Medium Chain Triglycerides and Your Energy

A jar of red palm oilMedium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are a popular energy source for endurance athletes. Diabetics, people suffering from seizures and those trying to lose weight may also benefit from this unique type of fatty acid.

What are Medium Chain Triglycerides?

Dietary fats come in the form of triglycerides, each containing three fatty acid chains.  These chains can be anywhere from 2 – 22 carbon atoms long.  Most of the fatty acids in Western diets are long chain,  with 12 or more carbons in the chain.  Medium chain fatty acids have between 6 and 10 carbons.  Because of their shorter length they are metabolized differently.

MCTs resemble carbohydrates more than they do fats.  They are more water soluble.  Because of this they don’t require bile to break down, and they are broken down more quickly.  They enter the blood stream faster and are taken directly to the liver, where they are used as an immediate source of energy.  Less MCTs are converted to fat than longer fatty acids.

Where are MCTs found, and what are they good for?

MCTs are found in milk fat, palm oil and coconut oil.  They are also made commercially and are available as liquid or capsules.  The commercial formulas don’t hold up well to cooking, because heat makes them oxidize and break down, but they can  be used as al salad dressing or taken as a supplement.

Since the 1950s MCTs have been used as part of the formula for patients who can not digest fats properly due to illness.  They are given in IV units to people who need parenteral nutrition.  These include people suffering from severe trauma such as burns, or newborn babies who need supplemental nutrition.  People suffering from jaundice, Crohns disease, celiacs, cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis and other illnesses may get MCTs as a supplement to their diet.

In the 1980s MCTs became a popular source of energy for people engaged in high-level sports such as bikers or marathoners.  High carbohydrate diets had been popular for providing quick energy, but carbs also stimulate insulin, which causes your body to deposit fat.  MCTs provide quick energy as well, but since they are a fat and not a carb, they don’t stimulate insulin, and you don’t have the problem with weight gain.  MCTs do stimulate thermogenesis, which is the process where your body produces heat by increased burning of fat.  This is a good thing for people who are trying to lose fat.

People who suffer from epileptic seizures have been shown to benefit from a diet high in MCTs.  They also tend to lower blood sugar slightly, and this is beneficial for diabetics.  They have been shown to be antioxidants and have anticoagulative effects, which can help with heart disease.

Why don’t I just start eating a diet of strictly MCTs?

Before you start adding palm oil to your food and thinking the fat will just melt off, you should know that to get any meaningful weight loss you would need to eat about half your calories in the form of MCTs.   For a typical adult male we are talking about 1200 or so calories a day of fat.  That’s about 130 grams of fat per day.  Fats should only make up about 30% of your calories each day, or for that adult male eating 2400 calories, he should have about 80 grams of fat.  So in order to use MCTs to actually make your body burn fat, you would have to be eating a very unhealthy (and unpalatable) amount of fat.

Aside from that level of fat in the diet being unhealthy, a diet high in MCTs also has some side effects.  These include gastrointestinal upsets such as diarrhea, and increased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.  This occurs when the MCT level goes above 10% of calories.  People who have complications from liver disease should not take MCTs, as they are processed by the liver.  Also, MCTs do not contain any of the essential fatty acids that we need to survive.  Therefore, a diet of strictly MCTs would be deficient in nutrients that you need.

The Research on MCTs

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 1992 showed that rats fed a diet with MCTs instead of LCTs had a greater energy expenditure, and only gained 1/3 as much weight.

Human studies comparing the two types of fatty acids have only been done for short periods of time.  In a study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1991, the energy expenditure of healthy adult men was 65% higher when they were fed MCTs than when they were fed LCTs.  Also, energy expenditure was higher with MCTs than with carbohydrates, though the difference wasn’t as great.  The results persisted even for 7 days, as was found in a study published by Metabolism in 1989.

However in 1999 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study done with women that showed after 14 days the energy expenditure of MCTs was no longer greater.  This suggests that the effect diminishes over time.  On the other hand, it’s been found that women do not respond to MCTs with increased energy burned nearly as well as men do.  Well, just one more reason the cards are stacked against us, ladies!

Studies have shown that animals given a diet of MCTs instead of LCTs have less fat cells, smaller fat cells and a lower body weight.  This has not been born out in studies on obese humans.  A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 1998 showed that people eating a diet high in fish oil, which has LCTs, actually had fewer fat cells than people who ate a diet high in MCTs.

In animal studies MCTs have been shown to increase satiety (feeling of fullness) and decrease food intake.  Once again, this hasn’t been strongly shown in human studies.  When people were given high MCT foods at breakfast, they did have a lower calorie intake at lunch, but by supper time their food intake was back to normal.  This suggests that if there are effects, they are temporary.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1998)

The jury is still out on whether MCTs can be useful in treating obesity or helping with weight control.  Not only are there no long term studies to show they work, but researchers have not been able to pinpoint why they have the effect that they do in animals.  Various hormones have been studied, but none of these are found to be secreted exclusively when someone eats MCTs.

What does the research mean?

If you are an endurance athlete you can certainly benefit from using MCTs as an energy source.  And there are many health benefits to including MCTs in your diet, as long as you don’t have liver disease.  Some people with certain health problems may want to take a higher level of treatment under a doctor’s care.  Perhaps someday soon there will be a program to treat obesity that includes MCTs.  But for now the average person should not eat more than 30% of your calories in any kind of fat.  Also, don’t eat ALL your fat in the form of MCTs, because then you are missing out on the essential fatty acids, which your body needs to survive.  Studies have shown that eating more than 10% of your calorie intake as MCTs can raise your cholesterol level.  As with most things, MCTs can be part of a healthy diet but you shouldn’t overdo them.

Journal of Nutrition Study on Physiological Effects of Medium Chain Triglycerides, 2002

Read more about how triglycerides are made up of short, medium and long chain fatty acids.

61 comments to Medium Chain Triglycerides and Your Energy

  • vickie frost

    There is a Dr. Mary Newport who has been treating her husbands Alzheimer’s with coconut oil with very good results. It makes perfect sense b/c our brains are made up of fat and cholesterol and big pharma tells us that cholesterol is bad….. If it is so bad, then why do our livers make it? I would rather believe in the body’s wisdom than big pharma’s profit margin! Fat free diets and cholesterol lowering drugs contribute to the huge number of brain disorders including Alzheimer’s.
    You can google her for more info.

  • [...] can even make your own. It’s a great source of saturated fats (Medium Chain Triglycerides, or MCTs, to be more precise.) It’s enormously satiating, which makes it great in sweet treats, like [...]

  • Reliable details. I only desired to reply to your “Well, just one more purpose the cards are placed against us, ladies!” declaration. I know you were just kidding around, but it always saddens me that even in this day and age, we perpetuate the idea that being women is somehow less-than, more lacking, or a responsibility in some way.Embroidery Digitizing

    • liz

      Several women have taken offense to that comment, but I meant it in the context of weight loss. There is no denying the fact that men lose weight much more easily than women. Yes, when it comes to metabolism and weight loss, the cards are stacked against us because we have less muscle mass, different hormones and a slower metabolism. So I am just telling it like it is. There are of course many other differences between women and men – they are physically stronger, we are more intuitive. I will pit my foresight and organizational skills against a man any day. Am I inferior? Certainly not. But its interesting that you mention responsibility, because I think if you have a particular strength there is a responsibility that goes along with it. For example I live in a family of all boys and men, and I feel a responsibility to provide a female touch, a female viewpoint and keep them all grounded and organized. What do you think?

  • [...] for it online)  has 15 grams of protein, 6 grams of natural sugar, .5 g of fat and contains medium chain triglycerides (good for you) and lots of nutrients and enzymes.  It is a whey protein and contains chia [...]

  • Victoria Blaesing

    Another comment, I saw that medium chain triglycerides are found in milk, coconut and palm oils. Does this mean only raw milk or will it include pasteurized milk? Anybody know?

    • liz

      I don’t believe that MCTs are destroyed by heat such as pasteurization, but if anyone knows otherwise feel free to chime in. Cows milk has the lowest percentage of MCTs of those three that are listed. Goats milk is higher in MCTs. Palm oil is the next highest, and coconut oil has the highest percentage of MCTs.

      • Victoria Blaesing

        Can the benefits of coconut oil be derived from taking 2 or 3 softgels per day? Each softgel is 1 gram virgin coconut oil. I got them from Whole Foods Market. Thanks!

        • liz

          Hi, Victoria,
          I can’t speak for any particular brand as far as its purity or whatever. I imagine Wholefoods sells different brands of coconut oil? Or do they have a store brand. Assuming it is a reliable product, I’d say that’s a very efficient way to get MCTs without eating vast amounts of fresh coconut or palm oil. It depends on what benefits you are looking for. Two or three grams of MCTs is probably not enough to influence weight loss, as the studies show you need a lot more. However you mentioned that it does help with your carpal tunnel, and if it works than go for it. If you are taking 2-3 grams of coconut oil I would cut back on other fats (unhealthy ones, preferably) so that you are not just adding more and more fats to your diet. But you don’t want to eat only coconut oils as they don’t have any of the essential fatty acids that you need. Try to find the balance where you are seeing some relief from the carpal tunnel but not experiencing the gastrointestinal problems that go along with taking MCTs.

  • Victoria Blaesing

    I found this very interesting. But will the benefits occur with any and all portions of the coconut or do we need to find a way to ingest coconut oil every day? Also, I found coconut oil softgels at the local Whole Foods Market. Can the benefits of coconut oil be derived from taking 2 or 3 softgels per day? Each softgel is 1 gram virgin coconut oil. Can the same benefits be derived from taking coconut milk? On another note I just saw something about oil pulling. Anybody heard of that before? I have ingested coconut oil before and found immediate results with my carpel tunnel problems going away, however plain coconut oil gives me an upset stomach.

    • liz

      The benefits of MCTs would only come from the coconut oil, which is the fatty part of the coconut. When you eat the coconut meat of course you are getting the oils along with it, but eating just coconut oil or coconut milk would be a more concentrated source of MCTs. Coconut milk is actually made by melting the oil out of the coconut with hot water. A can of coconut milk (Goya brand) has 9 g of fat. Maybe coconut milk would be easier on your stomach than the oil? You could try using coconut milk to prepare rice or hot cereal. Just substitute coconut milk for the water.

      I had never heard of oil pulling but have been reading about it since you mentioned it. It sounds pretty crazy but hey, maybe it works! However since you are spitting the oil out I don’t think you would get any of the benefits of MCTs through oil pulling – it is a method of detoxifying your system, but can’t really have any nutritional benefits.

  • Tina Hilier

    We are just trying to convince our daughters dietician that a diet of blended real food is better than chemical formula. We are using coconut milk with calcium as she is intolerant of cows milk.
    I was interested to see your reference to epilepsy as this is one huge improvement we have seen.
    However the dietician has told us MCTs increase cholestrol.
    Much of the information we have read says the opposite.
    We use a pint of Kara coconut milk with calcium through a days worth of blends. Loads of fresh fruit and veg mostly blended from raw. We add seeds and nuts and she has whatever we are eating meat fish and potato wise.

    • liz

      Good for you, for doing the research and tailoring a solution to your daughter’s needs! I am wondering how old your daughter is. Infant, or older child? If there is a concern about cholesterol, maybe you could have it checked periodically to monitor the effect of the diet. A common side effect of drinking too much coconut milk is stomach upset and diarrhea so you would want to watch out for that as well.

  • [...] spoonful of coconut oil, which provides medium-chain triglycerides, which are easily metabolized. Medium Chain Triglycerides: The little fatty acid chains that can do big things. - Eating We… Reply With Quote « Previous Thread | Next Thread [...]

  • Terry

    Coconut milk has been very beneficial to me, I mix it with a scoop or two of Amazing Grass Green Superfood (cacao chocolate infusion) (available @ Amazon.com) every morning. I’m 56 and it has given me great energy, especially since I babysit my 10 month old grandson everyday! I’m not exhausted at the end of the day or falling asleep in front of the TV at night. I’ve been drinking this mix for almost two months now, it keeps me from getting overly hungry and I’ve also lost some weight! Yeah!

  • Lisa

    Your post is so clear. Thanks for explaining MCTs so well!

  • [...] like it either. I can handle coconut milk, but the smell of coconut oil makes me feel a bit ill. Medium Chain Triglycerides: The little fatty acid chains that can do big things. – Eating Well on th… Medium-chain triglycerides can be quite good for you (ignore the comments in this about unhealthy [...]

  • jesse jackson

    Well thought out, your post gets me writing about all of this. paul babeu

  • How can someone with jaundice benefit from mct’s when jaundice comes from liver disease which is stated not to be consumed by those with liver disease?

    • liz

      I don’t know the answer to that question, Sean, I agree there seems to be a contradiction there. Maybe it depends on the cause of the liver disease and different types would be treated differently. Anyone with jaundice or liver disease you should be under the care of a health professional who can make sure you are getting the proper diet.

      • Patrick

        There are numerous studies out now that are showing that eating foods high in MCT’s (such as butter and coconut oil) are helpful in the reversal of fatty liver disease.

        That may sound illogical but that’s what they are seeing.

    • Clint

      Read Bruce Fife’s book; Coconut Cures. Answers all these questions. The liver is the organ that can benefit most from coconut oil. (paraphrasing:) coconut encourages cellular regeneration. The liver benefits from this.

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  • Rosa Melo

    What about if you have a high triglceride level? Will coconut oil have any adverse effect or no effect? Can I still take it?

    • liz

      Hi, Rosa,
      The answer to your question is that no one really knows yet how MCTs affect triglyceride levels. There have been cases where children being treated with MCT formulas because they couldn’t absorb normal fats had raised triglyceride levels. There have also been a couple of studies showing coconut oil lowered triglyceride levels when compared with olive oil and canola oil. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2874191/, http://www.wellnesshealth.com/img.asp?dl=1&t=2&id=27610. Interestingly the olive oil study explained that they would have rather used beef tallow as a comparison but it would have been impossible to do the study without participants knowing which type of fat they were getting – beef tallow is hard to disguise. There really hasn’t been anything that definitively says coconut oil raises or lowers triglyceride levels.

      On the other hand studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils do lower triglyceride levels. If you are looking to supplement your diet this would be a better choice. Other ways to lower triglyceride levels include exercising regularly, and cutting down on sugary foods and alcohol, and losing weight if you need to do that.

      If you are taking coconut oil as part of your exercise regimen or to help with weight loss, I would encourage you to have your triglycerides checked periodically. Its a simple blood test and you could monitor your levels – if they are going up perhaps stop taking the coconut oil and see if this helps. Since your TG levels are high all of this should be done under a doctors care and guidance.

      • Edward

        Triglycerides and go up or down based on how much High Fructose Corn Syrup is consumed. If a lot, they go up. If no HFCS is consumed, and TG’s are high, there is another problem. HFCS is in so much these days, it is paramount that one read labels. Ketchup anyone? Yes, it’s in there, but there are brands where it is not. Juices, fruit juices, and on and on.

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  • [...] saturated fats that are found in coconut oil are mostly triglycerides and medium-chain fatty acids. These fats help keep skin supple, fighting aging and can help moisturize your skin as well. If we [...]

  • A

    Good information. I only wanted to respond to your "Well, just one more reason the cards are stacked against us, ladies!" statement. I know you were just joking around, but it always saddens me that even in this day and age, we perpetuate the notion that being female is somehow less-than, more deficient, or a liability in some way. Whether you meant it in terms of physical benefits compared to men, or whether you meant it in terms of discrimination against women, or just universal comparisons between the genders…I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love being a woman, and am soooo grateful that the good Lord saw fit to make me female, and there has never been anything "stacked against" me because of my gender. Quite the contrary. Now don't get me wrong; I am all for fighting that we get equal treatment in all arenas, and if that's what you meant, then more power to you. But otherwise, considering ALL of the positives that come with being a woman, if we metabolize these fats differently than men, it's OK since there are so many other things that are tipped in our favor over men, physically and otherwise. Peace.

    • liz

      Thanks for your response, A, and for the reminder of how beautifully and wonderfully we (women) are made! I have to admit it is frustrating to watch my husband “go on a diet” and drop weight with virtually no effort at all, while I struggle to lose every ounce. So I was absolutely talking about physical differences, not equal treatment in other areas. Yes, I was half joking and half complaining, which is not to say that I’m not thankful for being a woman. But its all a temporary situation anyway, as Galations 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

  • [...] The fat in coconuts is mostly in the form of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs.  This is a unique form of fatty acids that has a lot of health benefits.  Read more about medium chain triglycerides. [...]

  • [...] of the B vitamins, vitamin E, and phytosterols.  The fat in coconut is mostly in the form of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT's), which are a unique form of fatty acids with many health [...]

  • Tri Dog

    Thanks for the information. It always amazes me how the "marketers" can use words to sell anything. Your information seems rational and well researched as well as non biased. Thanks for the info. I think I shall stay with using 1 cup of Coconut milk for my latte in the morning and see how my cholesterol levels do. I am an endurance athlete, so maybe I can burn it off!

  • [...] HERE to link to more research on medium chain fatty [...]

  • I have had several health problems over the years and I have recently started eating 90% vegetarian and I love it. I have never felt better in my life. I have been consuming everything I can read on the topic. If you can’t go 100% veggies then flexitarian is the way to go! I would like to work my way to 100% whole foods but it’s a struggle.

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  • Noella Baver

    I am very interested in a sugar-free living. I currently have a sweet-tooth, and am finding it difficult to find meal plans, what to eat for snacks, etc. While diabetes is not something that runs in my family, I am still concerned and would like to be smart and take a proactive approach to my health. Any tips or advice?

  • Martina Kammerdiener

    Coconut oil, and its beneficial attributes, are just about to seriously burst into the mainstream. Saturated animal fats like good quality beef fat, etc are still sadly in my opinion being demonized but coconut oil seems to be being mentioned on shows like Oprah, etc. finally some good news for all the SAD-followers.

  • Superfoods

    Interesting information, we certainly love coconut. A famed swami named Srila Prabhupada says you can live on 2 coconuts per day. Thanks!!

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