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.
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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 kernel oil. There are man-made forms as well (MCT oil), which are usually processed coconut or palm kernel oil.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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…
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.