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MCT oil: Can eating fat actually make you thin?

That’s the question Dr Gisela Helfer, Associate Professor in Physiology at the University of Bradford, will be posing at a public lecture in Bradford on Tuesday, May 23rd.  Dr Helfer will be discussing MCT oil – medium-chain triglyceride oil – which has become popular amongst wellbeing influencers. In 2019, the global market value for MCT oil was £1.5 billion and is expected to grow annually by 6.8 per cent.

Dr Helfer said: “MCT oil has become a huge trend on biohacker sites, which are websites devoted to improving health and feature discussions on the latest supplements. It’s popular because some research has shown MCT oil can decrease overall body fat, increase metabolism and suppress appetite.

“Its low carb, high fat content is thought to make people feel fuller for longer and makes blood glucose easier to control. It may also help reduce inflammation which is a common symptom of diabetes. However, not all positive claims are backed by science.”

MCTs are found naturally in foods such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, butter, milk, yoghurt and cheese. Most MCT oil supplements are made from coconut oil or palm oil. ‘Bulletproof coffee’ is also part of this trend. This is coffee made with an MCT oil, such as coconut oil or butter, consumed as a high fat low-carb breakfast alternative.

Dr Helfer wanted to look into the claims, both in the lab and by trying it out for herself.

She said: “We concentrated on looking at the effect MCT oil has on appetite regulating brain cells and we found it does reduce appetite in the neurons in the brain. But the body and appetite are complex and we don’t yet know how that translates in the body.”

Nearly all the dietary fat we consume – 90 per cent – is composed of long-chain fatty acids which must be broken down by pancreatic enzymes to be absorbed by the intestine before being transported to organs and tissues or stored as fat.

MCTs, in contrast, do not require pancreatic enzymes to break them down due to their shorter chain length and are easily absorbed by the gastro-intestinal tract. They can be used as an instant energy source and so are less likely to be stored as fat than long-chain fatty acids.

Dr Helfer said: “I’m a scientist and, looking at a lot of these discussions on various sites, I was sceptical about some of the claims surrounding MCT oil. So I decided to try it out on myself. I know MCT oil works best when the body is in ketosis, that is when you are low on glucose so it is used as a quick energy source.

“I carried out a prolonged fast to go into ketosis and I broke my fast with MCT oil. Afterwards, I found I was much more alert.

“This was not down to the MCT oil alone, but in combination with the fasting. The latest research suggests occasional fasting is good for the body because it resets the system, a bit like when we clear all our work and can start from scratch again.”

Dr Helfer is appearing at Bradford’s Pint of Science festival, part of the world’s largest festival of public science. She said: “When I have talked about healthy fats previously, the audience is always astonished. For years, we have been told fat is bad for us and we shouldn’t eat high fat foods, but that is not the case. Even long chain fats are good for us, just not in excess.”

Tickets to Dr Helfer’s talk, The Healthy Fat That Makes You Thin, on Tuesday, May 23rd at 7pm at BrewDog Bradford, cost £5. For more information about Pint of Science events and to book tickets

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