Fat has gotten a bad rap. But the truth is, we need fat in order to live. We need essential fatty acids for healthy; brain function, immune system, hormone production, and cellular energy production.
We also need the calories that fats provide for energy.
But not all fats are alike. Some clog our arteries and some contribute to inflammation in the body. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), also known as medium-chain fatty acids, have a surprising list of benefits that may even outshine some benefits provided by the fatty acids in olive oil. MCTs actually provide fewer calories than other fats, and they even help you lose weight.
What are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)?
MCTs are fatty acids that are naturally found in coconut and palm oil, and ghee (clarified butter). They are also available as a dietary supplement packaged in a bottle or in capsules.
Medium-chain triglycerides were first used in the mid-1900s in conjunction with a prescribed diet to reduce seizures. MCTs were originally formulated in the 1950s as an alternative food source for patients unable to digest normal fats and oils. More recently, MCTs have become a favorite energy source for endurance athletes.
MCTs have far-reaching health benefits. Who could benefit?
- has had major surgery and needs to boost cellular energy
- wants to enhance his/her athletic performance
- wants to support healthy growth and development
- wants to support cardiovascular health
- wants to lose weight and keep it off
- wants to support mental clarity
The advantages of medium-chain triglycerides over long-chain triglycerides
Fat molecules are made up of chains of carbon atoms. Long-chain fatty acids (LCTs), which make up the bulk of the Standard American Diet (SAD), range in length from 16 to 24 carbons. But MCTs are composed of only 4 to 14 carbon links.
MCTs cannot make you fat!
Because they have fewer carbon atoms, MCTs have a number of advantages over LCTs. Although MCTs are fat, and feel like fat in your mouth, they cannot make you fat. They resemble carbohydrates more than fat, are easy to digest, and are burned as energy—so there is no where for them to go, and no place for you body to store them.
According to Bruce Fife, N.D., author of The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil, (Piccadilly Books, 2000) “All fats, whether they be saturated or unsaturated, from a cow or from corn, contain the same number of calories. The medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), however, are different. They contain a little less and actually yield fewer calories than other fats.”
Easier to digest
The first step in digestion of a fat such as butter is to dissolve it into the watery content of the intestine. The bile acids produced by the liver dissolve fat into tiny droplets and allow pancreatic and intestinal enzymes to break the large fat molecules into smaller ones, such as fatty acids.
The bile acids combine with the fatty acids and cholesterol and help these molecules move into the cells of the mucosa. In these cells the small molecules are formed back into large ones, most of which pass into vessels called lymphatics near the intestine. These small vessels carry the reformed fat to the veins of the chest, and the blood carries the fat to storage deposits throughout the body.2 If your body requires the fat for energy, it is removed from storage and used as fuel. But if you don’t need it, it eventually ends up as “love handles” or “fat tires.”
Medium chain triglycerides are digested and utilized differently than other fatty acids. Instead of being packaged into lipoproteins that circulate in the bloodstream, they are absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the portal vein, and are then transported to the liver. Because they don’t need bile or pancreatic enzymes to break down, they are easier to digest. And because they are easier to digest, they provide your body with quick energy, like carbohydrates.
Since MCTs are utilized quickly as energy, they are not stored as fat—unless of course you over consume calories. Numerous studies have shown that ingesting MCTs contributes to weight loss and a reduction in fat.
MCTs are good for your heart
It’s a misconception that all fat is bad for your heart. Your heart needs fatty acids to provide it with energy. Medium-chain fatty acids (medium-chain triglycerides) are metabolized more like carbohydrates than fats and researchers and practitioners are finding positive results from the clinical application of MCT therapy in the management of cardiac disease. Current experimental evidence supports the idea that the diseased heart is energy deficient and that MCTs can provide the stressed and deficient cells with an alternate energy source.3
In one study, MCTs significantly lowered plasma triglycerides versus LCTs.
When 20 healthy men ingested a single dose of either 71 g of MCT oil or canola oil blood samples showed that triglyceride levels increased 47% after ingesting canola oil. But triglyceride values decreased 15% after ingesting MCT oil, which is consistent with several other studies involving short- and longer-term feeding with MCT oil. The effect of long-term usage of MCT oil on triglycerides is yet to be established.4
MCTs decrease body fat and hunger
Studies indicate that because MCTs are metabolized more quickly calories are burned up in the process. Most animal studies have also demonstrated that after several months of consuming MCTs, this greater energy expenditure results in less weight gain and a decrease in fat deposits.
Both animal and human trials suggest that you get full faster when you ingest MCTs compared with long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), so you eat less. The best news is that this leads to lower body fat mass and could provide a healthy way to maintain desirable weight.5
Substituting moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides for other fats in a weight-loss program results in enhanced weight loss and a greater reduction in fat mass. The key here is to not just add MCTs to your diet, but to substitute them for other fats in your diet.
• In one study, researchers compared single meals of 400 calories composed entirely of MCTs and of LCTs. The thermogenic effect of MCTs over six hours was three times greater than that of LCTs. Researchers concluded that substituting MCTs for LCTs would produce weight loss as long as the calorie intake remained the same.6
• A study at the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, McGill University, Quebec, Canada measured the effects that a 28-day diet rich in MCTs versus a diet rich in LCTs had on 24 overweight men. At the end of the study the men who consumed the diet high in MCTs lost more upper body fat than the men who consumed the diet high in LCTs. There was also a trend toward greater loss of whole-body fat with the MCTs. The researchers concluded that MCTs could be an aid in the prevention of obesity because they help stimulate weight loss.7
• The study mentioned at the beginning of this article, in which the consumption of MCTs were found to promote weight loss when compared to the long chain triglycerides in olive oil, is an interesting one. In the 16-week study 31 overweight patients consumed 10 grams per day of either olive oil or medium-chain triglyceride oil in muffins. In addition, women consumed another 8 grams per day of their assigned oil and men consumed an additional 14 grams per day.
All subjects participated in weekly weight-loss counseling sessions that stressed consumption of a low-energy-intensity diet, encouraged healthy eating patterns, and set a target energy intake of 1,500 calories a day for the women and 1,800 calories a day for the men.
At 16 weeks, the MCT group had lost significantly more weight: an average of 3.2 kg, or 3.8% of their baseline body weight, compared with 1.7% in the olive oil group. The MCT group also had a 1.5% decrease in total fat mass as measured by a CT scan, including a reduction in trunk fat mass in intra-abdominal adipose tissue; fat mass was unchanged in the comparison group.
There was no difference between the two groups in terms of change in waist circumference, lipid levels or fasting glucose or insulin levels.18
MCTs might support cognition in memory-impaired adults
Your brain and body requires glucose to function. When you haven’t eaten for a while, or during the night when you’re asleep, your liver releases stored glucose to keep you supplied with energy. In Alzheimer’s disease there appears to be a pathological decrease in the brain’s ability to use glucose. Research suggests that ketones are an effective alternative energy source for the brain. Studies show that raising ketone levels through an oral dose of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) might improve cognitive functioning in older adults with memory disorders.9
Ketones are compounds in which a carbonyl group is bonded to two carbon atoms, R2C=O, where R can be a variety of atoms and groups of atoms, excluding hydrogen atoms. Ketones are a by-product of the breakdown of fat in the body, and show up in urine. Ketone levels increase when you don’t have enough insulin to turn glucose into energy (as in diabetes), when you are experiencing intense illness or stress, or when you are eating a low amount of carbohydrates. The body is tuned to use carbs for energy when available, and use dietary fat to store as fat for use in winter.
In an Alzheimer’s (AD) study, 20 patients with AD or mild cognitive impairment consumed a drink containing MCTs or placebo. Significant increases in ketone levels were observed 90 minutes later in the MCT group, when cognitive tests were given. The participants with the higher ketone levels showed greater improvement in paragraph recall and in the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive Subscale. This study is encouraging and warrants additional research to determine the therapeutic benefits of MCTs for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.10
MCTs improve mitochondrial function and might prevent build-up of amyloid plaque—a culprit in Alzheimer’s disease
A recent animal study indicates that MCTs might help decrease amyloid plaque in the Alzheimer’s brain. Based on the same premise as in the above study, that ketones provide an alternate energy source for the brain, animals were given a daily dose of MCTs for two months. The animals showed dramatically improved mitochondrial function, indicated by increased active respiration rates. Also, the amyloid-beta precursor protein (APP) levels decreased after short-term MCT intake. Combined, these findings suggest that short-term MCT administration improves energy metabolism and decreases APP levels in animal models, and could serve as the basis of testing on humans with Alzheimer’s disease.11
The bulk of studies on medium-chain triglycerides have been in the area of weight loss and fat reduction. However, lots of other research is being done demonstrating how MCTs could benefit chronically ill patients with diabetes, cancer, seizures, HIV and cystic fibrosis.
In the meantime, taking medium-chain triglycerides in the form of a supplement or coconut oil is an easy way to boost your energy, reduce adipose fat, and control your weight—which is something we all would be wise to do.
- St-Onge, MP, Bosarge, A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 87, No. 3, 621-626, March 2008
- The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). Your Digestive System and How it Works.
- Labarthe F, Gélinas R, Des Rosiers C. Medium-chain fatty acids as metabolic therapy in cardiac disease. Cardiovasc Drugs Ther.2008 Apr;22(2):97-106
- Calabrese C, Myer S, Munson S, et al. A cross-over study of the effect of a single oral feeding of medium chain triglyceride oil vs. canola oil on post-ingestion plasma triglyceride levels in healthy men. Altern Med Rev 1999 Feb.;4:23-28
- St-Onge, Mp, Jones, PJH. Physicological Effects of Medium-chain triglycerides: Potential agents in the prevention of obesity. The Journal of Nutrition. 132:329-332, 2002
- Seaton, T.B., et al. 1986. Thermic effect of medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides in man. Am. J. of Clin. Nutr. 44:630
- St-Onge MP, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJ. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men.Obes Res. 2003 Mar;11(3):395-402
- Jancin, Bruce. “Medium-chain triglycerides promote weight loss.(Endocrinology).” Internal Medicine News. International Medical News Group. 2008. HighBeam Research. 27 Jul. 2010
- Reger MA, Henderson ST, Hale C, Cholerton B, Baker LD, Watson GS, Hyde K, Chapman D, Craft S. Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging. 2004 Mar;25(3):311-4
- Studzinski CM, MacKay WA, Beckett TL, Henderson ST, Murphy MP, Sullivan PG, Burnham WM. Induction of ketosis may improve mitochondrial function and decrease steady-state amyloid-beta precursor protein (APP) levels in the aged dog.Brain Res. 2008 Aug 21;1226:209-17. Epub 2008 Jun 11
- St-Onge MP, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJ. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obes Res. 2003 Mar;11(3):395-402