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MCT Oil Benefits: Helping Keto Dieters Is Just The Starting Point
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
You can’t read a book or article about the ketogenic diet without also reading about MCT oil. In fact, if you know anyone who has lost weight on keto, there’s a good chance you’re sick of hearing about both this “miracle” oil and the bulletproof coffee it goes into.
But the evidence is pretty clear that the keto diet is more than just a fad – when you follow it properly, it works. And the evidence showing MCT oil’s benefits to a keto dieter isn’t really being exaggerated, either.
It goes further than that, though. Groups of users, from bodybuilders to holistic health devotees, are praising the benefits of MCT oil. The evidence they cite is pretty clear as well; this oil is very good for overall health and wellness.
What is MCT oil? How do you use it? And what are its health benefits?
You have questions. We have answers.
What Is MCT Oil?
The short answer: MCT oil is a liquid extracted from coconuts and/or palm kernels, which are each naturally high in MCTs.
Oh, great, another question: What are MCTs?
That one requires a more in-depth explanation.
Triglycerides are a type of saturated fat found in your body, formed from three fatty acid molecules. They enter the body in the oils, butter, and some other foods that you consume, and are either used for energy or stored as fat. Your doctor has probably run blood tests to check your triglyceride levels, since a high concentration of the fat can increase the risk of heart disease.
MCT stands for medium-chain triglyceride, and its name describes the chemical makeup of the fatty acids in triglycerides. More specifically, fatty acids exist as chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms – and the number of carbon atoms in their chains largely determines the properties of the triglycerides.
Medium-chain triglycerides contain between six and twelve carbon atoms; long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) have more than twelve, and short-chain triglycerides (SCTs) have fewer than six. That difference is important because MCTs, and the oils containing them, have medicinal properties and benefits that aren’t provided by LCTs and SCTs.
Before we move on, you may be wondering if it’s worth the trouble to find and use MCT oil, since coconut oil and palm kernel oil each contain MCTs as well. The answer is a bit complicated.
MCT oil is a concentrated source of MCTs, while coconut oil and palm kernel oil only contain about 50% MCTs.
Also, MCT oil is deliberately produced to contain only the most effective types of fatty acids, which are caprylic acids and caproic acids. The other oils also contain lauric acids (which behave more like long-chain fatty acids than medium-chain fatty acids), as well as other LCTs and unsaturated fats.
That means that MCT oil is a more effective choice when it’s used for keto and weight loss purposes, and for the other health benefits that MCTs can provide.
However, MCT oil has a low smoke point; it’s a great ingredient for salad dressings or sauces, but it can’t be used to cook with. Coconut oil is a much better choice in that case. And lauric acid happens to be very effective for skin care, so coconut oil or palm kernel oil are used more often than MCT oil in beauty and skin care products.
(It’s important to clarify that palm kernel oil isn’t the same as palm oil. The latter is made from the fleshy part of the palm fruit; the former comes from just the MCT-rich seeds of the fruit.)
So that’s what MCT oil is. What is it good for?
MCT Oil and the Keto Diet
You knew this one would top the list.
MCT oil is valuable to those on a ketogenic eating plan. To understand why, let’s talk a little about the keto diet.
Keto (and other low-carb weight loss diets like paleo) place severe restrictions on the amount of carbohydrates you can eat. The reasons can be explained by the three changes that occur in the body when carbs are drastically reduced.
- Under normal circumstances, the body turns the carbohydrates we eat into glucose (also known as blood sugar), and glucose serves as the fuel that powers the body and the brain. But when it doesn’t get enough carbs, the body needs to find an alternative source of energy.
- In that situation, it enters a metabolic state called ketosis, in which it burns stored body fat to produce molecular bodies called ketones. And during ketosis, the body turns ketones into the energy it needs for body and brain function.
- As long as it doesn’t get enough dietary carbs, the body remains in ketosis and the fat-burning continues – and, of course, the more stored body fat that’s burned, the greater the weight loss that results.
So far, so good. How does MCT oil enter the picture?
First of all, MCTs don’t have to be digested in the gastrointestinal system like long-chain fats do. They are sent right to the liver, where ketones are produced. Once there, they supply extra fat that can immediately be converted into extra ketones.
Second, “surplus” MCTs aren’t stored as body fat, the way that LCTs are. Oils like olive oil and vegetable oil contain LCTs, so they’re more likely to contribute to weight gain, not weight loss.
Third, it’s been shown that the medium-chain fats in MCT oil increase feelings of satiety. To translate that into English, they make you feel fuller than LCTs do. When you feel fuller you eat less, which is obviously a good thing when you’re trying to lose body weight.
Finally, when you eliminate most of the carbs from your diet, they have to be replaced with something else. In the case of the keto diet, carbs are replaced with healthy fats. MCT oil is a very good source of healthy fat, so it’s an excellent substitute.
It should now be clear why MCT oil is an excellent tool when you’re using the keto diet to lose weight. But that’s not the end of the story.
Health Benefits of MCT Oil
The buzz surrounding MCT oil focuses on its use in conjunction with keto. However, research has shown that it may have a positive effect on weight loss even for people not following a low-carb, high-fat diet.
Part of the equation is the satiety, or feeling of fullness, we’ve already discussed. But it also appears that MCTs encourage the body to use them right away, which means they’re not stored in the body as fat. Research into the use of MCT oil by overweight men suggests that regular consumption of medium-chain triglycerides might help prevent obesity.
Another study looked at a somewhat-related potential benefit of MCTs: their effect on gut microbiota, which is another way of describing the environment in the stomach and digestive tract. The research found that medium-chain triglycerides seem to help maintain the health of the microbiome, and gut health could make weight loss easier.
Whatever the reasons, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials concludes that replacing dietary LCTs with MCTs seems to lead to weight loss.
And many studies investigating the benefits of MCT oil have gone well beyond the subject of weight.
Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Doctors always suggest losing weight to those who have diabetes or whose blood sugar levels are regularly high. The keto diet has been shown to produce rapid weight loss over short periods of time, and adding MCT oil to the mix can help even more.
But there’s evidence that the use of MCT oil without an accompanying keto diet may also help diabetics manage their disease, by promoting fat burning and reducing the amount of dietary fat they store.
In one study, half of the diabetic participants took MCT oil with their food for 90 days, while the other half took corn oil, which is a long-chain triglyceride. Those using the MCT oil saw reductions in both insulin resistance and body weight; the LCT oil users did not. One possible factor: the MCT oil apparently lowered appetite, so that group of participants ate less during the study period.
A different project followed ten people who took insulin to treat their diabetes. It turned out that those whose diets also included substantial amounts of MCTs found it 30% easier to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
And one more study found that high levels of MCT consumption by overweight men led to greater energy expenditure and fat burning.
Energy Levels and Workout Performance
You hear a lot about athletes and workout warriors using dietary supplements or illegal substances in order to boost their performance and endurance levels. You hear less about their use of MCT oil, but it’s actually quite popular among athletes and would-be athletes.
There’s a good reason for that. When you exercise, your muscles produce lactic acid. Continued exertion causes the lactic acid to build up, leading to the muscle aches we all experience after a workout or a long run.
Research has shown that MCTs are able to decrease or prevent that lactic acid buildup, apparently because the body uses the medium-chain fatty acids for energy. As a result, those using MCT oil have more energy, and are able to enjoy longer workouts with better exercise performance.
Cholesterol Levels and Cardiovascular Health
It goes without saying that MCT oil’s apparent ability to help with weight loss may lessen one of the risk factors for heart disease, obesity.
High cholesterol levels are another factor that can contribute to cardiovascular disease, though, and research suggests that MCT oil can help with that problem as well.
In one important study, overweight subjects were given diets that were high in either MCTs or olive oil (an LCT). Those consuming high levels of MCTs showed a better lipid profile, with greatly improved HDL, LDL and overall cholesterol levels. In turn, that implies better heart health. Another study reached similar conclusions about the beneficial effect of MCT oils on a number of cardiovascular risk factors.
Brain Function and Neurological Issues
Most of the studies in this area looked at the combination of ketogenic diets and MCT oil. Some, though, examined the effects of MCTs more specifically.
Keto has long been used as a treatment for some types of epilepsy, particularly forms of childhood epilepsy, and a meta-analysis of the research clearly shows its effectiveness. And, of course, MCT oil is often used as a supplement during ketogenic eating.
As we’ve mentioned, however, there are different types of MCTs. One study found that several MCTs are more effective than traditional epilepsy medications at reducing seizures, and animal research has reached similar conclusions.
Related research has found that MCTs seem to improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and that a keto diet supplemented with MCT oil may help some children who are on the autism spectrum. Speculation about the reasons behind these improvements centers on the ability of MCTs to cross the blood-brain barrier, where they can act as supplemental brain fuel.
Fighting Bacteria and Fungi
It’s clear from research that MCTs have both antibacterial and anti-fungal properties; among the microbes that have been shown to respond to these fatty acids are C. albicans and C. difficile. One study has also shown that the use of several types of MCTs has been effective in battling a class of infectious fungi called lipophilic Malassezia, which can lead to serious illness and sepsis in some newborns and immunocompromised patients.
How to Use MCT Oil
MCTs are naturally present in some dairy products, including full-fat cow’s milk and goat’s milk. And since they’re present in coconut oil, you could probably guess that they’re also present in coconut meat and dried coconut. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil can be used in salad dressings and sauces as well as in cooking, so that’s another way you can consume medium-chain triglycerides. A dietitian can suggest effective methods for adding MCT-rich foods to your diet.
However, the best way to consume the maximum amount of usable MCTs is via MCT oil.
MCT oil is available as a dietary supplement, which can be taken orally or added to foods and beverages. The most popular way to use this oil, familiar to most of those who’ve tried the keto diet, is in bulletproof coffee.
Bulletproof coffee, also known as keto coffee or butter coffee, is loaded with fat – an important replacement for carbohydrates in the ketogenic diet. It’s made by blending black coffee, MCT oil and either grass-fed unsalted butter or grass-fed ghee (a type of clarified butter). As a keto-friendly beverage it won’t kick dieters out of ketosis, the MCT oil it contains helps with fat burning and weight loss, and it’s extremely filling so it curbs the appetite as well.
There are drawbacks, though. Bulletproof coffee is extremely high in calories and saturated fat, so it can quickly become quite unhealthy for people who drink it more than once a day. And the temptation to drink keto coffee in place of a healthy breakfast can deprive the body of important nutrients. Even so, butter coffee is one of the easiest, tastiest ways to get a good dose of MCTs.
There are two other side effects to mention. We’ve mentioned the fact that MCT oil can make you feel full, but in some people, consuming high amounts of MCTs causes the release of hormones that boost appetite. The other potential issue: too much MCT oil can cause a buildup of fat in the liver. Sticking to a maximum daily intake of 4-5 tablespoons should prevent this issue from occurring.