MCT oil is a dietary supplement made from 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat. This supplement can be purchased in the vitamin, mineral, and supplement section at most grocery stores or health food stores.
Here’s what you need to know about the health benefits of MCT oil and whether you should try it.
MCTs are slightly shorter than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which are found in most fats, such as butter. MCTs have fewer carbon atoms, and thus, a different chemical structure than LCTs. As a result, they are digested more quickly than long-chain fatty acids, which may provide some health benefits.
“Medium-chain fatty acids are more easily absorbed and don’t require pancreatic enzymes or bile to be digested,” says Brittany Modell, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian based in Manhattan, New York. In fact, the body digests MCTs in the liver whereas other fats are initially digested in the stomach.
MCTs are naturally found in certain foods, but make up varying amounts of their total fat content:
However, unlike these foods, MCT oil is a supplement made of 100% MCTs.
MCTs are absorbed more rapidly than other fats by the body. Therefore, your body can quickly convert it to energy once consumed, meaning it is less likely to be stored as fat.
In a small 2010 study of overweight people between the ages of 19 and 50, participants consumed either 18 to 24 grams per day of MCT oil or olive oil over 16 weeks as part of a weight loss program. It found those who took MCT oil lost more weight and a greater amount of fat than those on olive oil.
MCT oil is also a helpful addition to the keto diet, which is a high-fat, low-carb diet. By drastically cutting your carb intake, your body burns fat for energy instead of glucose, the type of sugar found in your blood that comes from the carbohydrates you eat. This can lead to fat loss.
MCTs are also slightly less calorie-dense than LCTs. One gram of MCTs has 8.3 calories, while one gram of LCTs has 9.2 calories.
The brain cannot use fat for energy like the rest of your body, so it relies on glucose as its main energy reserve.
An early sign of Alzheimer’s disease is reduced glucose metabolism in the brain, which means your brain can’t properly convert glucose to energy. When this happens, your brain pulls from other energy sources called ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are a product of metabolizing fat and are produced in the liver.
Since MCTs are fats broken down by the liver, consuming them can help boost ketone body production. This increases available energy stores in the brain, which may improve memory and brain function for those with Alzheimer’s.
A small 2019 study found that Japanese patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s saw an improvement in their scores on immediate and delayed memory tests after 12 weeks of supplementing with a formula containing 20 grams of MCTs.
Because MCTs are easily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, they may be a good quick energy source for workouts.
“Long-chain fatty acids have to go through several different steps before getting absorbed,” says Modell. This means it takes your body longer to process LCTs than MCTs and use the fat for energy.
A small 2009 study had athletes either consume foods with MCTs or LCTs for a total of two weeks. The study measured participants’ blood lactate levels, VO2 max, and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) — which indicate how hard the body is working — at rest and during exercise at the beginning and end of the study. The group given MCT for two weeks had lower blood lactate and RPE levels than the LCT group.
Blood lactate levels correlate to lactic acid build-up in muscles during exercise, which causes a burning sensation. Too much lactic acid may force you to end your workout early out of discomfort. Therefore, reducing lactic acid buildup may help prolong exercise duration and intensity by curbing discomfort.
It’s important to note that some research has found MCT oil does not benefit athletic performance. Therefore, more studies need to be conducted.
Just like any type of supplement, it’s important to consume MCTs in moderation. Jennifer Lefton, RD-AP, CNSC, FAND, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia, recommends consuming no more than four to seven tablespoons per day.
According to Modell, because MCTs are digested differently than most fats, it can lead to gastrointestinal distress if you consume too much. Some symptoms of this can include:
To avoid this, only consume small amounts of MCT oil at a time when you first introduce it to your diet.
Additionally, people should avoid consuming more than seven tablespoons of MCT oil because it is calorie-dense and may cause weight gain. “One tablespoon of MCT oil has 115 calories, so if you are taking four tablespoons daily, that could easily add up,” says Lefton.
Because MCTs are digested in the liver, people with liver disease should not take MCT oil. It’s also important to not replace all LCTs with MCTs, as both contain essential fatty acids your body needs to function, says Lefton.
MCT oil is a unique type of fat that is processed differently in the body. While it may help with weight loss, cognitive functioning in those with Alzheimer’s, and athletic performance, more research is needed to know for certain. However, be sure to only consume between four to seven tablespoons per day, as more than that may cause gas, bloating, or unintended weight gain. Additionally, if you have a liver problem, do not take MCT oil.