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Wild Salmon Excels for Sports and Fitness
Want to build big muscles, or just get in better shape? Salmon proves a superior protein source for serious iron-pumpers and casual fitness buffs alike 02/20/2006 By Craig Weatherby

The buzz is out there and growing. It seems that every month, a strength-training or endurance exercise magazine cites wild salmon as a superior protein source: one whose unique package of nutritional parts makes it first-rate athletic fare.

And wild salmon is a frequent top choice when popular publications rank weight-control foods.

So let's explore salmon's extraordinary roster of performance-enhancing parts, starting with protein.

Salmon makes a superior protein source

Strength and endurance athletes need more protein than average folks do. The research-based rule of thumb is that weight-lifters need 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about .77 grams (770 mg) of protein per pound of body weight.

Thanks to heavy protein-supplement advertising in body-building magazines—and the commercially convenient pro-supplement bias common to most such publications—many weight lifters believe that supplement powders are the preferred protein sources.

The most popular protein powders—for generally sound scientific reasons—are those containing whey protein isolates from milk. Whey powders usually consist of 90 percent protein, with a typical product containing 20 grams (0.71 ounce) of protein per 22 gram serving (scoop).


This is same amount you'd get from a 3-ounce serving of canned or smoked sockeye salmon, while a 3-ounce serving of dry-heat cooked sockeye contains 27 grams of protein.

Protein value by the numbers: salmon ranks high

All protein is not equal as far as usefulness to the body. This is because foods contain different types or proportions of amino acids: variations that give their proteins differing “biological values”.

The biological value (BV) of a protein is calculated by measuring the percentage of protein-derived nitrogen retained by the body to create amino acids for tissue growth and maintenance.

High-BV proteins are better for boosting aspects of immunity and promoting release of growth hormone (IGF-1), and high BV-proteins prevent muscle breakdown from exercise (i.e., exert anti-catabolic effects) better than low-BV proteins do.

At one time, egg protein was thought to possess the highest biological value, so it was assigned the top rank of 100 on the scale of possible values.


The protein in salmon has a biological value of 76, which is about the same as athletic-regimen rivals such as beef (76), chicken (74), and soy (74).


We now know that the biological value of whey protein—which averages about 105—is even higher than that of egg protein.

However, there's more to picking a protein food than its BV number, since, as we'll explain, athletic performance is affected and can be enhanced by other nutritional factors, such as omega-3s and antioxidants.


Nutrition-savvy athletes choose wild salmon over farmed fish, which are high in inflammatory omega-6 fats (see “Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects”) and therefore induce the silent inflammation that impairs exercise performance and subsequent muscle recovery, as well as heart health.

Beyond protein: wild salmon's athletic advantages

Wild salmon is a highly healthful source of high-quality protein, but that's not its only attraction. It also delivers several other desirable constituents whose physiological effects may offer real athletic advantages.

This table presents a snapshot of the “nutriceutical” aids that wild salmon—specifically sockeye—to athletic performance. (These attributes apply generally to all the wild salmon subspecies, although sockeye is the highest in astaxanthin). Below the table, we provided a detailed description of each constituent's likely athletic contribution.

Omega-3s: benefits to athletes

The omega-3 fatty acids abundant in salmon offer strength and endurance athletes a unique bundle of health and performance benefits.

Anabolic (muscle-building) effects

According to fitness expert and Olympic weight lifting medical advisor Mauro Di Pasquale, M.D., omega-3 fatty acids exert positive influences on IGF-1: a growth hormone essential to childhood growth that elicits anabolic effects in adults:

  1. Increase the binding of IGF-1 to skeletal muscle.
  2. Maintain blood levels of IGF-1. While a US government study found that supplemental fish oil can lower blood levels of IGF-1 slightly, a Chinese study found that it also increases blood levels of IGFBP-3: a hormone that extends the half-life of IGF-1 from minutes to hours, thereby maintaining high IGF-1 blood levels for extended periods.

Weight control and fat burning

The long-chain marine omega-3s found only in fish and marine microorganisms—EPA and DHA—aid weight control efforts in at least seven ways:

  • Stimulate secretion of leptin, a hormone that decreases appetite and promotes the burning of body fat.
  • Enable burning of dietary fats by helping move fatty acids into body cells for burning as fuel.
  • Encourage the body to store dietary carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, rather than as hard-to-lose body fat.
  • Dampen inflammation, which is known to promote weight gain.
  • Enhance blood-sugar control by increasing our insulin-producing cells' sensitivity to sugar.
  • Flip off genetic switches (nuclear transcription factors) that promote inflammation and storage of food as body fat.
  • Help the body transport glucose from blood to cells by increasing the fluidity of cell membranes.
Blood flow and oxygen transport: Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in the production of the molecule hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the red blood cells. Sufficient hemoglobin levels are important for bodybuilders, to ensure that oxygen and nutrients reach the muscles.
Also, waste products (e.g., carbon dioxide and lactic acid) will be removed with greater efficiency if hemoglobin levels are sufficient. Note: the studies conducted to date do not show that supplemental omega-3s increase oxygen transport. Instead, the point is that athletes need dietary omega-3s to ensure adequate oxygen supplies to their muscles.

Muscle protection and recovery and reduced soreness: Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and since exercise yields inflammation and resulting muscle damage, it's been thought that dietary omega-3s might reduce secondary muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness. The evidence from two studies conflict: one showed “muscle recovery” benefit, and the other found none.

Reaction time and thinking speed: The results of two studies show significant, dose-dependent, increases in cognitive speed and reductions in reaction time among men and women who ate moderate-to-large amounts of fish (see “Moderate Fish Intake Boosts Brain Power” and “Omega-3s Enhance Mood and Brain Speed”). These findings make sense, given the critical role that DHA—one of the two marine omega-3s fish and the most abundant fatty acid in the brain—plays in maintaining optimal fluidity, integrity and performance in brain-cell membranes.

Nerve impulse transmission: Electrical signals traveling through the brain get passed from one brain cell, or neuron, to the next. In the changeover, a signal needs to leave one brain cell at a point called the synapse and cross a physical gap before entering the neighboring neuron.

For signals to enter a neuron, they need to pass through its cell membranes, which consist of about 20 percent essential fatty acids, including marine omega-3s.

Brain cell membranes contain structures called ion channels that open to allow the flow of electrical signals into the cell or close to prevent the flow.
The ion channels in brain cell membranes perform this function by changing their shape, and it is believed that omega-3 DHA keeps the membrane that holds these channels more elastic, making it easier for ion channels to change shape.

However, if there is not enough DHA available from the diet, your brain cell membranes will use the omega-6 version of a fatty acid called DPA (docosapentaenoic acid), which cells regard as the next best substitute for omega-3 DHA.

Omega-6 DPA is almost identical to omega-3 DHA, but a tiny difference in its molecular structure makes it far less flexible. This reduced flexibility makes it harder for ion channels to change shape within brain-cell membranes, thus hindering their control over electrical impulses entering the cell and impairing brain function.

And, according to Cmdr Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, substitution of omega-6 DPA for omega-3 DHA yields a huge, one thousand-fold reduction in the ability of structures called G-proteins to help molecules on the outside of the membrane communicate with molecules on the inside.

To summarize, consuming inadequate dietary levels of DHA from fish or fish oil could impair reaction time and hand-eye coordination.

Other likely athletic aids in salmon

In addition to omega-3s, wild salmon contains other constituents with the potential to aid athletic performance.


Astaxanthin is the carotene-class antioxidant pigment that makes salmon red. (Sockeye are especially deep-red in color because their diets are uniquely high in astaxanthin-rich zooplankton such as krill.)

Because astaxanthin is many times more powerful as an antioxidant than vitamins E and C, it's been assumed that it should help prevent or ameliorate the inflammation that accompanies strength and endurance exercise. (Most antioxidants exert anti-inflammatory effects.)

Indeed, a 2003 study in mice showed that supplemental astaxanthin (amount unknown) reduced exercise-induced inflammation and resulting skeletal and cardiac muscle damage.

However, a subsequent 2005 study in 20 resistance-trained athletes found no equivalent muscle-protecting anti-inflammatory effects. But the results may be unreliable because, oddly, the athletes received their daily dose of astaxanthin (4 mg) in capsules containing 1,732 mg of safflower oil, which is high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.

A single three-ounce serving of sockeye salmon contains the same 4 mg dose of astaxanthin the athletes received—plus ample amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3s—so a diet rich in sockeye (or unrefined supplemental sockeye oil) would likely have a more powerful anti-inflammatory muscle-protective effect than the capsules given the study participants.

Electrolyte minerals

Electrolytes are the positively and negatively charged molecules (ions) found within cells, between cells, in the bloodstream, and in other fluids throughout the body. Electrolytes with a positive charge include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium; the negative ions are chloride, bicarbonate, and phosphate.

Salmon is a good source of two key electrolytes, potassium and phosphorous:

  • Phosphorus occurs in the body almost exclusively in the form of phosphate contained in bone. The rest is located primarily inside the cells, where it is involved in energy metabolism: an obvious requirement for athletes.
  • Potassium is essential to the normal functioning of cells, nerves, and muscles. It is excreted primarily in urine, although some potassium is also lost through the digestive tract and in sweat, which strength and endurance athletes certainly secrete in large amounts.

Vitamin D

Wild sockeye salmon is one of the richest food sources of this essential nutrient, whose major function is to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. This property has obvious importance to athletes, whose exertions increase the body's need for immediate access to both of these key minerals.

And, by promoting calcium absorption, vitamin D helps to form and maintain strong bones: an effect especially important to strength athletes. Vitamin D also works in concert with a number of other vitamins, minerals, and hormones to promote bone mineralization. Without vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen.

Research also suggests that vitamin D helps maintain healthy immune systems, which can be weakened temporarily by intensive exercise. Vitamin D also helps regulate cell growth and differentiation, the process that determines what a cell is to become. Thus, vitamin D may help optimize the process of building new muscle in response to resistance training.




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