This article was medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RDN, LD.
There’s a lot of buzz around MCT Oils nowadays. It really began with the introduction of Bulletproof Coffee, which was a combination of coconut or MCT oil, unsalted butter and coffee. According to anecdotal evidence, the energy produced when drinking this beverage is quite amazing. Researchers have identified that it is the drink’s fats combined with the caffeine that are providing energy-boosting benefits. From this came the rage for MCT oil, the premium good fat contained in Bulletproof coffee.
MCT stands for medium chain triglycerides, a saturated fat that has between six and twelve carbons in its chain. Saturated fats with less than 6 carbons are known as short chain fatty acids. Long-chain fatty acids have greater than 12 carbons and are also known as long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). There is a long-standing belief that saturated fat causes heart disease but recent evidence suggests the long-chain saturated fats are the ones to be cautious about whereas the medium and shorter chain saturated fats may be beneficial. [source]. While both mono- and poly-unsaturated classes of fats are long-chain fats, substantial research shows specific types of these unsaturated fats impart countless health benefits. Examples of these beneficial unsaturated fatty acids include omega-3’s, oleic acid and palmitoleic acid.
Good sources of MCTs include coconut and palm kernel oil, and less concentrated sources include whole fat butter, milk and cheeses. While grass-fed dairy doesn’t necessarily have higher levels of MCTs or short-chain fatty acids compared to conventional dairy, the grasses’ nutrients impart more omega-3’s and conjugated-linoleic acid (CLA) to the dairy, both beneficial fats for humans.
The best source for MCTs is coconuts. About 65 percent of coconut oil is MCTs. The four types of MCT’s in coconut oil are:
- Caproic acid
- Caprylic acid
- Capric acid
- Lauric Acid
Caproic and caprylic acid make up the two smallest MCTs, with six and eight carbons respectively. Because they are smaller chains, they are more quickly digested and have been shown to enhance energy expenditure. [source] However, the shorter MCT, caproic acid has a slightly bitter taste. So, the best type of MCT to look out for is the eight-carbon caprylic acid and ten-carbon capric acid. As a result, when shopping for MCT oils look out for those that are made from caprylic and capric acid.
6 Key Benefits of MCT Oils
1) Weight Loss
MCTs are processed in the liver and produce ketone bodies to provide energy. This is very different from carbohydrates which require the hormone insulin for metabolism. When you convert your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner, you are, in effect, creating a fat burning furnace inside your body. So, rather than being stored as fat, MCTs are used as an immediate fuel source.
MCTs have also been shown to suppress fat deposition as a result of enhanced thermogenesis and fat oxidation. [source] A meta-analysis of 13 trials found that replacement of long-chain triglycerides with medium-chain triglycerides induced modest weight loss, changes in waist circumference, and body fat. [source]
Another study, from 2014, found that 10 grams of MCTs given 1 hour before lunch significantly reduced lunch calories, by an average of 272 calories, compared to those receiving corn oil, a long-chain unsaturated fat. [source]. Over time, this decrease in daily calorie intake may play a vital role in long-term weight management.
2) Improved Energy and Endurance
Because MCTs are very easy to digest, they produce a longer level of sustained energy, boost the metabolism and enhance mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells and are responsible for producing the energy your body needs. Research on mice shows that MCTs enhance exercise performance and skeletal muscle function under high temperature or hot climate settings. [source] Human studies are needed to identify if these benefits translate to humans.
3) Enhanced Memory and Brain Functioning
Scientists used to think that the brain only ran off glucose. However, that has proven to be a fallacy. MCTs are quickly converted to fuel, can be converted to ketones and can be used by the brain. (new source)
Sugar creates a yo-yo effect of high and low energy as a result of the insulin effect. This has an impact on the brain, leading to crashes in attention and cognitive function. This is one contributor to the feeling of brain fog.
4) Improves Cholesterol and Heart Health
Research has shown that MCTs possess heart health benefits because of their influence on cholesterol levels, blood sugars and other parameters of metabolic health. Studies show MCTs may increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels [source] and lower both LDL and the LDL:HDL ratio, though not all studies report this finding. [source]
Those with diabetes with poor glucose and insulin control are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to higher inflammation, body weight and other health risks. Studies have found that MCTs help to not only improve cholesterol but also insulin sensitivity and weight that impacts heart health. [source]
5) Helps Improve Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
Microbiome refers to the bacteria and other microorganisms that reside in the human body, like the intestines and skin. Abnormalities in gut microbiota, or dysbiosis, is associated with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions. [source]
MCT oils appear to be extremely beneficial to your microbiome, enhancing healthy gut bacteria and the gut lining. This has immediate positive effects on the way that the digestive system is able to process energy and can reduce risk of disease.
Research also shows MCTs reduce inflammation in the colon which may prove to serve well as a complimentary therapy for those suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). [source]
Fats are required for the digestion and absorption of various nutrients including vitamins A, D, E and K and beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A that is a powerful antioxidant found in orange and dark green vegetables and fruits. Fats are also needed in the diet for the optimal absorption of many phytochemicals found in colorful fruits and vegetables.
Lauric and capric acid both have been shown to display potent antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Studies have shown MCTs derived from coconut oil to be as effective as traditional treatments for Clostridium dificile infections.[source] Research also shows MCTs to be effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Corynebacterium acnes, and other gram-positive bacteria. [source]
While isolated MCTs don’t typically contain lauric acid, coconut oil, breastmilk and dairy does. Lauric acid has been shown to be effective against the primary bacteria responsible for acne vulgaris, Propionibacterium acnes. [source]
Conclusion/Why You Should Care
Incorporating MCT oils into your nutritional routine can have a profound effect on your overall health. You can add MCT oil to your salads, your coffee, your smoothies and other dishes or simply take a swig. You can also use MCT oil as a cooking oil. It's easy to add into your daily habits -- and your body will thank you.