The Complete Guide to MCTs (Medium-Chain Triglycerides)

The Complete Guide to MCTs (Medium-Chain Triglycerides)

If you want to know what MCT oil is, where it comes from, and what the research-backed benefits of MCT oil are, then you want to read this article.

Unless you've been living on a deserted island for the past few years, devoid of all contact with the outside world, you've heard of the ketogenic diet. Commensurate with the rising interest in all things keto is the popularity of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). Various studies have shown that MCTs can support weight loss, reduce hunger, improve gut health, increase energy levels, and boost cognitive function. In this article, we’ll discuss everything there is to know about this trendy fuel source as well as the myriad of benefits it offers. Let’s start at the beginning…

What is MCT Oil?

As we just stated, MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. They are a particular type of saturated fatty acid naturally occurring in several foods, especially coconut oil. <1> ~62-65% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are MCTs. What’s so “special” about MCT then? Well, fatty acids can be grouped into one of three categories:
  • Short-Chain: Fatty acids containing less than six carbon atoms
  • Medium-Chain: Fatty acids containing between 6-12 carbon atoms
  • Long-Chain: Fatty acids containing 13-21 carbon atoms.
The majority of dietary fats we consume are composed of long chain fatty acids. Omega-6s (such as arachidonic acid) and Omega-3s (including EPA and DHA) fall under the long-chain fatty acid category, FYI. There are four specific MCTs in <2>:
  • Caproic Acid (C6)
  • Caprylic Acid (C8)
  • Capric Acid (C10)
  • Lauric Acid (C12)
Note: there is an ongoing debate amongst researchers if lauric acid qualifies as a true MCT as it has a slower metabolization than the other three MCTs and tends to behave more like a long-chain fatty acid in the body. Due to their unique molecular structure and length, MCTs are quickly absorbed by the body and metabolized for energy, much more so than long chain fatty acids. Unlike long-chain fatty acids, MCTs go straight to the liver where they can be used for the production of ketone bodies (such as beta-hydroxybutyrate, BHB). <3> As you probably know, ketone bodies serve as the body’s primary source of energy when following very low-carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic diet. Ketones are also considered a “cleaner” fuel for the body as they generate lower amounts of reactive oxygen species (ROS) when they are metabolized to produce ATP compared to glucose. <4> This also means that MCTs are more likely to be used immediately by the body and less likely to be deposited as fat than long-chain fatty acids are. For this article, the specific MCT we are primarily interested in is C8 -- caprylic acid. The reason for this is that C8 is considered the “gold nugget” of the MCT family as it offers some of the most potent anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties amongst the clan of MCTs. Caprylic acid accounts for up 12% of the MCT content of coconut oil, and after C6, it is the next most efficiently converted fat for fuel of the MCTs. Basically, the shorter the carbon chain, the more efficiently the MCT will be turned into ketones in the body. One study found that lengthening the carbon chain by just two atoms (such as increasing from 10 carbons to 12 carbon atoms or 12 carbons to 14). <5,6> This is why caprylic acid is considered a more efficient form of energy than lauric acid.

What are the Benefits of MCT Oil?

Aids in Weight Loss

MCT oil has been documented to support weight loss through a variety of ways. First, studies show that supplementing with MCTs can increase the release of leptin and peptide YY, two hormones that promote satiety. <7> In fact, according to one study that compared the satiety-inducing effects of MCTs noted that it led to greater feelings of fullness than coconut oil and led to individuals consuming fewer calories at their next meal. <12> Additionally, MCTs may also help enhance thermogenesis, which increases the number of calories you burn each day. This may be because MCTs are processed differently than other types of fatty acids, in that they go directly from the gut to the liver where they are metabolized for energy. <10,11> And, MCT oil also contains about 10% fewer calories than other long-chain fatty acids, such as those found in avocados, nuts, and olive oil. < 8,9> A recent meta-analysis of 13 randomized-control trials found that individuals following a diet high in MCTs lost more weight on average than those following a diet high in long-chain fatty acids. <16> Now, the difference was only 1.1lbs of 3 weeks, but every little bit of weight loss certainly can help with motivation during dieting phases. While the difference may be small, every little bit of saved calories helps when you’re trying to lose weight and carefully tracking macros. MCT oil can also help foster the growth of good bacteria and improve gut health, which enhances metabolic health and aids weight loss. <13> Taken together, these different actions may help explain why various studies have found that consuming MCT oil leads to significant reductions in body weight and waist circumference, making it a possible treatment for the prevention of obesity. <14,15>

Supports Cardiovascular Health

Dietary fat intake, particularly saturated fat, has long been feared in the world of fitness and nutrition due to its association with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. While new research is starting to slowly change our view of saturated fats role in the progression of Cardio Vascular Disease, you can rest easy when it comes to consuming MCT oil. Aside from the fat loss benefits of MCT oil, which contributed to a decreased risk of heart disease, the powerful fat also improves blood lipids. More specifically, human research indicates that MCT oil can increase the production of "good" HDL cholesterol while lowering total cholesterol and "bad" LDL cholesterol. <17,18> Additional animal studies suggest that MCT may reduce C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory biomarker associated with an increased risk of heart disease. <19> Finally, a pair of other studies using MCT-enriched oil mixtures documented reductions in several risk factors associated with heart disease. <20,21>

Promotes Stable Blood Sugar Levels

In addition to supporting cardiovascular health, MCT oil may also benefit those with type 2 diabetes as various studies indicate consuming MCT oil leads to improvements in weight loss, insulin resistance, and blood sugar regulation. A small study on ten non-insulin-dependent diabetic adults found that an MCT-rich diet (77% of fat calories coming from MCTs) needed 30% less sugar to sustain healthy blood sugar levels when injected with insulin compared to subjects consuming diets with a higher proportion of dietary fat coming from long-chain fatty acids. <22> Another study in 40 moderately overweight diabetic Chinese adults consuming MCT oil daily (18g/day) as part of their diet experienced significant reductions in body weight, waist circumference, and insulin resistance compared to adults who consumed a higher intake of long-chain fatty acids. <23>

Improves Exercise Performance

MCT oil has become increasingly popular among athletes due to the notoriety of the ketogenic diet and its potential benefits for endurance athletes. While more research is needed to confirm or dispel the belief that ketogenic diets are optimal for athletic performance, several studies have found the benefit of incorporating MCTs into an athlete's diet. Specifically, MCTs have been found to decrease lactate accumulation during exercise. As you know, as lactate levels increase, performance tends to decline. For two weeks, athletes were given foods containing either MCTs or long-chain fatty acids and performed two different cycling exercise protocols. Researchers observed that athletes consuming the MCT-inclusive diet had a slightly higher rate of fat oxidation during training compared to the LCT group along with lower lactate levels and rates of perceived exertion, allowing them to train for longer during high-intensity exercise. <24> A recent 2018 study also found that consuming an MCT-enriched, maltodextrin-based carbohydrate supplement before training led to more significant improvements in fat oxidation and duration of exercise compared to an isoenergetic carbohydrate-only supplement. <25> Additionally, a study by Wang et al. found that animals given 11.6g/kg of MCT in addition to their regular chow for seven days before training had increased mitochondrial biogenesis and metabolism, which translated to greater endurance during exercise. <26> Now, not all research on MCTs and exercise performance is positive as some human studies failed to document any improvement in performance in endurance running when subjects used MCTs. <27> It is worth noting that while MCT oil did not enhance performance, it did not negatively affect it either, which the same can’t be said of exogenous ketone salts.

Supports Cognitive Function

When consuming a balanced diet, the brain relies on glucose to provide the bulk of its energy needs. However, during periods of fasting or consuming a very low-carb diet, glucose is in short supply, and the brain switches to getting the majority of its fuel from ketones. Since MCT oil stimulates the production of ketone bodies in the liver, it can help support increased mental energy and cognitive function. Recently, there has been growing interest in the use of MCTs to prevent or treat cognitive disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. <28> Another landmark study documented that consuming MCTs led to improvements in memory, learning, and processing in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. <29> It should be noted though, that individuals having the APOE4 gene variant did not experience the same benefits as those who were missing the gene. In case you weren't aware, APOE4 is a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease. Having two copies of APOE4 significantly increases your risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 than the rest of the population. An earlier 2004 study also found that the MCTs in coconut oil helped improve memory problems in older adults. <30> And, remember MCTs are noted to help reduce inflammation and stabilize blood sugar levels, which support improved brain function, and may preserve brain function during periods of hypoglycemia. <31> Still, more evidence is needed to solidify the role MCTs may play in preserving and enhancing brain health and cognitive function as we age, but preliminary findings are promising.

MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil

Now that you’ve had a taste of what MCT oil is, where it comes from, and the potential benefits it may confer, you might be wondering why not just use coconut oil to get your daily dose of MCTs? After all, coconut oil is one of the trendiest cooking oils in the culinary scene recently, and chances are pretty good that you've already got a jar of the aromatic fat in your pantry. Well, consider this -- while coconut oil contains some MCTs, the vast majority of its MCT content is Lauric Acid (C12). Caprylic Acid (C8) and Capric Acid (C10) comprise only around 6% and 9% of the fat content, respectively. Remember, the shorter the carbon chain, the more efficient it is for providing energy to the body, and the quicker it will be used. Therefore, while coconut oil is excellent, if you want to maximize your MCT intake (while keeping total calories in check), MCT oil is the way to go. But... It should be noted that if you're new to consuming MCT oil, it's best to START SLOW with your intake. Consuming high amounts of MCT oil right off the bat usually, lead to some unfortunate (albeit minor) side effects including loose stools and gastrointestinal (GI) distress.

MCT Oil Powder vs. Liquid MCT Oil

When it comes to choosing your MCT oil supplement, there's no shortage of options. Not only are there multiple brands of MCT oil on the market, but there's also different forms of MCT oil. More specifically, MCT oil comes in both liquid and powder forms. Both liquid MCTs and powdered MCTs can be added to drinks and meals, so how do you choose which one is right for you? Well, there’s a couple of things to consider. First, and foremost, is the actual MCT content of the MCT supplement you’re considering. You want one that preferably has a high amount of Caprylic Acid (C8) as it is one of the most efficient MCTs there is for increasing energy. Second is ease of mixability. MCT powders usually don’t require the use of a blender to incorporate into a beverage, but liquids do. Third is travel considerations. Powdered MCT oil comes in a sealed tub and won't lead to slick, oily messes if it accidentally spills as a liquid MCT oil supplement would. In other words, it's less messy. Plus, if you’re traveling via airplane, it’s easier to carry a powdered supplement onto a plane than a liquid one. Now, when you get ready to decide to purchase your MCT product, we know you have a lot of options, but our preferred MCT oil supplement is Pure Steel™ goMCT® with Prebiotic Fiber. Pure Steel™ goMCT® uses the only patented MCT oil powder on the market in goMCT®, developed by Compound Solutions. goMCT® contains pure C8 (caprylic acid), making it an incredibly efficient energy source for the brain and muscles. Add a serving to your morning coffee, pre-workout, or post-workout whey protein shake. You can even mix it into baked goods like protein cookies, waffles, or pancakes

The Bottom Line on MCT Oil

MCT oil is backed by multiple studies in both animals and humans, demonstrating its ability to help with weight loss, cardiovascular health, mental and physical energy, and digestion support. Beyond that, MCT oil also offers antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties. It's versatile and can be incorporated into being low-carb and high-carb diets. Just remember, like any other food or supplement, it's not a magic pill, but provided you're eating right and exercising it can help support more significant health and performance benefits.


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