We hear a lot of opinions and reports on the pros and cons of various dietary oils and fats, and one of them doesn’t get as much attention as some others. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of fat that is found in only a few plant oils (coconut in particular) and dairy products, and MCT oil is a supplement produced from these fats.
What are medium-chain triglycerides?
Fats are composed of chains of carbon atoms (fatty acids). The majority of fats in most people’s diet are made up of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) and are found in olive oil, meat, fish, nuts, and avocado. These chains consist of 13 to 21 carbon atoms. On the other end of the scale are short-chain triglycerides (SCTs), which are composed of 6 or fewer carbon atoms. Short-chain triglycerides are manufactured by the body when dietary fiber ferments in the colon.
Read about why coconut oil is good for you
MCTs are made up of a chain of 6 to 12 carbon atoms. These fatty acids are special because they, unlike long-chain triglycerides, are processed differently, and that difference means they have some unique advantages over long- and short-chain fats.
For example, when you consume MCT oil and fats, it is directly transported from the gut to the liver, where its components are used as a fuel source. They also may be converted into ketones, which are substances your brain can use for energy instead of sugar (glucose). Another advantage of MCT oil and fats is that the calories are used much more quickly by the body than other fatty acids, so you are less likely to store them as fat.
Health benefits of MCT oil and fats
MCT oil and fats have some other potential health benefits, not all of which have been proven by scientific studies. That said, here are some examples of their health advantages.
Brain function. Some research suggests MCTs or MCT oil may help improve brain function and memory. A review study reported that ketosis (when the brain uses ketones for energy rather than sugar) was shown to provide a slightly beneficial effect on the ability to think among people with Alzheimer’s disease. A recent letter to the editor in Psychogeriatrics reported that people with early stage mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease showed enhanced memory when given MCTs. However, much research is needed in this area.
Weight loss. Claims that MCT oil can help with weight loss and weight management are understandably popular, but they should be approached with caution. Thus far, study findings suggest dietary MCTs versus LCTs may help stimulate weight loss (I’ve used coconut oil to help with my weight loss efforts in the past), but use of MCT oil as a supplement was not tested. Other research found that MCTs versus LCTs caused an increase in hormones that reduce appetite, but again MCT oil was not examined.
Heart health. A mouse study found that consuming MCTs may help prevent cardiovascular disease. In the experiment, mice were given a diet either high in MCTs or LCTs. Those in the former group showed a greater decrease in body weight, atherosclerotic plaque, and lipid levels (cholesterol and triglycerides) than those in the latter group.
Blood sugar. MCTs may help if you have diabetes. One study found that MCT oil (compared with the LCT corn oil) improved risk factors for type 2 diabetes, including weight loss, an increase in insulin sensitivity, and a decline in cholesterol.
Other benefits. MCTs are easier to digest than LCTs, help support a healthy gut environment, and possess some antioxidant properties.
MCTs and MCT oil supplements
You can get medium-chain triglycerides from a selected list of foods, including coconut oil (best source), palm kernel oil, and certain dairy foods (butter from grass-fed cows, full-fat yogurt and milk). Because MCT oil has a low smoke point, you should not use it for cooking.
Another source is MCT oil supplements, which are available as an oil (coconut oil alone, combination of coconut and palm kernel, and/or other filler oils), softgels, and powder. Always check the labels to ensure you are getting MCTs only and not filler oils.
Sources Burgess L. What are the possible benefits of MCT oil? MedicalNewsToday 2017 Dec 6
Cunnane SC et al. Can ketones compensate for deteriorating brain glucose uptake during aging? Implications for the risk and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2016 Mar; 1367: 12-20
Han JR et al. Effects of dietary medium-chain triglyceride on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in a group of moderately overweight free-living type 2 diabetic Chinese subjects. Metabolism 2007 Jul 56(7): 985-91
Kimoto A et al. Medium-chain triglycerides given in the early stage of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease enhance memory function. Psychogeriatrics 2017 Apr 18; 17(6): 520-21
St-Onge M-P et al. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obesity 2003 Mar; 11(3): 395-402
Zhang X et al. Medium-chain triglycerides promote macrophage reverse cholesterol transport and improve atherosclerosis in ApoE-deficient mice fed a high-fat diet. Nutrition Research 2016 Sep; 36(9): 964-73