Chances are, you probably heard about MCT oil back when Bulletproof coffee came on the scene. But the oil is having a resurgence because of the claims about its potential benefits – especially from athletes and supplement companies.
So we chatted with our expert nutritionists to find out what's true and what's hype about this fatty acid.
MCT Oil: The 411
MCT oil, or medium-chain triglycerides oil, are found naturally in coconut oil, palm oil, breast milk and full-fat cow and goat's milk. MCT oil is a saturated fatty acid, meaning that the fatty acid chains all have single bonds, not double. At room temperature, it's a light yellow, odorless liquid that can be taken on its own, added into recipes, used to cook with or to dress meals.
Medium-chain fatty acids don't seem to be stored in adipose tissue, or fat, as many long-chain fatty acids do, explains the Mayo Clinic, which may be the reason that MCT oil is being looked at for weight loss.
MCT oils are most effective when used clinically in critically ill patients or for other specific health conditions, according to Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, and nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs, Carnegie Mellon University athletics and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and founder of Active Eating Advice. “They may be an important fat source for particular types of diseases, but should they be used by everyone? It’s debatable,” she says.
The Possible Benefits
The main reason that MCT oil gets a lot of praise is because it's thought to be a healthier fat option.
"It's on the nutrition scene because of its health benefit claims such as fat loss, increased energy, improved focus, improved digestion, hormonal balance, improved mood, improved nutrient absorption and immune support," says Jaclyn Jacobsen, MS in nutrition science, RD, and nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. "If you take it in the morning before consuming any food, you may notice improved satiety, focus, alertness, mood and sustained energy." Consuming it in the morning has the potential to provide the most benefits, she says.
When it comes to exercise though, many athletes are turning to MCT oil with hopes that it will boost their performance. "The theory is that this oil can be beneficial for athletic performance because the medium chain triglycerides can be used as a fuel source and therefore spare muscle glycogen," explains Bonci, "But in a supplement form this oil can cause GI distress."
Speaking of GI distress, this can be a serious issue if you jump into the MCT oil trend too quickly, says Jacobsen, explaining that too much all at once could send you running to the bathroom.
And, if you cut out all other fat sources and only take this saturated fat, it can throw your body out of whack as well. "You always want to make sure you're getting a balance of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats," says Jacobsen. "Polyunsaturated fats are especially important because those include the essential omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, which the body is unable to produce on its own."
Despite all of the claims about the possible benefits, there aren't too many studies proving the benefits of MCT oil, and the ones that have been conducted are usually small and done with a very specific participant group.
"MCT oil may be of benefit for those with malabsorption, or who cannot tolerate longer chain fatty acids, but claims stating that MCT oil will detox, improve memory, burn body fat and improve endurance performance don't have many good studies to verify them," says Bonci.
MCT oil also has a low smoke point. Translation: When it's heated above 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the fatty acids start to denature and can become carcinogenic – so it not only loses its nutritional value, but can actually cause more harm than good.
And MCT oil isn't cheap. It runs from $15 to $30 a bottle. Plus, it’s important to remember it’s high in calories and is a saturated fat, which means too much of it can lead to trouble: "It does still have the potential to increase heart disease," explains Bonci.
As an alternative to supplementing with the oil, Bonci recommends eating foods that naturally contain MCTs such as cow's milk or yogurt. "Not only will you get the benefits of MCT oil, but this also provides the protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals your body needs."
How to Take MCT Oil
It’s still important to be ingesting saturated fats, so if you choose to try MCT oil, the trick is to add it gradually into your diet. It can upset your digestion if you consume too much all at once, Jacobsen says.
Her recommendation? Start with one to two tablespoons per serving, then slowly increase by one to two teaspoons weekly. "Some will be able to tolerate more than others," she explains.
Taking it in the morning on an empty stomach is probably the best way to start – especially if you’re looking to improve your focus. But you can also try adding it to a smoothie, using it as a salad dressing or sprinkling it on top of your lunch. Just remember if you're using it to cook – because of the low smoke point – it’s more susceptible to burning, so be mindful.
If you shell out the money to try MCT oil and you don't notice any sudden changes, don’t be surprised. Bonci warns that those looking for a silver bullet, allowing them to achieve more while doing less, could be disappointed with immediate results of MCT oil: "Chances are you won't be healthier, stronger, faster or have more energy, but your wallet may be thinner."
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