Reviewed by Dr. Richard Foxx, MD
MCT oil is a popular fat supplement for those interested in ketogenic diets; brain health; and alternatives to canola oil, butter, and more. But do MCTs really differ from other sources of dietary fat?
Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, differ from other dietary fats (i.e. long-chain fatty acids) in the way they are metabolized. They are used by the body much like carbohydrates in that they provide instant energy as opposed to being stored for later. This is based on total consumption, of course; if you’re eating too many MCTs, just like excess carbs, you’re going to store them as fat. When you eat more calories than you expend, weight gain is going to happen.
The fat in coconut oil is 50% MCTs, and they’re also found in palm kernel oil and dairy products. When carbohydrate intake is low, like on a ketogenic diet, MCTs can quickly convert to ketones to act as your body’s primary energy source.
MCT oil is made by extracting and isolating the MCTs from palm and coconut oils. Most oils contain two MCTs in particular, caprylic acid and capric acid, which are thought to be broken down for energy more rapidly than other types. MCT oil for keto is popular, but not required.
It should also be noted that long-chain fatty acids are not bad for you or unhealthy—they just take longer to digest and absorb. They are not converted to energy as quickly as MCTs, but don’t let anyone tell you that olive oil, nuts, or other healthy fats are not beneficial.
Potential Health Benefits of MCT Oil
1. May Promote Weight Loss
This is why most people get excited about MCT oil. There is research to indicate MCT oil can aid weight loss in a couple of ways.
The first is that dietary fat is filling. One study showed that those taking two tablespoons of MCT oil with breakfast ate less during the day. This is likely due to the possibility that MCT oil increases hormones associated with satiety, namely leptin and peptide YY.
Because of how MCT is metabolized, it is not stored as fat. Rather, it’s used as energy. Therefore, if you are on a calorie-restricted diet, it may enhance weight loss. There is research indicting it can reduce body weight and waist circumference. If you’re on a keto diet, it can help you produce more ketones to stay in a fat-burning state.
There are, of course, a number of associated benefits that result from weight loss. These include less systemic inflammation; lower cholesterol; lower blood pressure; and a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. The effect on weight is likely the biggest MCT oil benefit.
2. May Promote Brain Health and Stimulate Energy/Focus
If you’ve heard of bulletproof coffee, you may be aware that its main components are coffee and MCT/coconut oil. This may be beneficial for brain health.
Dementia disorders like Alzheimer’s disrupt the brain’s ability to use glucose (carbohydrates) as fuel. Ketones may serve as a brain-boosting alternative fuel source.
One review indicated that people with Alzheimer’s take up ketones for energy at a much faster pace than glucose (carbohydrate). Researchers also noted that ketosis appeared to improve thinking in people with Alzheimer’s.
MCT oil may also be useful to improve focus in people who typically turn to a sugary coffee when they need a pick-me-up. MCT is absorbed quickly and provides instant energy, just like sugar does. It’s possible that it will have a longer-lasting effect, too.
3. May Help Lower or Manage Blood Sugar
There is some evidence that using MCT oil may reduce blood sugar, which may relate to its popularity among those following low-carb diets. People on a keto diet typically don’t eat a lot of sugar. Using MCT oil as an alternative to sugary foods may lead to lower blood sugar levels.
There is also evidence to suggest MCTs may be useful for diabetes management. A small study from 2007 indicated that MCT could improve insulin resistance and other diabetes risk factors in a small group of type 2 diabetics. Another study found that diabetes patients taking MCT required 30% less sugar to maintain normal blood sugar levels after being injected with insulin.
Uses for MCT Oil
Most people use MCT oil as an ingredient in beverages like coffee or smoothies. It can easily be dropped into protein shakes as well. When using it as a smoothie ingredient, however, be sure to note its actual benefits.
If your smoothie is made up of leafy greens, MCT might be worthwhile, but if it’s filled with fruit, the carbs from the fruit will satisfy your immediate energy needs. If satiety is the goal, add a scoop of protein to your fruit smoothie instead of MCT oil.
Bulletproof coffee is a popular use for MCT oil. There are a variety of recipes available, and most feature black coffee, MCT oil, a form of nut milk, pure cocoa, and creatine monohydrate.
You can also just take a spoonful of MCT oil in the morning to potentially curb hunger later in the day. Really, how to use MCT oil is up to you.
MCT Oil Side Effects and Precautions
One of the biggest potential risks of MCT oil is that it can be perceived as a magic bullet. Taking it will not guarantee weight loss, insulin resistance, or lower levels of inflammation. Its ability to provide benefits is largely contingent on your overall diet.
If you’re reducing overall calories, adopting a keto diet, or cutting back on sugar, it will likely have a more pronounced effect. If you’re adding it to an existing high-calorie diet, it’s important to remember that MCT oil is a fat and therefore calorically dense. In this case, it can contribute to weight gain.
There is some evidence to suggest that taking in very high levels of MCT oil—upwards of 50% of your daily fat calories—could lead to fat storage in the liver. Fit MCT oil into your diet and count it as a regular fat, ensuring it does not account for more than five percent to 10% of your total daily caloric intake.
MCT oil also has a very low smoke point, meaning it should not be used as a cooking oil. Instead, stick with avocado oil and other high-smoke point oils to cook with.
MCT Oil Should Be Used with Discretion
Used in certain ways, MCT oil can be beneficial to people who are overweight, diabetic, or facing cognitive impairment. Crucial to its use, however, is understanding that it works very much like a carbohydrate when it comes to providing energy. If you eat a lot of carbs, for example, you probably won’t benefit from MCT oil. If you’re using it as an alternative energy source to carbohydrate, however, it can be very useful.
Article Sources (+)
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St-Onge, M., et al., “Consumption of a functional oil rich in phytosterols and medium-chain triglyceride oil improves plasma lipid profiles in men,” The Journal of Nutrition, Jun. 2003; 133(6):1815-20; https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/133/6/1815/4688073, last accessed September 3, 2019.
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