Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Supplements and Health

Does Fish Oil Build Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

omega-3Omega-3-rich fish oil supplements have attracted their share of controversy in recent years, but there appear to be lots of reasons to make sure that you get enough omega-3s from your diet.

There is actually pretty good evidence that omega-3s offer a natural approach for people who wish to lower their blood pressure (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/do-omega-3s-lower-blood-pressure/) or heart attack risk (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/fish-oil-really-snake-oil/). There is also some evidence that omega-3s may be important for brain development in infants (J Protzko et al, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8: 25-40, 2013), for mental performance in children (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-improve-reading-skills/) and for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-slow-cognitive-decline/).

If the latest headlines are to be believed, we can add preventing age-related muscle loss to the benefits of an omega-3-rich diet.

Why Is Age-Related Loss of Muscle Mass a Problem?

The term for age-related muscle loss is sarcopenia, and it is a big problem for older adults. After age 50 we lose 1-2% of our muscle mass each year. As you might expect, our strength declines as well. Each 1% loss of muscle mass translates into about 1.5% loss in strength. That means after age 50 we lose 1.5% of our muscle strength each year, and once we hit 60 the rate of loss increases to around 3% per year.

That may not sound like much on an annual basis, but it adds up over time. With a little bit of higher math you can calculate that you could easily have lost 45% of your muscle strength by the age of 70 and a whopping 75% by the age of 80. At that point even the simplest physical activities – lifting a grandchild or a bag of groceries – can become challenging. That loss of strength also contributes to a loss of balance that can lead to debilitating falls.

The most effective way of preventing age-related muscle loss is regular resistance training, especially when coupled with adequate intake of protein and leucine (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/protein-needs-for-older-adults/). However, resistance training is hard work, so many older adults gravitate to quick fixes like testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA – even though each of those treatment regimens have significant side effects and risks.

That’s why the recent headlines suggesting that a risk-free approach like omega-3 supplementation might increase muscle mass and strength in older adults is so enticing.

Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

A previous study had suggested that omega-3 supplementation enhanced the effect of strength training in elderly women (Rodacki et al, AJCN, 95: 428-436, 2012). Although the mechanism of that effect is unclear, the authors of this study decided to go one step further. They asked if omega-3 fatty acids might prevent loss of muscle mass even in the elderly in the absence of a structured exercise program (Smith et al, AJCN, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.105833, 2015).

age-related muscle lossThe study consisted of 44 men and women age 60-85 (average age 69) who were not exercising on a regular basis. They were given either 4 gm of fish oil (containing 1.86 gm of EPA and 1.5 gm of DHA) or a placebo containing corn oil each day for 6 months. Muscle mass and four measures of muscle strength were performed at the beginning of the study and again at 6 months. The measures used were thigh muscle volume (a measure of muscle mass), hand grip strength, overall muscle strength (the maximum weight that the subject could lift in a single repetition for leg press, chest press, knee extension, and knee flexion) and isokinetic power (the power attained in knee extension and flexion exercises). The results were pretty impressive for the omega-3 group compared with the control group:

  • Thigh muscle volume (muscle mass) increased by 3.6%
  • Handgrip strength increased by 6%.
  • Overall muscle strength increased by 4%.
  • Isokinetic power increased by 5.6%.
  • Other than complaints about fishy breath, there were no adverse effects in the omega-3 group.
  • The authors calculated that the increase in muscle mass and strength during 6 months of omega-3 supplementation was sufficient to offset 2-3 years of normal age-related muscle loss and strength loss.
  • The increase in muscle mass and strength associated with omega-3 supplementation was less than can be attained from regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake. However, it was the same or greater than could be obtained from testosterone, growth hormone or DHEA – and didn’t have the risks associated with those treatments.

For example, a recent study has concluded that testosterone injections are associated with a significant risk of stroke, acute coronary syndromes, hospitalization and death (Layton et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1573).

The authors concluded ”Fish oil-derived omega-3 therapy slows the normal decline in muscle mass and function in older adults and should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.”

Limitations of the Study

Before you all run out and stock up on fish oil supplements, I should point out that this study has several limitations.

  • It is a very small study. It needs to be replicated by future studies.
  • It used a very high dose of fish oil (4 gm/day). High doses are often used in an initial study like this one just to establish whether there is an effect worth further study. However, this study needs to be repeated at lower doses to see if this benefit of omega-3 supplementation is also seen at more physiological doses (500 – 1,000 mg) of omega-3s.

Because of these limitations, I am not yet ready to agree with the authors that omega-3 supplementation “…should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.” This is an interesting finding that holds the promise of an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.

There are many reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength.

However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study has suggested that omega-3 supplementation may prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. The study was performed in both men and women age 60-85 who were not exercising on a regular basis.
  • Omega-3 supplementation was less effective than regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake, but equal to or greater in effectiveness than testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA treatment.
  • This was a very small study and it used a very high dose of omega-3s. It is a promising finding because it represents an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.
  • There are many good reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. Resistance training combined with adequate protein is a proven intervention. Omega-3 supplementation is not.
  • However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives. It might just work, and it is a lot less risky.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Joanne Larson

    |

    You mentioned possible risks using dhea What are those risks?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Joanne,

      DHEA is an immediate precursor to both estrogen and testosterone, so the potential side effects are the same as for those hormones. I would be most concerned about cancer.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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