With diet culture, there’s always some Holy Grail product that either promises to melt away the fat or give us the lives that we’ve always dreamed of.
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If you’re in the orbit of disciples of the keto diet, you’ve probably spotted MCT oil or powder in their kitchens. So why is MCT oil so popular and does it offer any lasting health benefits? Registered dietitian Anthony DiMarino, RD, explains what it is and why it should be used in moderation.
What are MCTs?
Triglycerides are a major form of dietary fat that’s found in the bloodstream. They’re made up of three chains of saturated or unsaturated fatty acids that are linked by molecules of glycerol, which is a form of alcohol. Triglycerides help give your body energy. But if your triglyceride and cholesterol levels are high, that can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and pancreatitis.
Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) are made up of — well — medium-length chains of dietary fat. These chains have from six to 12 carbon molecules. Long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) are longer chains of dietary fat that have more than 12 carbon molecules.
The difference between MCTs and LCTs
“MCTs and LCTs are digested a bit differently,” says DiMarino. “Since MCTs are smaller, they are transported directly to the liver through our circulatory system. While in the liver, they are converted into usable energy.”
The digestion of LCTs requires an additional step since they are so big.
“LCTs are bundled together into molecules called ‘chylomicrons.’ These structures are sent through the lymphatic system and some of them get absorbed into fat tissue as they are transported to the liver.”
If these triglycerides are not used quickly as energy, DiMarino says they will be stored as fat. MCTs don’t seem to have the same storage effect.
What is MCT oil?
“MCT oil is a dietary supplement that is distilled from coconut oil. MCT powder is manufactured with MCT oil, dairy proteins, carbohydrates, fillers and sweeteners. MCT oil is more popular since it is less processed and a more concentrated source of MCTs,” says DiMarino.
MCT usage can be traced back to the 1920s when doctors introduced the ketogenic diet as a way to manage epilepsy in children. As the diet is high in fats and low in carbs, it helps by changing how the brain gets its energy to function. Numerous studies have also looked at the use of MCTs for people who are living with malabsorption conditions. MCTs have been shown to assist in helping people get fat-soluble vitamins and enzymes into their systems.
With the rise of the keto diet popularity, MCTs can now be found in health food stores or online, and they’re available in oil and powder form.
The reported health benefits of MCT oil
MCTs have unique properties since they do not have to be processed in the liver, but have enough substance to provide some health benefits. DiMarino says the benefits are more immediate than the other kinds of triglycerides.
Here are a few of the reported benefits.
It may help with weight loss
One study showed that MCT oil might help promote the release of the hormones that help us feel full, which could be beneficial for losing weight. Another study suggested that MCT oil could promote a small amount of weight loss, but concluded that more research needed to be done on a larger scale to determine how effective it is and exactly how much is needed to maintain a healthy weight.
It could give you an energy boost
“Medium Chain Triglycerides are a form of fat. These macronutrients provide nine calories per gram of fat. Since MCT oil is easily digested and absorbed, one can assume it will provide a quick burst of energy. However, metabolism is a very complex process and is not that straightforward,” DiMarino says.
It could improve athletic performance
In a study that involved mice running on a treadmill under normal or high temperatures, the mice that were fed a diet that contained MCT performed better compared to mice that were fed a regular diet. The MCT-fed mice also displayed a more than two-fold increase in running time in the higher-temperature environment.
This same study pointed out that its findings were consistent with another study that showed that a combination of MCT increased body weight, right-hand grip strength, walking speed and more during a three-month trial with elderly individuals. However, because there wasn’t an MCT-only group, the study was unable to determine the exact role of MCT in muscle strength and function.
More studies still need to be done
There are a lot more claims out there regarding the wonders of MCTs — from improving autism behaviors and managing blood sugar levels to even reducing inflammation. But these claims still require a lot more research.
“As you can see, many claims have been made about the health benefits MCTs provide. These claims have developed a ‘health halo’ around this nutrient. For instance, MCTs offer potential improved weight loss, athletic performance, and increased energy levels. Other promises include preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Most of the promised health benefits have been studied to a degree and some of the studies showed promise. However, researchers have been unable to provide concrete evidence for many of these claims.”
How to incorporate MCTs into your diet
In small doses, either formulation should be safe unless you have a heart or liver condition. If you’re in the clear, that doesn’t mean you should start chugging MCT oil or adding MCT powder to everything. DiMarino advises that you check with your healthcare provider before you start using either one.
Natural sources of MCTs
MCTs can be found in:
- Coconut meat and oil.
- Cow’s milk.
- Goat’s milk.
- Palm kernel oil.
MCTs are even present in breast milk.
Possible side effects of MCT oil products
DiMarino says MCT oil side effects may include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if it’s taken in larger doses. He adds that some reports suggest that long-term use of MCT oil products could lead to fat building up in the liver.
How to use MCT oil or powder
If you talk to your healthcare provider and decide to give MCTs a try, DiMarino says MCT oils have the same consistency as other oils and can be mixed into dressings, soups or broths, smoothies or just drizzled over vegetables. He says MCT powders work better with protein shakes or smoothies. But if you decide to embrace this dietary trend, DiMarino suggests having realistic expectations while using it.
“No one nutrient should be considered a silver bullet. When I see a supplement that promises several health benefits, I get skeptical. MCT oil could be helpful if it is added to a well-balanced and varied diet plan in small doses. Just don’t believe that it will solve everything.”