I’ve recently become intrigued by the work of Dr. Ray Peat, and more specifically his support for the consumption of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s) in regards to health, and weight management.
Coconut oil by extension really.
To be clear some (perhaps most) of his concepts are quacky abstractions of details within studies on a more chemical level than interpretations of what research was actually looking at.
I feel this approach to nutritional science is generally not great.
Now to be clear, I’ve actually known about Medium Chain Triglycerides for a little while.
People have been using them as a fat loss aid for quite a few years now (MCT Oil is the common place supplement you’ll find in stores and on the web).
The research that was done, up until the last five years or so (this was originally written in 2012), was mostly done on animals too, specifically rats.
What research had been done in humans convinced me that any improvements in fat loss are so minimal it’s not really worth mentioning, but the research keeps mounting in interesting ways.
They could use some more large cohort research for sure. Yet it’s showing some promise. So long as a person achieves a caloric deficit and so long as it displaces other fats in the diet.
Meaning you have to have other good diet strategies in place to take advantage of any of this.
There are at least a dozen in the last decade showing positive changes in weight lost compared to controls. In that review they showed that research up until 2010 generally showed statistically relevant weight/fat loss, if only a few extra lbs over say a 12 week trial.
Beyond a 12 week study though, a few extra lbs can add up if you’re taking the art of weight loss seriously for the next half a year or year to change your life.
They don’t however improve exercise performance, which is something a certain nutrition community has been pushing as of late for unknown reasons.
They might influence blood lipids in the long run too but not necessarily in a poor way as they tend to raise cholesterol levels uniformly or not by much.
There is also some co-relational data suggesting that regular consumption can be used to prevent/treat Alzheimer’s, prevent heart disease and cancer, and treat malabsorption syndromes. That research isn’t conclusive and is still very much in it’s infancy.
Substituting olive oil or MCT’s in studies like this one, led to about a pound of extra fat loss. It was only 10 grams of either used too.
Researchers predict that this has something to do with the thermic effect of MCT’s, as MCT’s have a different digestion path than most other fats.
The other prediction is that in free-living subjects (i.e. not isolated to a lab) MCT’s curb hunger and lead to a reduction of overall energy intake.
Both seem valid.
These particular saturated fats digest quite differently from most other fats.
They are absorbed right into the portal vein, bypassing most of your typical digestive system and ending up directly in the liver, where they are used quite rapidly as a source of energy.
Fat is traditionally very easy to digest, has a low thermic effect (doesn’t require much in the way of energy to breakdown) and is satiating in the short-term.
MCT’s do not require the digestive enzymes that most other fats do, and because the liver utilizes them as a source of energy, they typically won’t end up as stored fat when excess calories are consumed.
Of course like anything else you can still overeat them but the way our body’s partition that energy makes it seem likely that MCT’s don’t get stored as fat quite as easily as other forms of fat.
This makes them potentially valuable as high energy foods, particularly for diets low in carbohydrates — and potentially the lethargy associated with taking on a low carbohydrate diet.
For the record I am not necessarily pushing a low carb diet in this article. A wide variety of diets work and I support the approach that works best for you so long as it isn’t detrimental to your health in some way shape or form.
After going through the literature on MCT Oil, it’s become apparent to me that I should discuss them, and possibly even consider their use in fat loss programs I develop in the future.
The approach I’ve taken actually is that I teach everyone the basics first.
We practice a whole bunch of skills (many of which are shared on this blog) to get people to a point of proficiency, then maybe we consider MCT supplementation or utilization (I usually use it to mix in salad dressings that I make from scratch) as a way to take those skills further.
They appear to be — though future research appears to be needed — a great addition to healthy eating so long as they aren’t ‘in addition’ to other fats you already eat. That have to supplant other fats you eat.
I’m not saying they are a miracle drug that everybody aiming to lose weight should consume in mass quantities, like everything else, I’m sure too much can be just as bad as not enough. Like everything else it’s all about balance.
Meaning I wouldn’t go so far as to sip MCT’s every morning by adding them to your coffee, that’s still a whole whack of liquid calories that aren’t as satiating for most people.
If you want to put MCT in a salad dressing though instead of olive oil once and awhile, so be it.
If you want to cook with coconut oil every once and while, so be it.
That kind of thing…
Coconut Oil Controversy
Getting to the title of this article!
Most of the positive research has been done specifically on MCT oil. I have to note that this is not the same as coconut oil, so it’s difficult to extend those claims to coconut oil as a whole.
In the health food world they are getting thrown around as the same thing.
Coconut oil is far more common than MCT oil even in the west and has been pushed into a cult-like health status, largely because of the research into MCT’s.
They are not the same thing.
Coconut oil is only about 50% MCT and most of that is a very specific type called lauric acid. Three of the four MCT fatty acids absorb through the portal vein at about 95% efficiency.
Lauric acid on the other hand is less efficient, so it only absorbs at about a 25-30% efficiency. This makes it difficult to know if the results would be the same with coconut oil as they are with actual MCT oil.
Don’t get me wrong coconut oil is safe and probably a decent alternative to saturated fats found in most animal products. At least as safe.
Palm and Palm Kernel Oils also contain this useful Saturated Fat, but in the virgin red palm (made from the fruit of the palm tree) only has trace amounts of lauric acid.
Palm Kernel Oils are often heavily refined and so I don’t generally recommend them for cooking (or eating if you can avoid it) but it has a similar fatty acid profile to coconut oil.
We started cooking regularly with coconut oil a number of years ago — virgin coconut oil smells delicious in a pan, and it’s awesome in asian-inspired dishes — and I’ve always loved curries with coconut milk, perhaps more than any other savory food I can recall.
Coconut milk is even much lower in MCT’s than coconut oil. Just some things to keep in mind really.
I think of coconut oil as I think of butter. OK for adding flavour to certain dishes but I don’t cook with them every day.
Total fat intake still matters a lot more than the type of oil you cook with. Getting your essential fats in would probably be second on that list and coconut oil and palm kernel oils only have trace to very small amounts of the essential omega-6 linoleic acid, with zero omega-3 contribution that you might find in say fish or pasture raised meat.
Some things to keep in mind when considered coconut oil and basing your decision on research done on MCT’s. They are different, but coconut oil tastes better.
Keep in mind that these recommendations assume an otherwise pretty good diet. If you already have a diet high in saturated fat, adding more probably isn’t a good idea.
- My brother is deathly allergic to coconuts, so obviously under those pretenses DO NOT USE COCONUT based products.
- Consider replacing 5-15 g of some other oil with MCT oil daily or most days. I would say salad dressings are the best options as MCT oil doesn’t handle heat that well
- You could also consider replacing some of your other cooking oils with 5-15 g (about 1 TBSP or 2 if cooking for more than yourself) of coconut oil (I recommend virgin/extra-virgin cold-pressed, but they do make one that removes the taste/smell of coconut oil if that isn’t your bag too — it wouldn’t be my first recommendation)
- MCT supplementation of any kind looks like it might be more worthwhile in short-term bursts rather than for extended periods of time anyway (try them for 3 months maybe, or several short 2 weeks bursts over 6 months with a break between)
- Cooking the odd coconut milk curry probably won’t break the bank either, provided energy isn’t in excess
- I don’t recommend palm kernel oil, it’s probably not a huge deal but the heavy refinement and price often means you find it in processed foods
- Red Palm oil is nice as a substitute for other oils too, but it contains very little MCT.
- If you are eating a low carbohydrate diet, MCT’s can be a particularly good substitute for other fats and for energy (low carb diets make a lot of people lethargic)
- Keep in mind that any changes in weight/fat loss are typically only a couple of extra pounds of fat lost by comparison to control groups so don’t expect dramatic changes. It isn’t a miracle worker
- The changes via research seem to be amplified when an exercise regime is in place (duh!)
- MCT’s appear to be more effective in men, than women, it also seems to act more heavily on abdominal fat (lucky us!) and men tend to store more abdominal fat.
- MCT’s are also more effective in men of a more regular BMI than in those who are obese but this might simply based on percentages and effect size differences. It still works in people with higher BMI. However, the notion implies that if you’re trying to get leaner (and are already relatively lean) then the use of MCT’s might be particularly beneficial in overcoming a plateau.
As with anything, if it doesn’t jive with you (i.e. you don’t like the taste, are allergic, or feel awful using the stuff), however unlikely, you don’t HAVE to use it, that’s part of the art. Have some fun playing with this and if you need more help, check out the Fitnack nutrition and fitness coaching app.