What is MCT Oil and Does It Benefit Your Health?

Coconut oil on a wooden spoon

 If you’ve been around the health scene long, you’ve probably heard of MCT oil – after all, wellness gurus are mixing it into their smoothies and morning coffee, or simply drinking it straight. But despite its popularity, you may not fully understand the benefits of MCT oil and whether they are really evidence-based.

What is MCT oil?

If you’re wondering whether MCT oil comes from some exotic MCT plant, let’s first clear up a major misconception: MCT oil is simply concentrated medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

What are MCTs and where are they found?

Fats are made of connected hydrogen and carbon atoms and defined by how many carbons they contain. MCTs contain between 6 and 12 carbon atoms. The four varieties, from least carbon to the most, are caproic (C6:0), caprylic (C8:0), capric (C10:0), and lauric (C12:0) acids.

Compared to other fats, this unique chemical structure allows your body to more easily break down and digest MCTs before sending them to your liver where they are converted to energy (thus, helping to boost your metabolism).

It has been suggested that they suppress the feeling of hunger (short term) and are highly ketogenic (enhance the production of ketone bodies).

MCTs can be found in dairy fat products and oils such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Most varieties of MCTs only appear in small quantities, except for lauric acid. However, it must be noted that the lauric acid does not display the same properties as the rest, so it’s disputed whether it can be considered a “true MCT”. Unfortunately, most of the MCT content in coconut oil comes from this type of MCT (>40%). While lauric acid can have some benefits, if you really want to profit from possible benefits of MCTs, a high-quality MCT oil that contains a more complete panel of the four types of MCTs would be a better source.

A glass of bulletproof coffee

Possible benefits of MCT Oil

Although the evidence is not strong enough, MCT oil is usually advertised with the following benefits:

1. Supports healthy weight

MCT oil seems to have an impact on body fat reduction and, when included as part of a healthy, balanced diet, may help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Some research also suggests that MCTs can help to prevent long-term weight gain because of their positive impact on metabolism.

So how does this work, exactly? Sources suggest that MCTs might suppress the accumulation of fat through “enhanced thermogenesis and fat oxidation.” MCT oil may also (in small doses) help to balance insulin sensitivity and increase your body’s glucose metabolism, which may impact your body’s ability to use fat for energy. Final research conclusions are still lacking.

2. Heart health

In the same study suggesting that MCTs can act as thermogenics (fat burners), researchers also discovered that they might help prevent the development of metabolic syndrome, the name given to a cluster of disorders that greatly increase the risk of heart disease. This effect may be partly due to the anti-inflammatory properties of MCT oil.

3. Gut function

Healthy fats, like MCT oil, may support the gut microbiome and encourage your digestive system to properly absorb vitamins and minerals from food. At least one animal study has found that MCTs can help to improve bacterial gut health, performance, growth, and digestion of nutrients. However, no human studies have confirmed this yet.

Researchers reviewed the use of MCT oil in an article in Practical Gastroenterology in early 2017 and concluded that MCT oils could aid digestion because of their easy absorption. They found the effect in the case of people with certain gastrointestinal disorders which generally inhibit the proper metabolizing of significant amounts of calories.

Someone pouring oil in a pan

4. Brain function

There has been introductory research on the benefits of healthy fats, particularly MCTs, on Alzheimer’s disease. And while these studies are in their infancy, there is some evidence that the MCTs in coconut oil might help improve memory problems, including Alzheimer’s, in older adults.

5. Antiviral + antibacterial + antifungal

Ever heard of antibiotic resistance? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “it is an increasingly serious threat to global health that requires action across all government sectors and society.”

The drug-resistant bacteria that result from overusing antibiotics is just one reason it might to have natural antibiotics, like MCTs, as a regular part of your diet.

In addition, a study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that medium-chain triglycerides with 8-12 carbons displayed more antiviral and antibacterial qualities than long-chain monoglycerides, and were able to inactivate four different types of pathogens. However, more research needs to be done to draw stronger conclusions, and natural antibiotics shouldn’t be your first and only choice without consulting a medical professional.

6. Withstands high-temperature cooking

When cooking with alternatives to common vegetable oils, MCT oil is an option to consider because and coconut oil are great options because, unlike extra virgin olive oil or flaxseed oil, it can be cooked at high heat and doesn’t become rancid easily.

Someone pouring vegetable oil into a pan

Conclusion

The research on MCT oil is growing and most of the benefits still need to be proven through well-founded studies. However, so far it appears that it might benefit fat loss (when consumed in moderation), compared to other dietary fat. When it comes to healthy fat loss, your best bet is to focus on a balanced diet and regular exercise while aiming for a slow and steady caloric deficit. Special foods or meal timing shouldn’t be the basis of your fat loss strategy.

Learn more about how diets work to make a better decision for your own health and fitness journey!

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Dr. Josh Axe Josh is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author. He specializes in how the right nutrition has a positive influence on people's health. View all posts by Dr. Josh Axe »

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