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The Science-Backed Health Benefits of MCT Oil

We consulted three health experts on what MCT oil is, how it benefits the body, and what it pairs well with.
MCT oil in glass cup with half of coconut

Those who follow the keto diet have likely heard of MCT, which stands for medium chain triglycerides. Health gurus everywhere are tapping into the oil's health benefits, but are you finding yourself a little confused as to what exactly this oil is? We consulted three such health experts to get a better understanding of which MCT oil benefits are backed by science. Before we dive into how MCT oil can aid the body, it's important we take a step back and establish what MCT oil is.

What is MCT oil?

Medium chain triglycerides are a type of saturated fat, as are short chain triglycerides. Long chain triglycerides are characterized as mono- or poly-unsaturated fats, which are found in olive oil and vegetable oil. What makes each of these triglycerides different is the length and shape of the carbon atom chain, as well as the number of hydrogen atoms that are attached to the carbon atoms. Saturated fats have more hydrogen atoms than mono- or polyunsaturated fats—they're quite literally saturated with hydrogen atoms.

Saturated fats, like butter and coconut oil, are solid at room temperature, whereas a mono- or poly-unsaturated fat like olive oil or vegetable oil remains as a liquid at room temperature. This is due to the number of hydrogen atoms that are present in each type of chain.

Beth Lipton, recipe developer and wellness writer, says "saturated fats from healthy sources like MCT, which is usually derived from coconuts and pastured animals, isn't unhealthy. It isn't the only type of fat we should eat, but it's perfectly fine as part of a balanced diet."

Trans fat is the type of fat you want to completely rid your diet of. These fats are the byproduct of hydrogenation, a process that involves manually adding hydrogen atoms to healthy, unsaturated oils so that they become solid and don't spoil. Trans fats hide in anything from margarine to ingredients in packaged foods. Have you ever seen partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on a list of ingredients? That's a sign that there is trans fat lurking in that food product. On the contrary, saturated fats are naturally saturated with hydrogen atoms, which makes them healthier to eat in moderation.

Sharon Brown, clinical nutritionist and founder of Bonafide Provisions, uses MCT oil in her keto bone broth product because of its ability to support ketosis, which is when the body begins to break down fat to use as fuel in the absence of carbohydrates. This process occurs once you reduce your carbohydrate intake to just 50 grams a day.

"MCTs do not require digestion by the stomach. Instead, when consumed, MCTs go straight to the liver where they are broken down into ketones that are then distributed into your bloodstream," says Brown. "Ketone bodies are three water-soluble molecules that can be an efficient source of fuel for the body and brain. This is why many people claim that they can think more clearly and have more energy when they are on the keto diet and consuming MCT oils."

If MCT oil can help you think more clearly and give you more energy, what else can it do?

What are some MCT oil benefits?

Current research suggests that MCT oil can have certain health benefits.

1. It can help you lose weight.

Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, LA-based nutritionist and healthy cooking expert, says that MCT oil may promote weight loss because, to Brown's point, it is known to increase energy levels. Brown says that while following the keto diet, "MCT oil promotes a ketogenic state in that it helps the body produce extra ketones and, thus, extra energy."

Secondly, Bannan and Brown both say that MCT oil has been shown to boost satiety. "Both animal and human studies indicate that MCT oil can increase satiety, causing us to eat less and, ultimately, lose weight," says Brown.

More specifically, MCT oil has been shown to increase the release of two hormones, peptide YY and leptin, that help increase satiety, which, in part, can cause you to eat less. Bannan also says that MCT oil has been shown to improve gut microbiota by helping to foster an environment for good gut bacteria (probiotics) to flourish in, which could ultimately help you lose weight.

RELATED: Get lean for life with this 14-day flat belly plan.

2. It can reduce the risk of heart disease.

"Studies have also shown that the addition of MCTs into the diet can improve lipid profiles, lower cholesterol, and thus reduce the overall risk of cardiovascular disease," says Bannan.

According to a recent study that compared the cardiovascular risk factors coconut oil, olive oil, and butter had on 94 healthy men and women, participants were divided among three groups and were instructed to consume 50 grams of either fat daily for four weeks. It was found that those who consumed coconut oil—which MCT oil is often derived from—had witnessed a larger increaser in their high-density lipoprotein levels, the healthful type of cholesterol, than those who consumed butter and olive oil.

The American Heart Association says that HDL works to carry the bad kind of cholesterol known as low-density lipoproteins (LDL) away from the arteries. LDL is known to clog the arteries, and because adequate HDL levels are believed to inhibit one-third of the body's LDL levels from ever reaching the arteries, HDL is then thought to prevent heart disease and heart incidents such as stroke and heart attack.

3. It may help treat epilepsy.

When following the keto diet, MCT oil can help manage several neurological conditions.

"MCT oil is often a component of a ketogenic diet," says Brown. "Versions of the ketogenic diet were used to treat epilepsy as far back as the 1920s, and emerging studies suggest that the ketogenic diet may be therapeutically used in other neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases, sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, autism, and brain cancer, thanks to the beneficial effects of ketones."

How do you use MCT oil?

"I love to use MCT oil in my Bulletproof coffee, which I drink every morning," says Lipton. "I mix 12 ounces of brewed coffee with one to two tablespoons of grass-fed unsalted butter like Kerrygold and one to two tablespoons MCT oil in a high-speed blender and blend until it's emulsified. I love it because it helps me feel really alert in the morning without the crazy caffeine rush [and] crash I used to get from coffee with milk. It also leaves me feeling full and satisfied for several hours."

Lipton also likes to incorporate MCT oil into homemade salad dressings. As mentioned above, Brown's keto bone broth cup also contains MCT oil.

How much and how often do you need to have MCT oil to receive such health benefits?

"In order to reap the greatest benefits from MCT oil, you first must limit your carbohydrate intake," explains Brown. "Many people find that 50 grams of carbohydrates per day are low enough to enter into a state of ketosis. However, some find that they need to go as low as 20 grams per day, or even a zero carbohydrate diet."

Brown says that you'll know that you have entered into a state of ketosis once you start feeling an increase in energy, mental clarity, and fuller for longer bouts of time.

"Once you establish your carbohydrate threshold and know that you are in a state of nutritional ketosis, you should start consuming MCT oil slowly, as too much of this specific type of fatty acid can result in loose stools," she says. "I recommend starting with a very small amount, say one teaspoon or even one-half teaspoon of a high-quality MCT oil, and increase your dose up to two tablespoons per day or to tolerance."

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more