What Is CLA?

Whether you are a seasoned bodybuilder, a fitness fanatic, or looking for ways to support your weight loss journey; odds are, you have heard about this fatty acid.

This supplement, which is naturally occurring in meat and dairy foods, has been receiving increasing popularity over the years. This is mainly owing to CLA's ability to aid weight loss while helping to build lean muscle mass. Although this is not the supplement's only benefit, we can understand why this particular advantage has everybody talking. From playing a major role in our health to influencing our self-confidence; consuming this fatty acid can make a difference in your life.

However, many do not totally understand this supplement; or know how to use it properly for that matter. From definitions to dosages, benefits to side-effects; we have compiled a comprehensive article to shed some light on this popular product.

Why CLA?

Some may question what is the purpose of including CLA into their diet. Before we continue investigating what it is, you should first be aware of many health benefits associated with this fatty acid. These include:

Woman Measuring Her Stomach
  • Weight-loss by building muscle mass and promoting body fat loss. This is done by increasing the body's energy expenditure while preventing the storage of fat. In doing so, this also decreases the risks associated with obesity.
  • Boosting the immune system by supporting liver health.
  • Fighting inflammation and preventing infections by positively affecting bodily mechanisms.
  • Potentially preventing cancer with its anticarcinogenic properties as well as removing potentially harmful skin cells.
  • Lowering the risk of diabetes by regulating insulin levels.
  • Supporting strong bones by aiding the body's ability to absorb calcium and preventing osteoclasts.
CLA has a variety of health benefits that justify an interest in the investigation of what it is exactly. Beyond weight loss, this fatty acid can support the immune system, reduce inflammation, prevent cancer, lower the risk of diabetes, as well as support stronger bones.

What is Conjugated Linoleic Acid

Conjugated linoleic acid is a naturally occurring fatty acid.

Linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated (1) omega-6 fatty acid which is found in plant oils and supports the body's natural development. This acid becomes 'conjugated' when double bonds form in the fatty acid molecule.

These double bonds can form in a variety of places, resulting in 28 different variants (known as isomers) of this fatty acid molecule. This depends on the location of the double bonds. Conjugated linoleic acid is a family of omega-6-fatty acids that have 2 double bonds. The molecule is, therefore, a cis and trans-fat at the same time (2).

Although the idea of a trans-fat is concerning, bare in mind that this notion is directed at products that have been industrially produced and are artificial trans-fats; which have a different structure in comparison to the healthier and naturally occurring trans-fats (3).

Artificial trans-fats are made by hydrogenating vegetable fat, which is the process of injecting hydrogen atoms into vegetable fat molecules. In doing so, this process alters the chemical structure of the molecule.

Photo of a Donut

These trans-fats feature in foods such as donuts, microwave popcorn, cream-filled pastries, creamy candies, as well as margarine. Despite their use in many products, artificial trans-fats seem to prompt the production of bad cholesterol in the human body which can negatively impact heart health among other health factors. For this reason, many countries have started to ban the inclusion of artificial trans-fats in food products (4).

Conjugated linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid. The molecule has 2 double bonds, a cis and trans bond, which arrange into 28 different forms. Although it has the name 'trans-fat', CLA is a naturally occurring substance and is not considered the same as artificial trans-fats.

How is CLA formed?

Naturally occurring trans-fats, such as CLA, occur in the guts, or rumens, of pastured ruminants. Ruminants are mammals, such as cows and sheep, that ferment plant-based food in a specialized stomach (known as the rumen) prior to digestion. It is here that the linoleic acid found in the plants become conjugated by fermentative bacteria. This process is known as biohydrogenation.

Conjugated linoleic acid can also be produced industrially by heat treatment or partial hydrogenation of linoleic acid. The vegetable oil used for this chemical alteration is often safflower oil, which is made from the seeds of the safflower plant (preferrable pesticide- and herbicide-free). This type of CLA (which includes both trans- and cis-bonds) is often used in commercial supplements.

There are two types of CLA. One type is naturally occurring, formed by plant-fed ruminants. The other type is industrially produced using safflower oil.

Sources of CLA

Foods rich in naturally occurring conjugated linoleic acid, with a molecular structure of cis9,trans11-18:2, include:

  • Grass-fed beef
  • Full-fat diary
  • Butter
  • Cheeses (made from the milk of grass-fed cows)
  • Grass-fed mutton
  • Grass-fed goat
  • Turkey
  • Fish
  • Veal
  • Eggs
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Mushrooms
  • Sunflower oil

However, these foods are calorie-dense and may result in an increase in body weight (5). For example, 4 oz of grass-fed beef has the highest value of 30mg of CL per gram of fat. Most studies claim that a person needs between 3.2 - 6.4g of CLA (which converts to 3,200 mg minimum) daily to receive its benefits (6). In saying so, a lot of beef would need to be consumed on a daily basis. That in itself could pose some negative health risks.

Whatsmore, livestock feeding practices have changed over the years; opting for hay, grain, and silage over pasturing. This is likely to decrease the conjugated linoleic acid content in most meat as well as make grass-fed beef harder to come by.

Bottle of Safflower Oil

For these reasons, some people may find the supplemental version more appealing as this better suits the goal of weight loss.

The other type is CLA Safflower Oil, which is used in supplements. It contains cis-9, trans-11 and trans10, cis-12 CLA. This is argued to be a healthier way to receive this beneficial fatty acid. However, this opinion is an argued topic within the scientific community as the chemically modified aspect of this substance is a concern (7). In short, some feel that more research needs to be made to support claims of CLA safflower oil efficacy.

Argued opinions aside; the choice to use supplements or eat the food items is up to the user, depending on their own health goals (8).

There are many food types that contain naturally-occurring CLA. However, since one would need over 3.2g per day to experience the benefits, some prefer the supplemental version of CLA safflower oil.

CLA Dosage & Concentrations

People need between 3.2 - 6.4g of conjugated linoleic acid to experience the health benefits. Anything more than that will apparently not offer any additional benefit. While this may be a simple requirement; not all supplements are equal.

There may be different amounts of CLA safflower oil included in the products per brand, as well as the concentration of the oil. For example, a capsule of 75% CLA safflower oil with a concentration of 1,000 mg, will equate to 750 mg per serving. This means that users would need at least 5 capsules per day to fulfill the recommended amount.

Supplementation can come in the form of capsules or a syrup. There are also different patented formulas of conjugated linoleic acid such as Tonalin and Clarinol.

It is recommended that this supplement should be taken before meals to avoid any unwanted side-effects.

The dosage, as well as the concentration, of CLA safflower oil included in the supplementation, need to be considered to ensure effective results. It is recommended that between 3.2 - 6.4g are required to experience benefits.

How Does it Work?

Although there are many functions associated with the hypothesized ability of CLA, we will focus on the popularized weight-loss benefit only. The mechanics of this fatty acid's weight-loss benefits include the ability to:

  • Control the body's production of ghrelin, a hunger-triggering hormone.
  • Improve the body's nutrient absorption.
  • Increase fat burning in the liver.
  • Suppress fat-gaining enzymes like fatty acid synthase and acetyl CoA Carboxylase. It can also inhibit Lipoprotein Lipase, the enzyme that is in charge of breaking down fat the body stores as fatty tissue. In saying so, this is said to reduce the amount of fat deposited in the body.
The mechanisms involved in the proposed weight-loss benefits of CLA range from controlling the appetite, increasing the absorption of nutrients, burning fat in the liver, and preventing fat from being deposited in the body.

Side Effects of CLA

Woman Holding CLA Supplement

When taken as per recommendations, there should not be any severe side effects. That said, there are some concerns and so advice should be followed. For example, CLA safflower oil supplements are best consumed before meals and an excess of 7g should not be taken per day.

It is unlikely that this will cause adverse effects, however, they have been reported. Nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue are a few minor side effects that may occur. That said, they should subside fairly quickly. There are, supposedly, more severe risks. And, it is surprising to see that many of these contradict the purpose of the supplement. These include:

  • Arguments suggest that large doses of it can lead to excessive fat storage deposition in the liver. This can have a negative impact on overall body functions. As an example, it can prevent the detoxification and healing process. In turn, leading to liver disease. It can also lead to metabolic disorders and type 2 diabetes.
  • Other studies have shown that extreme levels of it can increase inflammation. As a result, the immune system is weakened and healing is slowed. Furthermore, this can lead to the onset of airway inflammation. This can be especially harmful to people suffering from asthma.
  • Reports suggest that high dosages can lower good (HDL) cholesterol and increase bad (LDL) cholesterol. Bad cholesterol builds up in the arteries, thus, preventing the efficient transportation of blood and nutrients around the body. This can lead to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

However, it is important to note that these side effects usually occur in cases of extreme doses. Also, studies are not entirely conclusive. By sticking to the recommended guidelines outlined in this article, you should not experience any of these major side effects.

Though studies suggest that there are minimal negative side effects, concerns have been raised. In particular, with regards to adverse effects that contradict its goals. For example, it may induce liver damage, promote inflammation, and increase bad cholesterol levels. However, researchers argue that these concerns were experienced in tests with high doses. Therefore, they are not conclusive and cannot be used as an accurate representation for those following dosage guidelines.

In Conclusion

We have compiled an in-depth look at conjugated linoleic acid to help you understand more about this increasingly popular supplement.

Although this fatty acid's weight loss potential is primarily the reason for its fame, we initiated this article with a display of the many health benefits that have been associated with conjugated linoleic acid. From supporting the immune system and healthy bones to reducing inflammation as well as the risk of cancer and diabetes; the value of this supplement was shown.

The chemical compound of this polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid is derived from a linoleic acid molecule that has been conjugated to form 2 double bonds. In doing so, conjugated linoleic acid can take many forms, creating a family of as many as 28 cis and trans-fat molecules.

This fatty acid is both naturally occurring and chemically produced. There are a variety of food items that contain CLA, however, they are also high in calories which may contradict any weight loss efforts. In saying so, this fatty acid can be used in additional supplementation to efficiently receive the health benefits.

Users should be aware of the dosage as well as the concentration of supplements to ensure the required amount of CLA safflower oil (between 3.2 - 6.4g) is attained every day.

Although the debate of CLA's efficacy in supplement form is ongoing, it is ultimately the users that have the choice to determine if they want to add this to their lifestyle or not. Keeping your health goals into consideration, we encourage you to stay up to date with the growing research around this potentially beneficial fatty acid.

Brought to you by our expert team at Authority Health.

Jules is an enthusiastic yogi who teaches early morning yoga workshops in central London. She has practiced yoga since childhood encouraged by her mother who is a yoga guru. She loves to practice yoga in the great outdoors and can be regularly found in a small ashram in Wales holding classes outside.

She is a keen blogger and has even dabbled in the occasional video on YouTube.

Her goal is to make yoga accessible to the masses and would love to see it as part of the schools’ national curriculum. She is currently training in mindfulness and believes that with these two tools (yoga and meditation), there is nothing in life that you cannot achieve.

Jules loves green tea, sculpting, and sharing positivity through the written word. She is a super positive ball of energy that loves to inspire and generate change. We are honored to have her on board.