Our brain, hormones, and immune system need healthy fats from the foods we eat to thrive. Fat comes from many different places in our diet. The best sources are from real, whole-food fats like avocados, olives, coconut, nuts, seeds, grass-fed ghee, and wild-caught fish.
One of the most underrated fats and a favorite of dietitians, MCT oil boosts energy and metabolism along with balancing blood sugar.
What are MCTs?
Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are a special type of saturated fat (or fatty acid) that are six to 12 carbons in length.
These little guys are very easy for your body to break down and use for fuel compared to the more common LCT (long-chain triglyceride) fats.
There are four main kinds of MCTs based on their length:
- Capronic acid: 6 carbons (C6)
- Caprylic acid: 8 carbons (C8)
- Capric acid: 10 carbons (C10)
- Lauric acid: 12 carbons (C12)
Technically speaking, from a biology perspective, lauric acid should actually be considered a long-chain triglyceride (LCT), not an MCT; unlike the biological MCTs, lauric acid gets processed by your liver. MCTs, on the other hand, skip this longer liver pathway step and get converted quickly into a source of energy by our body.
Think of lauric acid as the really close friend of the MCT family: always over the house on the weekends but not directly related. But they're important to the MCT conversation for reasons we'll cover below.
Sources of MCTs.
There are natural and synthetic MCT oils. The natural MCTs come from palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and dairy fats. There are several ways that MCT oil can be synthesized, from genetic engineering to chemical synthesis. The most common is chemical synthesis. In this method, the fatty acids are hydrolyzed, separated by fractionation, and then re-esterified with glycerol1 to make MCTs. These MCT oils typically contain C6, C8, C10, and C12 medium-chain fatty acids.
You can also get MCT fats from the foods that you eat. Here’s a list of MCTs found naturally in foods. The percentages listed are the percentages of MCTs found in the total amount of fats in the food:
- Coconut oil: 15% MCTs
- Palm kernel oil: 7.9% MCTs
- Cheese: 7.3% MCTs
- Butter: 6.8% MCTs
- Milk: 6.9% MCTs
- Yogurt: 6.6% MCTs
- Ghee: 25% MCTs
MCT powder is another form of MCT that is available as a dietary supplement. It can be a more convenient and simpler option if you’re always on-the-go or traveling. In order to create the oil in its powdered form, ingredients like acacia gum or maltodextrin are added, so check the ingredients label on the package to see what’s in the product before you make a purchase.
What are the health benefits of MCT oil?
We all are born relying on fat in the form of breast milk for brain development and energy. Even if you weren't breastfed, MCT oil derived from coconut and palm oil is added to formulas. But once we grow up, MCT fats are largely missing from modern Western diets.
Here are the research-backed health benefits of incorporating more of them into your routine:
Enhanced cognitive function
MCT oil has been shown to significantly improve the memory and overall brain health2 of people with functional brain problems like brain fog and even people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease3 who had the APOE4 gene, which is associated with an increased risk factor of the neurological condition.
Having some MCT oils is one way to help you get into nutritional ketosis4, also known as becoming a metabolic fat burner. In fact, MCTs have the ability to jump-start ketosis5 without the need to follow a ketogenic diet or fast.
MCT oil is easily absorbed, which boosts energy6, and eating is an easy way to increase ketones. These fats are so good at increasing ketosis that they can work even in the presence of higher carb intake7.
Eating MCT is a great food-based way to promote healthy microbiome balance9. Research has shown that MCT fats help kill off pathogenic (bad) bacterial infections, acting as a natural antimicrobial. Again, we have lauric acid to thank here: Lauric acid and caprylic acid10 are the bacterial, viral, and fungal fighters of the MCT family.
Potential weight loss support
MCTs have gotten a lot of attention for their potential to promote weight loss. While they have not been found to diminish appetite, evidence supports their ability to effectively lower caloric intake11.
More research is needed on this topic to really understand its weight-loss potential, however a study found that when LCTs were replaced with MCTs in the diet, there were some reductions in body weight and composition12.
Increased muscle strength
Want to take your workouts to the next level? Research has shown13 that supplementing with a blend of MCT oil, amino acids rich in leucine, and good old vitamin D increases muscle strength. Even MCT oil supplemented on its own shows promise in helping to increase muscle strength14.
Consuming MCT-rich foods like coconut also seems to increase people's ability to work out longer during high-intensity exercise routines15.
Increased insulin sensitivity
A way of life for those with diabetes, blood sugar monitoring has become increasingly popularly for non-diabetics. I have many go-to tools for my patients with blood sugar issues, and MCT oil is definitely one of them. A study found that MCTs increase insulin sensitivity,16 reversing insulin resistance and improving diabetes risk factors overall.
How much MCT oil should I take?
One word of advice for coconut and MCT oil: Start off slowly. Too much of this stuff and your stomach can cramp, and it can cause diarrhea. Start with 1 teaspoon per day and work your way up to 2 to 3 tablespoons a day.
If you’re trying MCT oil powder, start with half of a scoop (one scoop is typically 10 grams, but it’s best to check as they vary per brand). Work your way up to one scoop as tolerated.
What kind of MCT oil is best for me?
The answer to this will largely depend on your goals, so here's what to look into if you're trying to...
Blends with more C6, caproic acid, tend to cause more digestive issues for people, especially for people with more sensitive gastrointestinal systems. With that said, this shortest of the MCTs is the best for energy bioavailability.
Sharpen your mind:
The shorter carbon C8 is more easily broken down, making it ideal for brain fuel. So if optimizing brain health is a goal of yours, look for MCT oil blends that are higher, or exclusively C8. Remember, too, that C8, caprylic acid, is also the MCT that is good at fighting off infections as well, so win-win!
Get into ketosis:
There are several things you can do if you want to increase the ketogenic effects of your MCTs5. First off, take your MCTs in the morning after an overnight fast or with a low-carb meal. Coupling your MCT oil with caffeine, like a cup of coffee or tea, also has the potential for greater ketogenic effects18. Lastly, emulsifying the MCTs can help to alleviate side effects of GI discomfort and promote ketosis.
How to cook with MCT oil.
While you can eat it on its own, there are so many ways that MCT oil can be incorporated into some of your favorite foods. It has a neutral flavor profile and smell, so it works well in almost any recipe. Mix it into everything from salad dressings to smoothies, or try some of our favorite MBG recipes at the links below.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK to take MCT oil every day?
Yes. It is important to keep your consumption of healthy fats, like omega-3s and MCTs, to 20-35% of your total daily energy intake.
Is long-term use of MCT oil considered safe?
Limited research has been done on how long-term consumption of MCT oil impacts the body. Consult your doctor if you experience any GI discomfort, which is a potential side effect.
We need healthy fats in order for our bodies to thrive. MCT oils are easily absorbed, providing energy along with a number of studied health benefits like improved cognitive function2 and weight loss12. If you’re new to trying MCT oil and are wondering how much to take, start off with one to two teaspoons per day and see how you feel.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.