Fats Explained: Short, Medium, and Long Chain Fats

fats explained

There is another less well-known system of classification that is based on the length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid that is also very relevant to those wishing to manage their weight and especially their body fat. This is critical whether you are in treatment for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder or Obesity, or just want to be as healthy as possible.  In this system there are short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), and long-chain fatty acids (LCFA).

Coconut oil, for example, is composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).

  The vast majority of fats and oils in our diets, 98% to 100%, whether they are saturated or unsaturated or come from animals or plants,  are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Both the saturated and unsaturated fat found in meat, milk, eggs, and plants (including most all vegetable oils) are composed of LCFA. Most Americans get way too much of these fats and not enough of the MCFAs.

While we have been led to believe that all saturated fatty acids are bad for us, the MCFA from the coconut, for example, which is a saturated fat, has health benefits that rival those of fish oil, or the raw unrefined omega-3 fats made from krill. Many believe that it is the perfect food.  In general, MCFA’s do not raise cholesterol, but actually protect against heart disease.   They also help to lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and they can be a significant weight management aid for those wishing to (ok, needing to) gain weight, as well as for those wishing to lose weight.

So How Does a MCFA Work?

Long chain fatty acids (LCFA) found in plant and animal fat are not easily absorbed by the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and require pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to break them down so that they can be absorbed by the intestine. Next, the long chain fatty acids must go through a complicated process through which they are delivered to a variety of tissues, including adipose, cardiac and skeletal tissue, and are then transported to the liver, and are finally oxidized for energy use.  This is how all saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and cholesterol that consists of long chain fatty acids (almost all of your dietary fat) is transported throughout the body.

In contrast, medium chain fatty acids, such as those found in coconut oil are absorbed by the GI tract with ease, and do not require any pancreatic enzymes to break them down, which means less work for your pancreas. Next, medium chain fatty acids are transported through the blood stream, directly to the liver, where they go directly into mitochondria and are immediately oxidized for energy. Medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil do not get packaged into lipoproteins, and do not get transported to a variety of tissues and are not stored as body fat, they go directly to the liver and are metabolized immediately for energy. So they do not cause weight gain.

The bottom line is that the medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil produce almost exclusively energy, whereas, long chain fatty acids found in other dietary fats produce body fat (and some energy).

Coconut Oil Boosts Energy.

Because the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are easily and rapidly transported into the mitochondria, unlike long chain fatty acids, they are immediately used for energy, which “heats up” the body and increases metabolism. Several animal studies and clinical studies have shown that ingestion of coconut oil increases metabolism and decreases body fat both in animal studies performed on mice, and humans. Rats that were fed a diet consisting of medium chain fatty acids had less subcutaneous fat, a visibly evident decrease in overall body fat, and increased metabolism and increased thermogenesis.

The energy burst that is produced by medium chain fatty acids is also important for athletic endurance. In one study, researchers tested the physical endurance of mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids vs. those fed a diet high in long chain fatty acids for six weeks. The mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids continually performed better then the others and displayed a much higher physical endurance. What this means is that you don’t want to eat coconut oil before bed, as it tends to keep you awake.

It Gets Even Better When It Comes to Coconut Oil!

Not only do you store less body fat, studies have shown that medium chain fatty acids also increase the oxidation of long chain fatty acids that are already in your body, tucked away in your love handles!  So not only does it prevent weight gain, it aids in weight loss. Similar to the animal studies, medium chain fatty acids also boost energy production in humans by speeding up metabolism. Finally, for those with cholesterol problems, this study found that people with high triglyceride levels who were given medium chain fatty acids for eight weeks had a 14.5%  decrease in their triglyceride levels! When it comes to coconut oil, use it often, as it is both delicious and good for you.

To learn more about coconut oil be sure to read these articles:

Coconut Oil and Dementia

Coconut Oil and Malnutrition

Coconut Oil: Refined vs Unrefined, Expeller-Pressed vs Cold-Pressed, Virgin vs Extra Virgin

The Coconut Oil Miracle with Dr. Bruce Fife (podcast)

Dr. J. Renae Norton is a clinical psychologist, specializing in the outpatient treatment of obesity and eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, bulimarexia, and binge eating disorder (BED) and the Director of The Norton Center for Eating Disorders and Obesity in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the Director of The Norton Center for Eating Disorders and Obesity in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Medical Advice Disclaimer: The information included on this site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a physician-patient relationship. This information is not necessarily the position of Dr. J. Renae Norton or The Norton Center for Eating Disorders and Obesity.

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