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Why it’s okay to take fish oil capsules at the same time as a protein shake

Muscle cells absorb amino acids from the blood just as easily, whether there are large or small amounts of fatty acids floating around in it, according to a human study done at Arizona State University. This means that it’s fine for athletes to combine protein shakes or amino acids with fish oil capsules or linseed oil.

According to some nutrition gurus, the body absorbs amino acids from proteins or protein preparations better if the blood contains fewer fatty acids. And they’re not just making it up: there are indeed studies that show that fatty acids inhibit the uptake of amino acids by muscle cells. But a really thorough study, like the one the Americans published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, was lacking.

In their study, the researchers gave six test subjects first a quarter of a litre of soda, containing 0.3 g histidine, 0.78 g isoleucine, 1.72 g leucine, 1.36 g lysine, 0.36 g methionine, 0.51 g phenylalanine, 0.95 g threonine and 0.74 g valine [EAA]. At the same time the subjects were fed intravenously either a solution containing salt [saline] or a fat solution [liposyn/heparin].

The fatty acids did not inhibit the uptake of the amino acid phenylalanine, the researchers discovered when they examined muscle cells they’d extracted from the subjects’ leg muscles. You can see this in the figure below. And in the lower figure you can see that the fatty acids did nothing to prevent the muscle cells from making new protein.

The researchers suspect that there are mechanisms through which fatty acids hinder the absorption of amino acids. But these mechanisms are cancelled out by the fact that the combination of fatty acids and amino acids leads to increased production of a strongly anabolic hormone: insulin.

The researchers think that their findings are relevant for medics. "In clinical circumstances associated with elevated plasma FFA concentrations such as obesity, diabetes, critical illness, and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, muscle protein synthesis can be stimulated by amino acids ingestion", they write.

We think that the findings are also relevant for low-carb athletes who are looking to get more out of their protein shakes. Those shakes might even become more effective if you combine them with, say, EPA or DHA.

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2009 Aug; 94(8): 2984-90.

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