MCT: From Metabolism to Boosting Energy, Read Top Health Benefits

Bulletproof coffee may have launched medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) into the mainstream, with the claims that it’s a fat-burning, metabolism-revving wunderkind. But do MCTs deserve their place in the functional foods spotlight? In case you haven’t heard, MCT oils are a type of easily digestible, saturated fat abundant in coconut oil. (1)

MCT enthusiasts claim it increases energy and helps with everything from weight loss, athletic performance, and even brain function. (2) While the initial research is promising, much more research is needed to validate the growing interest in MCTs or MCT oil. Here, we unpack the facts and uncover the message in the “medium.”

MCT oil in a clear glass container

Among its many benefits, MCT is known to increase energy and help with weight loss, athletic performance, and even brain function.

What is MCT oil?

Your liver converts MCTs into ketones, which can be used by the brain and other organs as fuel. (3) Not only do they function as an almost immediate source of energy, but unlike other fats, the body is less likely to store MCT as body fat. The medium in medium-chain triglyceride refers to its fat molecules, which have 6–10 carbon molecules. Typically, fats consist of long-chain triglycerides (or LCTs), which have 12–18 carbon molecules. (4) So why is medium better than long? The shorter length means MCTs digest rapidly, metabolize in a jiff and are less likely to accumulate in the body as fat.

Where does MCT come from?

LCT fats come from diverse sources—it’s found in meat, fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, and soybean oil. MCTs, on the other hand, have relatively few natural sources: it’s only found in coconut and palm oil, human breast milk and in full-fat cow and goat milk. (5) MCT oil offers a more concentrated version of MCTs, made by extracting MCTs by processing palm oil and coconut oil via fractionation.

Did you know?
Many people think MCT oil and coconut oil can be used interchangeably, but there is an important difference. Coconut oil contains both MCT and LCT fats, while MCT oil, made in a lab, combines only medium-chain triglycerides sourced from coconut oil and palm oil. (6)

5 science-backed health benefits of MCT

Given all the claims about MCT, it’s important to stay with what can be proven. The following are five science-backed benefits of MCT. So far, the bulk of MCT research favors its use as a resource for people suffering from GI disorders, while the latter four benefits listed below require more research to be conclusive.

1. Treat gastrointestinal disorders

Several studies suggest MCT oil could be used to treat certain GI conditions related to nutrient malabsorption. One of the major perks of MCT is it does require bile or pancreatic enzymes to be digested; MCTs are transported directly to the liver, where they are absorbed and transformed into an immediate source of energy.

A paper published in Practical Gastroenterology noted that the “rapid and simple” digestion of MCTs may be their strongest suit. Certain people have an easier time digesting MCTs than longer chains, and therefore they don’t have to miss out on the important nutrients that come from these types of fats.

Historically, MCTs have been used to treat steatorrhea (excess fat in the feces) resulting from malabsorptive disorders, such as pancreatic insufficiency (the pancreas doesn’t have enough digestive enzymes to break down food), prior gastrectomy (surgical removal of part of the stomach) and small bowel resection (removal of some of the small bowel, also called the small intestine). (7)

woman in gym, planking

Consuming food rich in MCTs boosts your endurance.

2. Boosts endurance

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that consuming food rich in MCTs, rather than longer-chain fats, improved the duration that recreational athletes could sustain high-intensity exercise. (8)

3. Regulates appetite

A 2015 study on the link between MCT consumption and appetite found that people ate less after consuming MCT than they did after consuming LCT. The theory is that MCT consumption may trigger the release of satiety signals more effectively than LCT. However, the study also found that the effects of MCT on food intake are more likely to be short-term than long-lasting. (9)

4. Lowers cholesterol

MCTs may play a role in lowering cholesterol and protecting heart health. A 2009 study published in Lipids compared the effects of soybean oil to coconut oil. The study suggests that consuming coconut oil reduced bad types of cholesterol and improved good ones. (10) The coconut oil also seemed to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity. It must be noted that the study examined coconut oil, not MCT oil specifically, but because coconut oil is high in MCTs, it can be inferred that MCT oil is also likely—but not certain—to improve cholesterol levels.

5. Lowers blood sugar levels

MCTs may also help to improve blood sugar levels and play a potential role in diabetes management. A 2007 study published in Metabolism found MCT reduced insulin resistance, and improved other risk factors in a small group of participants with type 2 diabetes. (11)

Dietary sources of MCT

Some people prefer to consume MCTs in their diet, as opposed to consuming specific supplements. MCTs are found in highest concentrations in coconut and palm kernel oil, and in lower amounts in milk and butter.

Should I take an MCT oil supplement?

While the research on MCTs looks promising for several health conditions, including high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance, more studies need to be done. Despite the fact MCTs are not a shortcut to dramatic weight loss, they may play a role in overall weight management. MCTs may also help boost energy and endurance, especially in short-term situations. But if you have a gastrointestinal disease where you have trouble absorbing fat, then MCT oil may be worth considering talking to your doctor or dietitian about.

Does MCT oil have any risks?

Since MCT oil is a pure form of fat, similar to olive oil or ghee, taking too much at once may cause abdominal discomfort, including bloating, cramping, nausea, gassiness or diarrhea. (12) If you have liver damage or liver disease, you should talk with your healthcare provider about taking MCT, as typically its use is discouraged in such cases. (13)

A final word of warning about MCTs: MCTs are just one type of fat, as such, they can’t provide all the essential fatty acids that our bodies need. (14) Do not use MCT as your sole source of fats. And don’t forget that MCT is still a calorically dense food—1 tablespoon comes in at 100 calories.

How to use MCT oil

Pure MCT oil is a clear, flavorless liquid that should be consumed without the oil being heated. It’s unrefined, so it shares a low smoke point similar to flaxseed oil, wheat germ oil, and walnut oil and does not respond well to being cooked. So how can you use MCT oil?

tablespoon of MCT oil next to a cup of coffee

A tablespoon of MCT oil can easily be added to coffee, smoothies, or salad dressings.

Add the plain oil to coffee, smoothies, or salad dressings. It’s easy to slip into a meal or drink without much work, as a serving size usually ranges between just half a tablespoon to up to 3 tablespoons. Most “pure” MCT oils on the market advise starting with half a tablespoon to see how your digestive system responds.

MCT oil usage

A Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology paper has the following recommendations for MCT usage. (7)

Do not exceed 4-7 tablespoons per day) for gastrointestinal tolerance. Divide the daily dosage equally between all meals. If eating 3 meals a day, this can be 1-2 tablespoons per meal. Always talk to your healthcare practitioner about making changes to your diet.

Do not cook with MCT oil. Mix MCT oil into a variety of foods and beverages (hot cereals, soups, sauces, broth, smoothies, fruit/vegetable juices, hot chocolate, coffee, tea).

MCT supplementation should never be the sole source of fat. Include an oil with a high percentage of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) in your diet to reduce the risk of EFA deficiency.

What should you look for in MCT oil

Choose a reputable brand, as many manufacturers have joined the MCT craze and sell products that contain coconut derivatives. Currently, there are no official guidelines or regulations on whether a proprietary blend can label a product “pure, 100% MCT oil.”

Become an avid label reader, vetting sources and standards, and make sure the MCT oil contains either 100 percent caprylic acid or 100 percent capric acid, or a combination of the two. (15) These two MCTs are thought to be more rapidly absorbed and processed for energy, compared with lauric acid, often used for filler. Inferior brands tend to contain high percentages of Lauric Acid (C12), which is the cheapest and longest of all chains of MCTs and offers little health benefit. (16) Other MCT oil manufacturers may source their oil from genetically modified foods. (17)

The bottom line

MCTs have many benefits and taking a high-quality MCT oil supplement may be advantageous, especially for certain GI disorders.

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