What’s the Fuss Around MCT?

MCT has gained popularity in the dietary landscape, but does it live up to the hype?

Photo by Kai Dahms

If you’ve been paying close attention to the internet lately, you would have noticed the surge of nutritional-related advice and the growing list of diets that people are taking up and talking about. A 2016 study revealed that 93.3 million U.S adults suffer from obesity, which is a whopping 39.6% of the entire adult population in the country! To put that into perspective, this data suggests that 4 out of every 10 adults you meet in the U.S are obese. And we all know the endless docket of diseases that come with obesity — diabetes, hypertension, heart problems, and so on.

With the current obesity epidemic hitting hard on the citizens of the U.S, many people have started to become more health-aware and therefore taken into the route of dietary modifications. This is where supplements like MCT and CBD come in.

MCTs, or medium-chain triglycerides are essentially fats. Triglycerides are the building blocks of most fats that we know, and they come in different sized packages. Those with less than 6 carbon atoms are called short-chain triglycerides (SCTs), which are naturally produced by your gut flora, and those with 13–21 carbon atoms are called long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Everything in between is an MCT.

SCTs are naturally synthesised by the organisms in your gastrointestinal tract, and although production is affected by the type of foods you eat, there aren’t any direct food sources for SCTs. Foods with a high-fibre content, such as fruits and vegetables, are known to encourage the production of SCTs. Some studies have shown that SCTs help regulate inflammation in the gut, improving the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis, and reduce the risk of colon cancer. MCTs are therefore the shortest chain triglycerides available on your plate.

LCTs on the other hand, are found extravagantly in food items that are classically perceived as ‘fatty’ and ‘unhealthy’. Foods that are high in LCTs include butter, palm oil, and animal fats such as lard. There are however, some notably ‘healthy’ LCT family members such as fish oil and flax seeds, which contain health-promoting Omega-3s.

Crudely speaking, the increase in the length of chains discounts their health benefits but at the same token, increases satiety. A person whose diet consist primarily of foods that induce the production of SCTs will probably feel hungry faster than a person whose meal is rich in LCTs.

But I thought all triglycerides were bad news?

This is a common misconception in society. Triglycerides are, well fats. And fats are necessary for survival — not just for energy storage, but also for an array of physiological functions that be disrupted should you wish to wholly neglect fats in your diet, such as keeping your vitamin levels and body temperature in check.

Sometimes during a routine medical check-up, your doctor will order a blood workup. You’ll probably be asked to fast the night before you get your blood drawn, upon which lab magic will ensue. The analysis will usually be done within an hour (depending on how many parameters you are testing for), and you’ll receive a very systematised document showing the results of your blood analysis, including one section portraying your lipid profile. In it, you will see generally see two things: cholesterol and triglycerides. The numerical values for cholesterol are further divided into subgroups (total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol), but there is only one value for triglycerides. That is your blood triglycerides, and seeing a low number for this measurement is generally a good thing.

Where do they come from? Your diet. Depending on what you had for lunch, you will probably have consumed varying compositions for the different types of triglycerides. MCTs, LCTs, you know the stuff. After they are broken down, they enter the bloodstream and merge with cholesterol to form chylomicrons, which will be transported around the body and dumped into high-demand areas. When these triglycerides are eventually dumped out of these chylomicrons, they become directly measurable in the blood. Long chain triglycerides, just by the virtue of its name, contributes significantly more to the overall sum of blood triglycerides compared to SCTs and MCTs.

The primary reason people despise triglycerides so much is because they are responsible for making you look plump. The high energy bonds stored in triglyceride molecules make them the ideal energy storage unit. In the off-chance that you find yourself stranded on an island and on the brink of starvation, they might just help you survive a little bit longer. However, not all about triglycerides are bad. In fact just as I said previously, they are essential. The plasma membranes that give structure and support to your body’s 37.2 trillion cells are comprised of triglycerides. Without them, you would literally dissolve into a mush. It is only in excess amounts that triglycerides start to become a problem.

Okay, now on to MCT. What makes it so unique?

Medium-chain triglycerides are metabolised differently to their longer-chained cousins. Unlike LCTs, MCTs are more rapidly broken down and absorbed by the body. What this entails is an instant energy boost at your disposal, which could be useful if say you are a physically active person. Simultaneously, they can be converted in the liver into ketone bodies.

Ketone bodies are small energy molecules that are able to pass through the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), and into the internal cerebral environment. There are primarily 2 energy molecules that are small enough to pass through the slits of the BBB and used as brain fuel, one being glucose, and the other being ketones. In moments of extreme starvation (when blood glucose levels are exceedingly low), your body relies on ketones for survival.

This is the same process that occurs in ketogenic diets. An extremely low carbohydrate intake sets up a pseudo-starvation scenario in the brain, which causes a cascade of reactions that causes the body to utilise its fat storage to synthesise ketones, hence ‘burning fat’. This is sometimes referred to as ‘autophagy’, which literally means ‘to eat oneself’. MCTs are useful adjuncts for people in the keto diet landscape.

Inside the cells, MCTs are also treated differently. Some sources mention that they act more like glucose than fats because they are more likely to undergo oxidation. The rapid oxidation of MCTs also aid in the generation of ketone bodies rather their conversion to lipids. MCTs also do not require pancreatic and bile activity for absorption, taking place readily in the small intestines. Because of this characteristic, they are often used in the hospital setting for patients with pancreatic insufficiency.

So what are the potential benefits of MCTs?

Most of the potential upsides of incorporating MCTs to your diet depend on your initial diet in the first place. You can’t be consuming just MCTs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — otherwise you’ll end up in the morgue. As stated previously, MCTs generally supplement ketogenic diets, so some of the benefits a person sees from MCTs will usually reflect the impacts that come with keto diets. In essence, it is quite difficult to accurately gauge the objective benefits of incorporating MCTs into the dining table.

However, there are some studies that suggest the following:

Weight Loss: There are several theorised hypotheses to this, some researchers speculate that they increase fullness, account to greater fat loss, while others postulate that they do so by burning more calories and they are less likely to be converted to fats. I think it’s mostly down to the weight-loss effects of ketogenic diet that often go hand in hand with MCTs.

Enhance Exercise Performance: There have been mixed results for this, but some animal studies show that the relatively rapid metabolism of MCTs have increase energy levels during high-intensity exercise.

Seizure Control: Some researches have shown this to be true. Fun fact: the ketogenic diet was first intended for treating children with epilepsy.

Improve Alzheimer’s: A major study found that MCTs enhance learning, memory and brain processing in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, though only with people who didn’t have the APOE4 gene variant.

And the potential downsides?

I prefer to call this one limitations, because ‘downsides’ signal a collective disadvantage for everyone, but these may not be true for everybody. For one, there’s cost. Dietary MCTs are readily available in two forms: natural and pure-form. Natural MCTs are available in things like coconut oil, and palm kernel oil, and small amounts in dairy products. For some families, these sources can be quite pricey, let alone pure, fractionated MCT oils which can cost upwards of $20 for a 16 ounce bottle.

Also, depending on a person’s unique metabolism, MCTs can potentially trigger some unpleasant side effects such as diarrhoea, vomiting, bloating and abdominal cramps. Transitioning into MCTs may also be quite difficult because preparation can be time-consuming and unexciting. Also, if you’re planning to start this with the keto diet, you should be aware of its highly restrictive nature.

In addition, the potential upsides of MCT will certainly not be attained should a person neglect other vital aspects of their diet. If a person decides incorporate MCTs and immaculately track their fat intake but concurrently consume plenty of refined carbohydrates, they probably won’t lose weight.

So should you board the MCT train?

Well, if you’re particularly curious, or want to lose some weight, and you have a bit of money and time to spare, I don’t see why you shouldn’t take part in this trend. If anything, MCTs sound like the ideal alternative to the more health-detrimental LCTs no matter what diet a person is practicing.

Personally, I don’t think this diet is worth the fuss. Instead, I would go for a more balanced and easy-to-follow regimen such as the Mediterranean diet, which you can easily adapt to your food item preferences and to the size of your wallet.

Written by

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵ https://sendfox.com/jonathanoei

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