If you spend much time in the wide world of keto, paleo, or other niche diet circles, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen people pouring spoonfuls of clear oil into their coffees, shakes, and salad dressings.
Oil? In your coffee? Well, yes. MCT oil — oil from medium-chain triglycerides — have sprung up everywhere from your local coffee shop to your gym buddy’s protein shake. In a nutshell, the rise of MCT oil is associated with the claim that it will supercharge your health and enhance your performance in and out of the gym.
Figuring out whether anything associated with fad diets is legit can be a difficult journey, to say the least. To help pave the research road for you, we took a look at the research to find eight reasons you might want to consider adding it to your diet. You’ll also learn about why you might decide to decline — especially if you have a sensitive stomach. Ultimately, it’s up to you.
What is MCT Oil?
MCT oil is a fat composed of medium-chain triglycerides. These have a shorter “tail” of carbon atoms than most fats, meaning that MCT oil is digested pretty easily and is therefore a readily-available source of energy for your body.
What’s the difference between this kind of fat and others? Most of the fat that people eat is made of “long-chain” fatty acids, so named because the acids have a “tail” of more than fourteen carbon atoms. That counts as “long” when you’re talking about fat tails.
Medium-chain triglycerides — found predominantly in coconut oil but also in lower amounts in palm kernel oil and dairy — have tails of between six and fourteen atoms. Because of their length, they don’t require as many enzymes and bile to digest, and are more ready to hit the ground running with giving you energy.
Potential Benefits of MCT Oil
Relatively Quick Digestion
Because of the shorter tail, MCTs don’t require as much work to digest and can be used as energy more quickly than other fats. A common reason people consume fat is because it’s filling and it slows digestion. But that’s not the case with MCTs. The shorter tail means they don’t need pancreatic bile to break down and they digest quickly. So, MCT oil is useful if you want to consume a good hit of fat without that heavy, weighed down feeling — say, right before a workout.
Can Make the Keto Diet Easier
Ketogenic diets have you consume 50 to 60 percent of your calories from fat and about 20 to 30 percent from protein. The idea is to go so low in carbohydrates (the body’s preferred fuel source) that the body needs to switch over to burning fat for fuel instead. Evidence suggests that MCTs can increase the level of ketones — a chemical made by your liver to help digest fat, which your body can use for energy — in your blood. (1) This can help reduce symptoms of fatigue that some people experience on the low-carb keto diet. (1)
Ketosis means that your body is relying more heavily on ketones for fuel. MCTs dump the raw material for the ketone beta hydroxybutyrate right into the body. This may speed the process of getting into ketosis as well, as taking them increases the amount of ketones in the blood. (2)(3)(4)
Improved Gut Health
Digestive health and nutrient absorption has a lot to do with your gut bacteria. Lots of different kinds of probiotic bacteria in your digestive tract are linked to better nutrient absorption and lower levels of inflammation.
There’s some evidence that MCTs can be useful here. Animal studies on rats and pigs found that administering more MCTs improved nutrient absorption and bacterial gut health. (5)(6) A human study also found that MCTs can improve energy expenditure and metabolic health because of their ability to improve intestinal permeability and the bacterial environment. (7)
The evidence here is very limited, but a lot of proponents point to a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology that found taking 1.5 teaspoons of MCT oil for two weeks resulted in athletes experiencing significantly lower levels of circulating blood lactate when compared to a group taking long-chain fatty acids. (8)
Boost Brain Health
MCT oil may not boost brain health significantly for strapping athletes in their 20s, but for older athletes, this could be an important one. People with Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, may have difficulty using glucose for fuel in their brains. But, there doesn’t seem to be the same problem with ketones, which is why MCTs and ketogenic diets are sometimes used. (11)
MCTs may also help with cognition among hypoglycemic folks with diabetes and among older adults with memory-impairments. (12)(13) Still, if you’re looking for ways to treat Alzheimer’s, you’ll want to speak with a physician before heading to your grocery store for coconut oil.
Improve Heart Health
Elevated levels of certain types of cholesterol seem to play a large role in various heart diseases. (14) MCT oil may help lower the “bad” cholesterol, or LDL — which is associated with poor heart health — and increase the “good” cholesterol, or HDL. (15) Even athletes who tend to pay attention to what they eat can wind up with high levels of LDL. So, MCT oil supplementation — or just getting in your coconut oil — may be a good choice for people concerned about their heart health.
Body Composition Changes
If you are trying to lose weight, it helps to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Learning to eat when you are hungry and to stop eating when you are full may prevent eating a surplus of calories — which can lead to weight gain.
MCTs may have an impact on hunger hormones by increasing the production of leptin, which sends signals to your brain that you are full. (17) After consuming MCT oil, research suggests that people feel fuller and therefore eat less. (18) If weight loss is one of your goals, MCT oil might be able to help you pay closer attention to what you’re eating.
May Help Manage Diabetes
MCTs seem to provide fuel without spiking insulin. This can be important for people who are focusing on improving insulin sensitivity or if they’re following a keto diet. MCT oil may help to improve blood sugar levels and affect insulin levels . (19)
If you have type one or type two diabetes, it’s important to keep track of your blood sugar levels and insulin. Research suggests that consuming MCT oil can help manage blood sugar levels and increase insulin resistance. (19)
MCT Oil Myths
It’s easy to get caught up in the latest supplements and quick fixes in wellness trends. And while research does seem to suggest that there are plenty of benefits of MCT oil, you’ll likely want to avoid jumping right into the proverbial MCT oil bath for the wrong reasons.
Misconception — MCT Oil Will Make You Lose Weight
You may have seen MCT oil included in fad diets or ways to “lose weight quick.” Simply ingesting MCT oil every day will not necessarily lead to sustainable weight loss. Research suggests that slower rates of weight loss helps strength athletes maintain physical and psychological health in the long run. (20) Losing weight at a slower rate also helps athletes maintain muscle mass. (21) Consuming MCT oil as part of a balanced diet may help to regulate your hunger hormones, but this is only one part of the puzzle.
Misconception — MCT Oil Will Make You Build Muscle
Just as MCT oil will not magically cause weight loss, taking it before or after a workout will not instantly make your muscles grow and pop. There are many other components to building muscle — it’s not as simple as layering on the coconut oil.
Misconception — You Need MCT Oil as a Supplement
MCTs are fatty acids that occur naturally in various sources. You can get MCTs through foods like coconut oil as part of your regular diet. There isn’t necessarily concrete information on how much MCT levels people need, nor on how specific populations’ needs may differ. (22) Long-term supplementation also hasn’t been studied extensively, though research suggests that high levels may be damaging to the liver. (22)(23)
Potential Drawbacks of MCT Oil
One of the biggest drawbacks of MCT oil is that it is still being studied, leading hypotheses and results to continue changing over time. It’s important to keep this in mind as you’re making decisions about supplementation.
Fatty Liver Disease
Not much is known about the appropriate dosage of MCT oil. Research suggests that consuming high levels of MCT oil over time can increase the amount of fat in the liver. (23) Increased fat in the liver can lead to fatty liver disease, even for people who don’t consume alcohol to excess. (24)
Because MCT oil digests and moves through the body so quickly, diarrhea is one of the top side effects users may experience.
Many of the studies about the potential effects of MCT oil exclusively include non-human animal subjects. Of the human studies that do specify the gender of participants, the impacts of MCT oil on diverse populations of people hasn’t been studied extensively. (22)
Human-based studies that do specify the gender of participants tend to be focused on cisgender men. In that context, it can be difficult for trans women and people who are assigned female at birth to find reliable information on how MCT oil or other supplements may affect their bodies.
MCTs are unique among fats because of their short tail and resulting ease of digestion. They seem to be useful if you’re looking for a source of fat that digests quickly, and they hold promise for people following ketogenic diets who feel low on energy.
That said, there are some potential drawbacks — think, GI distress. These might have you thinking twice before dropping some MCT oil into your morning brew. If your cost-benefit analysis comes out on the side of taking MCT oil, know that research does seem to suggest that it’s got plenty of benefits to go around.
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