You’ve probably heard some chatter about medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil in recent years, either online or in your local grocery store. This supplement, extracted from coconut or palm kernel oil, has soared in popularity thanks to the low-carb movement and high-fat eating approaches like the ketogenic diet. But even if you don’t practice keto, MCT oil may have benefits for your metabolic health and wellness.
Below we’ll dive into the role of MCT oil in metabolic health and what to know about this supplement before you buy.
What Are MCTs?
MCTs are a type of dietary triglyceride, which are different from endogenous triglycerides — another type of triglyceride built internally by the body and, when elevated, is associated with an increased risk for heart diseases, diabetes, and obesity. MCTs are found in saturated fat-rich foods like coconut and palm kernel oil, which are the richest forms of MCTs, and these exogenous MCTs don’t seem to meaningfully raise blood triglyceride or cholesterol levels when taken as a dietary supplement, according to a systematic review of seven articles. Other research shows that MCTs can increase lipids, but as Levels advisor Dr. Mark Hyman points out, they can also improve the quality of LDL, making them less likely to promote heart disease.
Other food sources of MCTs include:
- Sheep’s milk products
- Goat’s milk products
MCTs have shorter carbon chains (consisting of 6-10 carbon atoms) than the LCTs (long-chain triglycerides) found in healthy fats like olive oil and avocados. All dietary triglycerides (including LCTs and MCTs) are metabolized by the body for energy, but our bodies process MCTs faster than other types of triglycerides because their shorter carbon chain length allows them to be metabolized in the liver, whereas long-chain triglycerides require pancreatic enzymes for metabolism. Some research suggests that MCTs provide immediate energy and have been linked to less body fat accumulation, which is why the use of MCT oil is a popular among athletes, bodybuilders, biohackers, and others looking for an efficient source of energy to support exercise performance.
MCTs are also considered an exogenous source of ketones, the molecules produced by the body when it burns fat as fuel instead of glucose (a process called ketosis); they’re the basis of the keto diet. As author Dr. Steven Gundry explained in a recent podcast, “[MCTs] absorb directly without a chylomicron carrier from our gut. And they go directly to the liver, where they are instantly converted into ketones. So you can get ketones by having MCT.”
What Is MCT Oil?
MCT oil is made through a process called fractionation: Manufacturers take coconut or palm kernel oil and separate the medium-chain fats from the other fats and compounds found in those oils. MCT oil itself is made up primarily of two types of medium-chain fatty acids: capric acid and caprylic acid. (Coconut oil, in contrast, contains a far greater amount of lauric acid, and relatively small amounts of the other MCFAs.)
How Does It Affect Metabolic Health?
It may surprise you to hear that MCTs are a type of saturated fat, which, for decades, was blamed for contributing to heart attacks and strokes. Current data on the potential link of this type of fat to cardiovascular disease is mixed. A meta analysis of nearly 350,000 people concluded that saturated fat isn’t linked with heart disease or heart attack, and many now feel that there are other factors at play, such as the source of the fat and the amounts of cholesterol and polyunsaturated fat in the diet, along with exercise, and genetics when it comes to how saturated fats affect health. Still, other research—including a recent review of 15 studies—finds that reducing saturated fats may reduce cardiovascular events and improve lipid profiles.
While there are differing views on whether saturated fats are linked to heart disease, let’s explore whether MCT oil may benefit our health in other ways. The scientific research examining the effects of MCT oil on humans is limited, but some studies suggest MCT oil may have some health benefits:
1. Weight loss: A few short-term studies suggest this oil may help lead to weight loss and help with weight management. This is likely due to its ability to provide the body with energy without as much body fat accumulation as other fats. In one study of 31 overweight men and women, consuming about 5 teaspoons of MCT oil a day as part of a 16-week weight-loss program that included weekly weight-loss counseling sessions, led to more than double the weight loss than those who consumed olive oil (which contains long-chain triglycerides) in similar amounts.
A 2003 study tested the effects of a diet high in MCTs in overweight men and found MCTs led to a more significant loss in fat tissue than consuming other oils. Researchers think this is due to their ability to increase fat breakdown and suppress appetite. The authors conclude that consuming MCTs may help prevent obesity and encourage weight loss.
2. Insulin sensitivity: One six-week study found that 22 people who swapped MCT oil for some fat in their diet boosted insulin sensitivity by 12 percent. MCT oil is on the Levels list of foods unlikely to spike glucose.
3. Gut health: Animal studies have suggested that MCTs may improve metabolic health by positively influencing the gut microbiome and intestinal permeability, which are intricately related to obesity. In fact, the study’s authors conclude that MCT-enriched diets could be used to manage metabolic disease via the microbiome.
4. Inflammation: Animal studies show that MCT administration helps reduce inflammation and injury when exposed to endotoxins, a type of toxin released from a bacterial cell when the cell disintegrates.
5. Hunger control: A 2014 study showed that when overweight men consumed 20 grams of MCT oil at breakfast, they ate less at lunch and experienced higher levels of peptide YY and leptin, which regulate hunger. Another study showed adding 250 calories of MCT oil to a morning smoothie increased fullness over the three hours after breakfast more than coconut oil and that the MCT oil was more palatable than coconut oil.
How Much MCT Oil Is Optimal?
Unlike magnesium or zinc, there’s no daily requirement for MCT oil. It’s important to keep in mind that dosing varies based on your individual needs, including current diet, health goals, and other medical context, so it’s best to work with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to identify the best dose for you.
Generally, most experts recommend between 4 and 7 tablespoons a day, providing 56 to 98 grams of fat and 460 to 805 calories. Excessive intake of oral MCT oil may have side effects like abdominal discomfort, cramping, gassiness, bloating, and diarrhea. So some suggest you start with half a tablespoon and see how your digestive system responds. There are no known interactions between MCT oil and other medications but always talk to your doctor about the supplements you’re taking.
It’s important to have a cholesterol panel and metabolic blood tests done before you supplement with MCT oil and to monitor them as you take this supplement. Although the connection between saturated fats and heart disease is controversial, studies show that people can have different physiological reactions to high amounts of fat. For example, genetic data show that people with two copies of a specific genetic variant tended to have a higher body weight than others on a high saturated fat diet.
What About MCT Oil as a Supplement?
Compared to foods, supplements—which extract the MCTs from sources like palm oil and coconut oil into 100% MCT oil formulates—provide the most concentrated, highest dosage of MCT. The average MCT oil supplement costs between $15 and $30 for around 15 ounces. Because it’s a supplement and not a medication, there are no guidelines or regulations for MCT oil supplements. As with most supplements, it’s a good idea to opt for MCT oil that has been third party tested to ensure quality, purity, and safety.
ConsumerLab tested MCT oil products—for factors like purity and the presence of heavy metals—and found that all products passed ConsumerLab’s quality tests, but the value of the products varied greatly. For example, the cost to get 8 grams of MCTs ranged from just 7 cents to $1.68, meaning some companies charge more than 20 times others for the same product.
Due to its low smoke point (around 320 degrees Fahrenheit), MCT oil is not recommended for cooking. Instead, add it to foods like coffee, smoothies, salad dressing, soup, or oatmeal—you won’t notice the MCT oil because it’s practically flavorless.
Want to learn more about your metabolic health?
Levels, the health tech company behind this blog, helps people improve their metabolic health by showing how food and lifestyle impact your blood sugar, using continuous glucose monitoring (CGM), along with an app that offers personalized guidance and helps you build healthy habits. Click here to learn more about Levels.