fat, in as little as five days, are impossible. These assertions are even more ridiculous when you consider that he apparently achieved all this by some minor changes in food quality. These claims also beg the question "if living in the Dominican Republic were so anabolic, surely they would dominate the majority of strength/power sports as well as bodybuilding". However, they don't.

Hopefully this article has done its job, and shown you that even the most decorated and respected “fitness gurus” can be full of hot air. While this article might not seem to offer anything constructive, when it comes to nutrition, knowing not what to do is often more important than knowing what to do, or who to listen to. Given that the vast majority of people interested in improving their body composition or performance don't have a background in exercise physiology or nutrition, they often don't have the tools to make the right decisions and therefore have to put a certain degree of faith in who they listen to. Unfortunately, a lot of these individuals succumb to glamorous marketing, leaving them spinning their wheels when they don't get the results they expected. So while this article will, at best, provide a little humour to the honest professionals who share my frustrations, it will hopefully allow the people who don't know any better, to make more informed decisions and give them realistic expectations of what they can achieve. I encourage these people to question everyone and everything they hear (including me), especially if there's something to be sold. Would you expect a car salesman to tell you that you could save money and go with a cheaper, better model from a different dealership? No, so why expect any different from someone wanting to sell you supplements.

Anyway, that’s enough ranting for one day; I’m off to book my flight to the Dominican Republic because I’m losing muscle mass by the millisecond living here in the UK.

Happy New Year!