Medium Chain Triglycerides are a novel type of fat found in small amounts in dairy foods like butter and cheese, and in palm oil, and coconut oil (especially a specific fatty acid called 'lauric acid' in coconut oil). MCTs aren't digested and absorbed in the same way as normal dietary fats [see our article 'What are MCTs for more info!] and this gives them interesting benefits for health and performance. They have been researched extensively for their many benefits that include:
- Encouraging the creation of brain- and body-friendly ketone fuels
- Improved mood and cognition (mental performance)
- Reducing the time taken to reach 'nutritional ketosis'
- Reduced symptoms of carbohydrate restriction commonly known as 'keto-flu'
- Increased fat-burning
A brain- and body-boosting ketone fuel...
Compared to other types of fats, MCTs increase ketogenesis, the process, in the body, of producing 'ketone bodies' to use as fuel.1-4 These 'ketone bodies' (usually just called 'ketones') can be used as a preferred fuel by most tissue in the body, even brain cells!
Helping you get into and stay in ketosis
Ketogenic diets were originally used with great success to treat childhood epilepsy and have been used for this purpose since the 1920s.5-8 Since that time, ketogenic and other low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diets have demonstrated a host of benefits for many other health conditions, weight and fat-loss, and for improving sports (especially endurance) performance.
When ketogenic diets were first being investigated, they relied heavily on fasting, and on extremely high-fat diets (with up to 80% of calories from fat) to achieve nutritional ketosis. .9, 10This became known as the Johns Hopkins Protocol (after the university hospital of the same name) and is now commonly called a 'classic' or 'standard' ketogenic diet.
In the 1970s researchers demonstrated that a ketogenic diet could have as little as 60% calories from fat and much more protein and carbs, and still achieve the same levels of blood ketones if the diet included a high proportion of medium chain MCTs.11, 12 More recently, my team and I have also demonstrated that MCTs reduce symptoms of 'keto-flu' and might help induce ketosis more quickly.
Increased fat loss
Diets rich in MCTs promote greater fat-burning and weight/fat-loss than those containing an equivalent amount of standard dietary fat.13, 14 They have been shown to have a particularly positive effect on fat in and around the midsection (internal and external 'belly fat'),15 which we know to be a risk factor for heart health and is an indicator of increased risk of metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes). MCTs also help us to stick to a healthy diet more easily, by reducing voluntary food intake,16 increasing the desired time between meals, and improving our portion control.17 Even relatively low intakes of MCT (as little as 15 g per day or 1 Tbsp.) as part of the diet, enhance how many calories we burn day-to-day.18
Improved mood and mental performance
The ketones created when we take MCT oils increase 'mitochondrial efficiency' (how efficiently we use fuels, especially fat-for-fuel) and help to supplement the brain's normal reliance on glucose.19For this reason, MCT supplemented diets improve mental performance in those with Alzheimer's Disease and other age related cognitive decline.20, 21 They have also been shown to aid cognition and protect against the effects of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) in diabetics.22 In our research, we have observed that MCTs improve mood in those following a ketogenic diet (paper currently in peer-review).
Improved cardiometabolic health
MCTs raise serum triglycerides (fats in the blood), less than standard dietary fats.23, 24 High triglycerides are a key indicator heart disease and stroke risk and are one of the first markers that clinicians look to reduce. Experimental studies demonstrate that dietary MCTs reduce fat deposition, increase thermogenic rate (calories burned) and fat burning. Additionally, several reports suggest that MCTs help preserve insulin sensitivity, both in animal models and patients with Type 2 Diabetes.25
Greater muscle retention post-injury and while dieting
Due to the easily used nature of MCTs, they can help to reduce muscle and other tissue breakdown after injury or trauma,26 and improve fat-loss while helping to preserve muscle while dieting.27
Animal research further suggests a role for MCTs in the treatment of cancer, ulcerative colitis, 'leaky gut', inflammatory disorders, and depression.
The bottom line:
Whether you're on a keto-diet or not, MCTs provide a great source of fuel that can help to improve your mental and physical performance and help you to more easily maintain your optimal body shape.
Sources of MCT oil:
1. Mingrone G, Greco AV, Castagneto M, De Gaetano A, Tataranni PA, Raguso C. Kinetics and thermogenesis of medium-chain monocarboxylic and dicarboxylic acids in man: sebacate and medium-chain triglycerides. JPEN Journal Of Parenteral And Enteral Nutrition. 1993;17(3):257-64.
2. Jiang ZM, Zhang SY, Wang XR, Yang NF, Zhu Y, Wilmore D. A comparison of medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides in surgical patients. Annals Of Surgery. 1993;217(2):175-84.
3. Lai H, Chen W. Effects of medium-chain and long-chain triacylglycerols in pediatric surgical patients. Nutrition. 2000;16(6):401-6.
4. Sandström R, Hyltander A, Körner U, Lundholm K. Structured triglycerides were well tolerated and induced increased whole body fat oxidation compared with long-chain triglycerides in postoperative patients. JPEN Journal Of Parenteral And Enteral Nutrition. 1995;19(5):381-6.
5. Lefevre F, Aronson N. Ketogenic Diet for the Treatment of Refractory Epilepsy in Children: A Systematic Review of Efficacy. Pediatrics. 2000;105(4):e46.
6. Keene DL. A Systematic Review of the Use of the Ketogenic Diet in Childhood Epilepsy. Pediatric Neurology. 2006;35(1):1-5.
7. Neal EG, Chaffe H, Schwartz RH, Lawson MS, Edwards N, Fitzsimmons G, et al. The ketogenic diet for the treatment of childhood epilepsy: a randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Neurology. 2008;7(6):500-6.
8. Levy RG, Cooper PN, Giri P, Pulman J. Ketogenic diet and other dietary treatments for epilepsy. The Cochrane Library. 2012.
9. Livingstone S. Comprehensive Management of Epilepsy in Infancy, Childhood and Adolescence. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1972;47(255):842-.
10. Livingston S, Pauli LL, Pruce I. KETOGENIC DIET IN TREATMENT OF CHILDHOOD EPILEPSY. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. 1977;19(6):833-4.
11. Huttenlocher PR. Ketonemia and Seizures: Metabolic and Anticonvulsant Effects of Two Ketogenic Diets in Childhood Epilepsy. Pediatr Res. 1976;10(5):536-40.
12. Huttenlocher P, Wilbourn A, Signore J. Medium?chain triglycerides as a therapy for intractable childhood epilepsy. Neurology. 1971;21(11):1097-.
13. St-Onge M-P, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJH. Medium-Chain Triglycerides Increase Energy Expenditure and Decrease Adiposity in Overweight Men. Obesity Research. 2003;11(3):395-402.
14. Tsuji H, Kasai M, Takeuchi H, Nakamura M, Okazaki M, Kondo K. Dietary Medium-Chain Triacylglycerols Suppress Accumulation of Body Fat in a Double-Blind, Controlled Trial in Healthy Men and Women. The Journal of Nutrition. 2001;131(11):2853-9.
15. St-Onge M-P, 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. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;87(3):621-6.
16. Clegg ME. Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance. International journal of food sciences and nutrition. 2010;61(7):653-79.
17. Van Wymelbeke V, Himaya A, Louis-Sylvestre J, Fantino M. Influence of medium-chain and long-chain triacylglycerols on the control of food intake in men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1998;68(2):226-34.
18. Dulloo AG, Fathi M, Mensi N, Girardier L. Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and urinary catecholamines of humans consuming low-to-moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides: a dose-response study in a human respiratory chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996;50(3):152-8.
19. Henderson ST. Ketone Bodies as a Therapeutic for Alzheimer's Disease. Neurotherapeutics. 2008;5(3):470-80.
20. Reger MA, Henderson ST, Hale C, Cholerton B, Baker LD, Watson GS, et al. Effects of ?-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiology of Aging. 2004;25(3):311-4.
21. Cunnane SC, Courchesne-Loyer A, St-Pierre V, Vandenberghe C, Pierotti T, Fortier M, et al. Can ketones compensate for deteriorating brain glucose uptake during aging? Implications for the risk and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2016;1367(1):12-20.
22. Page KA, Williamson A, Yu N, McNay EC, Dzuira J, McCrimmon RJ, et al. Medium-Chain Fatty Acids Improve Cognitive Function in Intensively Treated Type 1 Diabetic Patients and Support In Vitro Synaptic Transmission During Acute Hypoglycemia. Diabetes. 2009;58(5):1237-44.
23. Calabrese C, Myer S, Munson S, Turet P, Birdsall TC. 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;4(1):23-8.
24. Kasai M, Maki H, Nosaka N, Aoyama T, Ooyama K, Uto H, et al. Effect of Medium-chain Triglycerides on the Postprandial Triglyceride Concentration in Healthy Men. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. 2003;67(1):46-53.
25. Nagao K, Yanagita T. Medium-chain fatty acids: Functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Pharmacological Research. 2010;61(3):208-12.
26. Lindgren BF, Ruokonen E, Magnusson-Borg K, Takala J. Nitrogen sparing effect of structured triglycerides containing both medium-and long-chain fatty acids in critically ill patients; a double blind randomized controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2001;20(1):43-8.
27. Krotkiewski M. Value of VLCD supplementation with medium chain triglycerides. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001;25(9):1393-400.