MCT Oil 101: What It Is, How It Works, and Why You Should Use It
MCT oil is a type of fat that has become popular in recent years, especially among people who follow low-carb, high-fat diets such as keto and paleo. MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, which are fatty acids with a tail of 6–12 carbon atoms. Unlike long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which are the most common type of fat in our diet, MCTs are metabolized faster and more efficiently by the body, providing a quick source of energy and ketones.
MCT oil is a type of oil that contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are fatty acids with 6 to 12 carbon atoms. MCT oil is usually made from coconut or palm kernel oil, which are rich sources of MCTs. However, not all the fatty acids in these oils are MCTs, so they need to be separated and concentrated to make MCT oil.
The process of making MCT oil is called fractionation, which involves extracting and isolating the MCTs from the rest of the fatty acids in coconut or palm kernel oil. Fractionation can be done using various methods, such as distillation, crystallization, or chromatography. The result is a highly purified oil that contains either 100% caprylic acid (C8), 100% capric acid (C10), or a combination of the two¹³⁴. These are the most beneficial types of MCTs, as they can be quickly absorbed and converted into energy by the body.
MCT oil is different from regular coconut oil or palm kernel oil, which contain other types of fatty acids, such as lauric acid (C12), which is technically an MCT but behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid in the body. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil also contain some short-chain fatty acids (C6 or less), which can cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. MCT oil is more refined and concentrated, and therefore more potent and effective than coconut oil or palm kernel oil.
Not all MCTs are created equal. There are four main types of MCTs, each with different properties and effects:
– C6: Caproic acid. This is the shortest and most potent MCT, but also the most likely to cause digestive issues and unpleasant taste and smell.
– C8: Caprylic acid. This is the most desirable MCT, as it is rapidly converted into ketones and has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial benefits.
– C10: Capric acid. This is another beneficial MCT, as it also produces ketones and has antibacterial and antifungal properties.
– C12: Lauric acid. This is the longest and most abundant MCT, but also the least efficient and effective. It behaves more like a LCT and has less impact on ketosis and health.
Most MCT oil products contain a blend of C8 and C10, or sometimes C8 only, as these are the best types of MCTs for boosting energy, performance, and health. Some products may also include C6 or C12, but these are not as beneficial and may cause side effects.
Benefits of MCT Oil
MCT oil has many potential benefits, both for general health and for specific conditions. Some of the most common and well-studied benefits are:
– Increased energy and endurance. MCT oil can provide a fast and sustained source of energy for the body and brain, as it bypasses the digestive system and goes straight to the liver, where it is converted into ketones. Ketones are an alternative fuel for the cells, especially when glucose (carbs) is limited. MCT oil can also enhance physical performance, as it can spare muscle glycogen and reduce lactate levels during exercise.
– Weight loss and appetite control. MCT oil can help with weight loss and maintenance, as it can increase the metabolic rate, burn more calories and fat, and suppress the appetite. MCT oil can also improve the hormonal balance, as it can lower insulin and increase leptin and peptide YY, which are hormones that regulate hunger and satiety.
– Cognitive function and mood. MCT oil can improve cognitive function and mood, as it can provide ketones for the brain, which can enhance memory, learning, focus, and clarity. MCT oil can also protect the brain from oxidative stress, inflammation, and neurodegeneration, and may have benefits for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and depression.
– Digestive health and immunity. MCT oil can improve digestive health and immunity, as it can support the gut microbiome, which is the collection of beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines. MCT oil can also act as an antimicrobial agent, killing harmful pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and preventing infections and inflammation.
Side Effects and Risks of MCT Oil
MCT oil is generally safe and well-tolerated, but it may cause some side effects and risks, especially if used in large doses or without proper adaptation. Some of the most common and serious side effects and risks are:
– Digestive issues. MCT oil may cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and gas, especially if taken on an empty stomach or in excess. This is because MCT oil can overload the liver and cause it to dump bile and fat into the intestines, resulting in osmotic diarrhea. To avoid or minimize this, start with a small dose (1 teaspoon) and gradually increase it over time, and take it with food or other liquids.
– Weight gain and elevated cholesterol. MCT oil may cause weight gain and elevated cholesterol, especially if used in combination with a high-calorie, high-fat diet. This is because MCT oil is still a form of fat, and it has a lot of calories (9 calories per gram). If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. MCT oil may also raise your cholesterol levels, as it is a saturated fat that can increase both HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
– Hunger stimulation and overeating. MCT oil may cause hunger stimulation and overeating, especially if used in isolation or without adequate protein and fiber. This is because MCT oil may stimulate the release of hunger hormones, such as ghrelin and neuropeptide Y, which can increase the appetite and cravings. MCT oil may also reduce the production of ketones, which can suppress the appetite and enhance satiety.
– Fat accumulation in the liver. MCT oil may cause fat accumulation in the liver, especially if used long-term or in high doses. This is because MCT oil can increase the synthesis and storage of fat in the liver, leading to fatty liver disease, which is a condition characterized by inflammation and scarring of the liver. Fatty liver disease can impair the liver function and increase the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and liver cancer.
How to Use MCT Oil
MCT oil can be used in various ways, depending on your goals and preferences. Some of the most common and effective ways are:
– Adding it to your coffee or tea. This is one of the easiest and most popular ways to use MCT oil, as it can enhance the flavor and creaminess of your hot beverage, as well as provide a boost of energy and ketones. You can also add other ingredients, such as butter, cream, or plant-based milk, to make a bulletproof coffee or tea.
– Mixing it with your smoothie or shake. This is another simple and delicious way to use MCT oil, as it can add richness and texture to your smoothie or shake, as well as provide a dose of healthy fats and ketones. You can also add other ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or protein powder, to make a balanced and nutritious drink.
– Drizzling it over your salad or soup. This is a more savory and creative way to use MCT oil, as it can add flavor and dressing to your salad or soup, as well as provide a source of fat and ketones. You can also add other ingredients, such as vinegar, lemon juice, herbs, spices, or cheese, to make a tasty and satisfying meal.
– Incorporating it into your baking or cooking. This is a more advanced and versatile way to use MCT oil, as it can replace other oils or fats in your baking or cooking, as well as provide a hint of coconut flavor and ketones. You can also use it to make keto-friendly desserts, such as cookies, brownies, muffins, or cakes.
Coconut oil is not as good as MCT oil for some purposes, such as increasing ketone levels, boosting metabolism, and enhancing cognitive function. This is because coconut oil contains less MCTs than MCT oil, and also contains some long-chain fatty acids that are digested and absorbed more slowly and less efficiently by the body.
However, coconut oil has some advantages over MCT oil, such as having a higher smoke point, which makes it more suitable for cooking. Coconut oil also has antibacterial and hydrating properties that make it beneficial for beauty and skin care².
Both MCT oil and coconut oil are high in saturated fat and calories, so they should be used in moderation and as part of a balanced diet. Excessive intake of either oil may cause health problems, such as stomach discomfort, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Coconut oil may also raise cholesterol levels, especially LDL (bad) cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease . Therefore, it is important to consult your doctor before using MCT oil or coconut oil, especially if you have any medical conditions or concerns.
According to some sources, coconut oil may contribute to cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to the buildup of plaque. This is because coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which can increase the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as the “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can deposit on the walls of the arteries and cause inflammation and obstruction. However, not all sources agree on this, and some claim that coconut oil has beneficial effects on the heart and blood vessels, such as raising the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as the “good” cholesterol, and having anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. The evidence for the effects of coconut oil on cardiovascular health is not conclusive, and more research is needed to determine its role and safety. Therefore, it is advisable to use coconut oil in moderation.
Some foods that are naturally high in MCTs are:
- Coconut oil: This is the richest source of MCTs, with about 55% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Coconut oil can be used for cooking, baking, or as a spread. It can also provide other benefits, such as improving skin and hair health, and boosting immunity.
- Palm kernel oil: This is another rich source of MCTs, with about 54% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Palm kernel oil is often used in the food industry for its stability and texture. However, it may have some environmental and ethical issues, as palm oil production is linked to deforestation and habitat loss.
- Butter: Butter, especially grass-fed butter, is a good source of MCTs, with about 8% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Butter can also provide other nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin K2, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.
- Cheese: Cheese is another dairy product that contains MCTs, with about 7.5% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Cheese can also provide protein, calcium, and probiotics, which can support bone, muscle, and gut health.
- Milk: Milk, especially full-fat milk, contains MCTs, with about 9% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Milk can also provide other nutrients, such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D, which can support bone, muscle, and immune health.
- Yogurt: Yogurt is a fermented dairy product that contains MCTs, with about 6.6% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Yogurt can also provide protein, calcium, and probiotics, which can support bone, muscle, and gut health.
- Chocolate: Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains MCTs, with about 4.5% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. Chocolate can also provide antioxidants, flavonoids, and magnesium, which can support heart, brain, and mood health.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, and chia seeds, are good sources of MCTs, with about 1–2% of their fatty acids consisting of MCTs. They also provide other nutrients, such as fiber, protein, and antioxidants, which can support digestive, metabolic, and immune health.
- Goat milk: Goat milk is a surprisingly good source of MCTs, with about 15% of its fatty acids consisting of MCTs. For some people, it may also be easier to digest than cow’s milk, as it has smaller fat globules and less lactose.
These are some of the foods that are naturally high in MCTs. You can include them in your diet to enjoy the benefits of MCTs, such as increased energy, ketosis, and weight loss.