Medium chain triglycerides are a type of dietary fat thought to offer a range of health benefits. Found naturally in coconut oil and palm kernel oil, medium chain triglycerides are also sold as dietary supplements.
All dietary fats are molecules made up of carbon atoms linked in chains. The main form of fat in the American diet, long chain triglycerides range from 12 to 18 carbons in length. Medium chain triglycerides, on the other hand, range from 6 to 10 carbons in length. The shorter chain length of medium chain triglycerides is said to impart unique properties that may enhance human health.
One unique property of medium chain triglycerides is that they are absorbed intact and delivered directly to the liver to be used for energy. Other types of dietary fats must be broken down in the intestines and made into a different type of fat to be transported in the blood before they can be used for energy.
Health Benefits of Medium Chain Triglycerides
Here's a look at the science behind the purported health benefits of medium chain triglycerides:
1) Weight Loss
Several small studies suggest that medium chain triglycerides may help promote weight loss. In a 2003 study published in Obesity Research, for instance, 24 healthy but overweight men consumed diets rich in either medium chain triglycerides or long chain triglycerides for 28 days each. Study results showed that the diet rich in medium chain triglycerides was associated with a greater loss of body fat (perhaps partly due to increased burning of calories).
Additionally, a 2002 research review published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that medium chain triglycerides may aid in weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing long chain triglycerides. Drawing their conclusions from animal-based studies and clinical trials, the review's authors note that medium chain triglycerides appear to increase energy expenditure (i.e., the burning of calories) and promote satiety (the sensation of fullness after consuming food).
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2) Sports Performance
In a 2010 research review published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, investigators found little evidence that medium chain triglycerides help improve exercise performance. However, the reviewed studies did indicate that medium chain triglycerides may help promote weight loss by increasing energy expenditure and reducing food intake.
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Medium chain triglycerides may help alleviate the pain that people with chronic pancreatitis tend to experience after eating, according to a small study published in Pancreatology in 2003. The study involved eight patients with chronic pancreatitis, each of whom consumed medium chain triglycerides three times daily for 10 weeks. By the study's end, six of the eight patients showed significant improvement in post-meal pain.
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Common Uses for Medium Chain Triglycerides
When used in combination with medication, medium chain triglycerides are said to help treat the following conditions:
- Alzheimer's disease
- celiac disease
- cystic fibrosis
- digestion problems due to partial removal of the stomach
- gallbladder disease
- liver disease
In addition, medium chain triglycerides are touted as a natural remedy for improving sports performance and promoting weight loss.
Are Medium Chain Triglycerides Safe?
Although medium chain triglycerides are likely safe for most people, they may trigger certain side effects (such as nausea, stomach upset, gas, diarrhea, and vomiting).
In addition, regular intake of medium chain triglycerides may lead to the buildup of ketones (compounds produced when the body burns fat for energy). Since the accumulation of ketones can be harmful to people with diabetes, it's important for diabetes patients to seek medical advice before increasing their intake of medium chain triglycerides.
Intake of medium chain triglycerides may also cause serious health problems in people with liver disease.
Where To Find Medium Chain Triglycerides:
Dietary supplements containing medium chain triglycerides can be found in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in supplements.
Clegg ME. "Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance." Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Nov;61(7):653-79.
Shea JC, Bishop MD, Parker EM, Gelrud A, Freedman SD. "An enteral therapy containing medium-chain triglycerides and hydrolyzed peptides reduces postprandial pain associated with chronic pancreatitis." Pancreatology. 2003;3(1):36-40.
St-Onge MP, Jones PJ. "Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity." J Nutr. 2002 Mar;132(3):329-32.
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.
Ward Dean, MD and Jim English. "Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)." Nutrition Review. Last accessed May 2012.