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Medium-Chain Triglycerides and Weight Loss: If It Sounds Too Good to Be True…

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Medium-Chain Triglycerides and Weight Loss: If It Sounds Too Good to Be True…

Medium-chain triglycerides have been used medicinally for a couple decades now, but recently they’ve (undeservedly) gained popularity as a weight loss aid.

 

If you follow anyone from the “biohacking” crowd, you’ve surely heard mention of medium-chain triglycerides and their supposed superpowers.

According to some “experts,” regular consumption of this type of fat can support weight loss efforts, and according to the more fervent believers, it can even help you build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

Well, in this article we’re going to take a look at what medium-chain triglycerides are, what all the hubbub is about, and what scientific research says about the molecule and its effects in the body.

What Are Medium-Chain Triglycerides?

Dietary fat is comprised of chains of carbon atoms that can be anywhere from 2 to 22 atoms in length. Most of the dietary fat found in the American diet is of the “long-chain” variety, with 13 to 21 carbons per molecule.

Triglycerides are molecules mainly produced by the digestion of dietary fat and are the form in which body fat is stored. When your body breaks down triglycerides for energy, it releases the “fatty acids” stored within for your cells to use as energy.

As you can now guess, a medium-chain triglyceride (or MCT, as it’s often called) is a unique type of fat molecule with a medium-length carbon chain (6 to 12 carbons, in case you’re wondering). The fatty acids found in medium-chain triglycerides and used by cells are called medium-chain fatty acids.

You don’t find MCTs in large quantities in most Western foods, but the best natural sources are butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. There are man-made forms as well (MCT oil), which are usually processed coconut or palm oil.

What Makes the Medium-Chain Triglyceride Special?

Thanks to its chemical structure, the medium-chain triglyceride is digested differently than the long-chain. The reduced length of the MCT’s carbon chain means that the body is able to absorb and metabolize it faster, making it a readily available source of energy for the organs and muscles.

While that sounds cool and does have definite advantages for people that can’t digest long-chain triglycerides properly (such as AIDS patients or those with pancreatic insufficiency), does it really mean anything special for the rest of us?

Can substituting long-chain fats for medium-chain fats help with weight loss, building muscle, and improving energy levels? Let’s find out.

Medium-Chain Triglycerides and Weight Loss

MCTs and MCT oils in particular are often sold as weight loss aids, and the pitch usually sounds pretty sexy: just eat or drink a few tablespoons of this goop every day and you’ll lose body fat due to some sort of metabolic magic.

Is there good scientific research to back these claims up, though?

Well, let’s turn to a study recently conducted by researchers at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), which involved reviewing all controlled clinical studies on MCTs conducted between the years 2000 and 2010.

Scientists narrowed the field down to 14 studies that met their criteria for scientific rigor and found that out of them, six showed improvements in body weight (with eight failing to demonstrate any benefits), one showed improvements in satiety, and four showed an increase in energy expenditure.

While the weight of the evidence is clearly against the use of MCTs to aid in weight loss, the studies that showed benefits might be enough to convince you to give it a go. But before you start eating sticks of butter every day or guzzling expensive MCT oil, there’s a bit more to consider.

  • Energy balance is still the overriding rule when talking weight loss.

While MCTs aren’t metabolized and stored as body fat in the same way as long-chain triglycerides, they still contain calories. And regardless of their source, if you eat more calories than you burn, you will inevitably see an increase in total body fat.

Just because the MCT is digested and utilized differently than the normal type of fat we eat doesn’t mean the calories are somehow different or “more efficient.”

  • The majority of subjects in the studies that showed benefits were sedentary and obese.

That doesn’t mean the research has no relevance to us active, fitness folk, but we definitely can’t take it at face value either and assume that we’ll also reap the minor benefits demonstrated in a handful of studies.

  • The studies lacked a structured exercise regimen and proper macronutrient balance.

These are bigger issues than the previous point because the inclusion of exercise in a weight loss protocol can easily make other minor variables statistically insignificant.

Furthermore, remember that the dietary protocols used in studies simply involved keeping subjects in a calorie deficit and matching fat intake. The major variable is the amount of protein consumed because when it comes to weight loss, a high-protein diet beats a low-protein diet every time.

You see, just because swapping some long-chain fat for medium-chain in a low-protein diet helped sedentary, obese people lose a little more weight does not mean it will do the same for active people eating a high-protein diet (as they should be).

  • The majority of the studies that showed benefits didn’t last longer than four weeks, with the longest being sixteen weeks.

All the above is reason enough to curb our enthusiasm about this molecule, but I thought this was worth mentioning. Even in the sedentary obese we can’t be sure as to any long-term value of increasing MCT intake in terms of weight loss and maintenance.

As you can see, the pitch for MCTs and MCT oil as a weight loss aid is just another case of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” If only we could speed up weight loss by eating a bunch of delicious butter and coconut…

Other Supposed Benefits of Medium-Chain Triglycerides

Some people also claim that increasing MCT intake commonly can accelerate muscle growth and elevate energy levels. Unfortunately, these claims are simply made up out of whole cloth.

MCTs are often administered to terminally ill patients to prevent muscle wasting, but what exactly does that have to do with healthy, resistance-trained individuals trying to build abnormally large muscles? I don’t know.

 

What are your thoughts on medium-chain triglycerides and weight loss? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Mike, I found these studies to be somewhat of statistical significance:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12634436

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12975635

    Less convincing but still noteworthy:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12532160

    What are your thoughts?

    • Michael Matthews

      That papers were included in the review I cited and suffer from the flaws I list in this article.

      • Really? I didn’t see any of them linked to in the article..

        • Michael Matthews

          They reviewed all literature on the subject from 2000 to 2010 and narrowed the field down to weed out poorly designed and executed studies.

  • James

    Hi mike, have you checked out much from nick cheadle fitness? I really like his nutritional stance but his workout volume is crazy and reps are so high! His body looks natural but I was wondering if you think he’s natty with all that volume?

    • Michael Matthews

      No I haven’t but he looks natural. Just lean with good genetics. He’s not very big or strong and that’s what high-rep training produces…

  • Parikshit Jaiswal

    But coconut oil do has a high heat point which means the oil might not go rancid during cooking ??I live in india and most of the people from southern part of India use coconut oil and are mostly not overweright unlike the north indians who use vegetable oil.

    • Michael Matthews

      That’s a myth. Vegetable oil doesn’t go bad when you cook it. That said coconut oil is great. Love the taste.

      • Parikshit Jaiswal

        so u mean soya bean oil,corn oil etc are not bad for you

        • Emily Har

          I’ve been studying Cooking Oils for many years – as I work in the Australian Cooking Oil industry. “Vegetable seed oils”,which is a very deceptive term used for them, are in general a terrible choice for your health compared to fruit and nut oils such as virgin: olive oils, coconut oils, macadamia oils etc. Seed oils go through an intensive manufacturing process to make them look and smell nice, prolong their normally very short shelf lives, and increase their smoke points for frying. Before they are bleached and deodarised they are grey in colour and stink, believe me.

          Canola (erucic acid reduced rape seed oil), soy, and corn oils are cheap manufactured oils that are high in omega 6 polyunsaturated fats; which are terrible for our cardiovascular systems when consumed in the now large non-essential amounts we consume them. Canola does contain some omega 3 polyunsaturated fats to counter the cardiovascular inflamation caused by the three seed oils above contained omega 6″s; however, omega 3 oils are even more unstable than omega 6 oils, when heated, and are destroyed when the oil is heated for cooking purposes, resulting in oxidised omega 3 fatty acids entering our bodies and causing oxidation. The three seed oils above contain the ‘bad’ or wrong balance of vitamin E; which results in lung function reduction. Sunflower oil, and more particularly high oleic sunflower oil is the only ‘seed oil’ I’m aware of that has overall health benefits. It contains the ‘good’ vitamin E. Those countries in Europe that mainly consume sunflower oil, as opposed to the three seed oils above have much lower rates of asthma compared to countries that consume mostly the other three seed oils. Canola oil has also been linked to the higher rates of lung cancer in Asia amongst female non-smokers who now wok cook with canola oil, as opposed to traditional oils, such as peanut oil.

          In closing oils ain’t oils. Those Indians consuming coconut oil would absolutely have much better health outcomes than Indians who consume soy, corn or canola oils. The cardiovascular and lung function issues caused by most ‘vegetable oils’ would have a definite impact on general population increased body mass before even considering the article’s MCT vs LCT discussion.

  • Ryno

    I know TONS of dudes that use this stuff as an aid for bb shows to get shredded. You are right tho, the only thing that matters is calories in vs out in terms of weight loss or gain. From what Ive seen it does help lower body fat.

    • Michael Matthews

      Haha yeah many people think it somehow helps you get really lean but it doesn’t. Just a good source of cals.

  • Weight Loss

    I read the article; frankly it’s a wonderful , I wish from you more because I’m very benefited from it, especially this words (While the weight of the evidence is clearly against the use of MCTs to aid in weight loss, the studies that showed benefits might be enough to convince you to give it a go. But before you start eating sticks of butter every day or guzzling expensive MCT oil, there’s a bit more to consider.

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  • Helton Valentini

    I have a tablespoon of coconut oil as a pre-woorkout and it does give me a lot of energy. Don’t take it as a way to lower body fat but as a replacement for carbs since I’m on a paleo diet (Primal Blueprint).

    • Michael Matthews

      Nice! Totally fine!

  • Coconut oil tastes great, thats all! I use it for cooking salmon, chicken and so on. yum.. If you wanna use some oil to help in lipid metabolism, EPA/DHA oil and CLA.

    • Michael Matthews

      It does taste awesome! Research shows that CLA is unreliable in this mechanism unfortunately. That’s why I stopped recommending it.

  • Lionell

    Good.information. Miie. I just strarted rereading your articles again which are inspiring. I’m actually on the same path to helping others as well. Down 150 lbs and went pro physique. But big thanks to guys like you for providing honest resourceful information which really helps. I follow you on IG too. Again thanks for everything. If you get a chance check out my new blog site. I’d really appreciate your opinion and insite on it. But only if you have time. http://Www.LonnieFresh.com

    • Michael Matthews

      Wow great job! That rocks! Thanks for the support man and I’ll definitely check your site out.

      • Lionell

        Thanks again Mike!

        • Michael Matthews

          YW

  • GutGeek

    Hey, interesting piece! I have a bulletproof coffee with 50g of grass-fed butter and coconut oil every day to add 400 calories to my meal plan. As a bonus it tastes good and everyone raves about the properties of coconut oil (well, paleo nutrition geeks do anyway!)

    • Michael Matthews

      Cool, enjoy! Nothing WRONG with it. Just not nearly as special as some of the Paleo crowd thinks.

  • Phil Turcotte

    well I have gained 5lbs of fat on mct’s so thats the answer or is the prescription meds doing it I’ll never know I also screwed up my already damaged shoulder on Mikes program guess I’m just a hippy ass wimp this pisses me off I’m going to gym no roids just rage Thanx Mike at least I’m still motivated to train with my broken down old geezer body

  • Ashley

    They have been shown to increase ketone production. Would this help with increased fat burning?

  • Michael Matthews

    Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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