As the dietary pendulum has swung from low-fat to high-fat in recent years, it’s becoming increasingly accepted that dietary fat isn’t inherently bad. And eating fat doesn’t necessarily put you on the fast track for getting fat. While the change certainly has its benefits, there’s also an increased importance on identifying what types of fats—and more importantly, which foods—are best. After all, not all dietary fat is created equal.
Along those lines, MCTs (or, medium-chain triglycerides) have separated themselves from the pack as a group of “shining stars.” What are MCTs? Where can you find them? What makes them so special? What are the benefits of MCT oil? We’ll tackle these questions and more!
What are MCTs?
Most people know there are different types of fats. Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated are classifications based on the presence and number of double bonds in a fatty acid’s carbon chains. In addition, fatty acids can vary in length and the number of carbon atoms they contain, ranging from 4 to 22 carbons (or more).
Most naturally-occurring fats—both in the diet (e.g., oleic acid from olive oil) and in the body—contain 16 – 18 carbon atoms, and they are considered long-chain fatty acids. While fats with more than 20 carbon atoms are called very-long-chain fatty acids (such as the omega-3 DHA), short-chain fatty acids consist of 1 – 6 carbons. (For example, butyrate has 4 carbons and is referred to as C4.)
Medium-chain fatty acids, more commonly called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are fats with 6 – 10 carbons. Caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10) are the two most prominent MCTs. Caproic acid (also called hexanoic acid), which has 6 carbons (C6), is the other, lesser discussed MCT.
The main foods where you can find MCTs are coconut oil, palm kernel oil, butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese. For example, about 13 – 15% of the fat in coconut oil comes from the MCTs C8 and C10. Meanwhile, about 7 – 9% of the fat in butter comes from these very same MCTs.
It bears repeating that coconut oil only contains about 13 – 15% as the MCTs C8 and C10. The overwhelming majority of the fat in coconut oil comes from lauric acid (C12). While lauric acid is sometimes classified as an MCT, caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10) seem to be responsible for the benefits typically associated with MCTs. 1,2
In other words, coconut oil does not equal MCT oil, and it does not necessarily provide the same benefits (although many would leave you to believe it does).
Not All Fats are Created Equal
As the nutritional pendulum has swung from low-fat to low-carb, most people recognize that dietary fat has been wrongly vilified. However, not all dietary fats are equal. In other words, different fats have unique and distinct metabolic functions and fates.
For example, most people consider extra-virgin olive oil “heart healthy.” This well-deserved notoriety is thanks, in part, to its very high concentration (>70%) of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid. 3 Of course, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are highly regarded for a laundry list of health benefits.
Despite falling under the umbrella of saturated fats, which have also been mistakenly demonized, MCTs have also earned a health halo. For example, many in the scientific community have dubbed MCTs as “functional” fats thanks to the wide array of potential health benefits they offer. 4
In fact, based on scientific observations, researchers have suggested that “distinction should be made regarding chain length when it comes to discussing the effects of saturated fats.” 5 Yet another example that not all fats are created equal. Speaking of which, let’s dig into the benefits of MCT oil.
5 High-Power Benefits of MCT Oil
1. Increased Energy Levels. Because of their shorter length, MCTs are metabolized and transported differently in the body than the more common long-chain fatty acids. For example, MCTs are easily digested and rapidly absorbed. They are transported directly to the liver, where they are quickly and efficiently burned for energy. 4
2. Less Likely to be Stored as Fat. Because they are transported directly to the liver, one of the biggest benefits of MCT oil is that they bypass adipose (fat) tissue, which makes them less likely to be stored as fat. 4 What’s more, while dietary fat typically provides 9 calories per gram, MCTs have a lower amount of useable energy, providing only 7 calories per gram. 6
3. Increased Metabolic Rate and Fat Burning. Compared to long-chain fats, MCTs have been shown to increase metabolic rate (i.e., thermogenesis) and total daily caloric expenditure. It appears that the increased energy demand is met by an increase in fat burning (i.e., fat oxidation). 7,8 In one study, researchers found participants who added 15 – 30 grams of MCTs to their diet experienced a 5% increase in metabolic rate. 9
4. Enhanced Satiety and Appetite Management. Several studies have shown that MCTs may increase satiety, reduce appetite, and decrease total caloric intake. 10,11 Research suggests MCTs may trigger the release of key satiety and appetite-suppressing hormones (to a greater degree than other types of fats). 12
5. Improved Weight Management. Considering MCTs may both increase metabolic rate and help manage food intake (i.e., calories out and calories in, respectively), it stands to reason that supplementing with MCTs and replacing normal dietary fat (i.e., LCTs) with MCTs can help support weight management. 13, 14, 15 Generally speaking, for metabolism, appetite, and weight management benefits associated with MCTs, studies suggest a range between 18 and 24 grams per day of a combination of C8 and C10, with amounts ranging from 37 – 55% and 30 – 45%, respectively. 9
While those are some of the more commonly touted benefits of MCT oil, there are others that are equally important.
2 Additional (More Important?) Benefits of MCT Oil
6. Increased Ketone Bodies. One of the most outstanding benefits of MCT oil is they are known to have a high “ketogenicity,” which means they are readily converted to ketone bodies. Having said that, research has shown that C8 increases ketones by approximately three times more than C10 and four times more than coconut oil. 16,17 So, C8 is the most ketogenic MCT.
This distinct property may offer several advantages. For example, researchers now believe some of the health benefits from intermittent fasting may be tied to increased levels of ketones (“flipping the metabolic switch”). 18
And of course, you can’t talk about ketones without mentioning the increasingly popular ketogenic diet—a nutritional tool being used by biohackers, celebrities, athletes, and many, many more. At least part of the magic assigned to keto is thought to be directly tied to an increase in ketone bodies, which are an important energy source for the brain. 19,20
Ketones not only fuel the brain, they are used by the heart, skeletal muscles, and other tissues. Not only are ketone bodies a critical “alternative” energy source, they are the most energy-efficient fuel, yielding more usable energy than glucose or fat. In addition to serving as a fuel source, ketone bodies play pivotal roles as signaling molecules. For example, they may positively influence inflammatory and longevity pathways. 20,21
All that said, MCTs provide one way to boost levels of ketones, an important, clean-burning source of fuel that also plays a significant role as a signaling molecule. (Keep in mind that fasting, a ketogenic diet, and intense exercise are three additional strategies that increase levels of ketone bodies.)
While MCTs can be (and often are) used in tandem with intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets, another important way to look at all this is that it is possible to induce ketosis without extreme dietary restriction by using MCTs.
7. Enhanced Focus, Mental Clarity, and Cognitive Function. Among the benefits of ketones (which, unlike fatty acids, can cross the blood-brain barrier) is that they serve as a key energy source for the brain. This is important to note because, while the brain usually relies on glucose for fuel, it cannot use fats for fuel. Ketones become an important “alternative energy source.” In fact, some believe ketones are the brain’s preferred source of fuel, particularly during periods of fasting and extended exercise.
Along those lines, ketones may be beneficial to support brain health and enhance cognitive function. 22 For instance, one study showed that supplementation with MCTs led to rapid increases in ketones and, subsequently, improvements in tests of cognitive function and memory. 23 Additional research has shown MCTs can improve scores on tests of cognitive function (such as orientation, registration, attention, calculation, recall, and language). 24
Moreover, ketone bodies have neuroprotective (brain health) potential, and they may also have important antioxidant properties. 20 All said, MCTs represent a promising strategy to up-shift brain processing speed and support overall brain health.
Benefits of MCT Oil: Take-Home Points
- Not all dietary fats are created equal. Some are functional fats “that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.” MCTs are one such example.
- MCTs are medium-chain triglycerides, or dietary fats that contain between 6 and 10 carbon atoms. Caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10) are the most common examples and which most of the benefits of MCT oil can be assigned to.
- While coconut oil contains the MCTs C8 and C10, it contains a much lower percentage than many would lead you to believe. The benefits of MCT oil should not be extrapolated to coconut oil.
- Because of their unique structure, MCTs are quickly and efficiently burned for energy. And they are very unlikely to be stored as fat.
- The most commonly cited benefits of MCT oil include increased metabolic rate, enhanced satiety, and weight-management benefits.
- An additional, and perhaps more important, benefit of MCT oil (and particularly C8) is an increase in blood ketones, which may offer a wide variety of benefits on their own, including enhanced mental clarity and function, anti-aging and longevity benefits, and more.