Keto diet fans swear by MCT oil so much that they even drop it into their coffee. The concoction, famously known as bulletproof coffee, uses a mix of brewed coffee, grass-fed butter, and MCT oil.
Now MCT oil has gone mainstream, and you don’t have to be keto to use it, as it’s been showing up in everything from vegan powders to vegan shakes. And given the health claims around MCT oil – weight loss and improved brain health are just a start – you might begin to think MCT oil is a superfood. So does that mean you should add it to your diet? Nutrition pros urge caution.
What is MCT oil?
MCT stands for medium-chain triglyceride, a type of fatty acid. There are also short and long-chain fatty acids, but most of the fat people eat is of the long-chain variety (like those in avocados, nuts, and fish), says Leigh-Anne Wooten, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., a dietitian in Charlotte, NC, and Vitamix nutrition and wellness expert.
MCT is found naturally in coconut oil and other tropical oils like palm kernel and in smaller amounts, whole milk, butter, and human breast milk. It’s the MCTs from the oils, though, that are extracted and turned into MCT oil, a 100 percent saturated fat, which could wreak havoc on your health. “It’s well established that the more saturated the fats are, the more they can raise LDL (aka bad) cholesterol which is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” says Catherine Fody Flanagan, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a dietitian in Long Island, NY. That bulletproof coffee mentioned above? One cup is packed with 25 grams of fat, 21 of which is saturated.
How MCT oil is different from other oils
MCT oil has some unique characteristics that oils like long-chain fatty acids don’t have. For starters, MCTs provide about 10 percent fewer calories than other oils. While most oils contain nine calories per gram, MCTs contain 8.2 calories per gram. MCTs also go straight to your liver where they can be used as a quick energy source. “Since they’re broken down and absorbed rapidly, this quick energy source is less likely to be stored as fat,” Flanagan says. Note, though: That only holds true if you’re not consuming other fat calories in addition to MCT calories.
And if you’re a cook, know that MCT oil has a lower smoke point than other oils, which means it’s not an oil to be used to pan or stir-frying or other methods of high-heat cooking, Flanagan says. Yet because it’s a neutral oil with virtually no taste or smell, it can be mixed into food and drinks without adding flavor.
The health benefits of MCT oil
There is research to suggest benefits from MCT oil, including weight loss, appetite suppression, cognitive function, decreased cholesterol, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower levels of insulin resistance, and improved Alzheimer’s symptoms, Wooten says. But all of this comes with a caveat. “These are small studies, and the research on MCT oil is still quite young and not conclusive enough to recommend MCT oil yet,” says Wooten, adding, though, that MCT can be beneficial for people with health issues like epilepsy and those with certain fat absorption disorders.
Take, for instance, weight loss, one of the most common reasons people take MCT oil. In one study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition comparing MCTs to LCTs, MCTs resulted in greater increases in leptin and PYY, or peptide, which increases feelings of satiety and fullness, Flanagan says.
MCTs are also more easily digested and absorbed than longer-chain fatty acids. That means when consumed, they’re funneled directly to be used as energy. “Because the calories in MCTs are used straight away, they’re less likely to be stored as fat,” Wooten says. This is the principle behind the keto diet, but here’s the catch: If you’re not in a state of ketosis or you’re taking in a lot of MCTs, your body will convert it to fat, which would negate any weight loss effect. Some studies have even found that the weight loss benefits are short-lived, the effect disappearing about two weeks after the body has adapted, Flanagan says.
Brain health is another reason people are flocking to MCT oil, and here’s why. The brain prefers glucose as its fuel source. “Because Alzheimer’s patients show reduced glucose metabolism in the brain, ketones, which are molecules produced when the liver breaks down large amounts of fat, can act as an alternative fuel source for the brain,” Flanagan says.
In fact, one study in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias found that MCTs improved learning and memory in mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer’s, as long as people didn’t have the APOE4 gene which may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Wooten notes, though, that ketones are not the preferred energy source for the brain, and if you don’t have a cognitive disorder, it’s unlikely you’ll notice a long-lasting brain boost just by consuming MCT oil.
As per cholesterol, don’t hang your hat on MCT oil. “The research is promising but not conclusive enough for health professionals to recommend MCT oil to help lower cholesterol,” Wooten says. There are some promising animal studies (like this one from Nutrition & Metabolism) and even small human studies, but they’re so small – involving, say, only 24 adult overweight men – that there is no way experts can extrapolate a recommendation for all people. The bottom line on cholesterol? While research on MCT oil’s long-term effects on the heart is still out, “in very limited quantities and as a replacement to other fats, it probably won’t elevate cholesterol or heart disease risk, but in higher doses, it absolutely could,” Wooten says.
So is MCT oil healthy?
Technically, MCT oil should be considered unhealthy since it’s a saturated fat. Yet because MCTs aren’t digested, absorbed, or stored like regular fats, “they’re not exactly unhealthy either, unless, of course, you’re consuming too many,” Wooten says. If that’s the case, your body will store them as fat, which can lead to a whole host of chronic health issues.
Of course, while your body does need fat, it doesn’t need saturated fat. Instead, consider sourcing your fats from healthy unsaturated fat sources, namely monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocado. Even natural MCT that you might get from eating coconut is healthy. “Just don’t eat 50 coconuts,” Wooten says.
Adding MCT oil to your diet
If you decide to add MCT oil to your diet, use it sparingly. Excessive consumption could not only lead to high cholesterol but also weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, Flanagan says.
How much is too much, though? The American Heart Association suggests that saturated fat intake be no more than five to six percent of your total daily calories, Flanagan says. If you’re eating 2,000 calories, that’s 120 saturated fat calories per day. Others, though, recommend that the upper level of saturated fat intake should be 10 percent of total calories.
Regardless, you need to keep saturated fat in your diet as low as possible, and if you want to consume MCT oil, you’ll need to cut back on other sources of saturated fat, Flanagan says, adding that you should monitor your cholesterol levels while taking it. Each tablespoon of MCT oil contains seven grams of saturated fat (and 120 calories), and on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s just a small amount more than three tablespoons to reach that 10 percent limit.
If there’s anything that should stick with you about MCT oil, it’s this. “Will it hurt you? Probably not, unless you’re taking too much,” Wooten says. “But based on scientific research, you don’t need it to be healthy.”