June 13, 2024

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7 Science-Based Benefits of MCT Oil

MCT oil can be used for a quick energy source, and may support weight loss. It may also fight bacterial growth, and aid in managing certain neurological conditions.

MCT oil is a supplement that has become popular among athletes and body builders. The popularity of coconut oil, high in MCTs, has contributed to its use.

This processed oil product is sourced from coconut oil or palm kernel oil. MCTs are also found in other foods, such as dairy products (1, 2).

As the name suggests, medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil contains medium-length chains of fats called triglycerides. Due to their shorter length, MCTs are digested faster than longer-chain fatty acids found in many other foods.

Four main types of medium-chain fatty acids exist (3):

  • lauric acid
  • caproic acid
  • caprylic acid
  • capric acid

In some cases, the specific types have unique benefits.

MCT oil is almost entirely caprylic and capric acid (3).

Here are 7 science-backed benefits you can get from adding MCT oil to your diet.

MCT oil could potentially help people consume fewer calories across the day.

MCT oil has about 10% fewer calories than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which are found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados (4, 5).

An analysis of 29 studies found an association between MCTs and lower calorie intake. People consuing MCTs had a moderately lower calorie intake when compared to people consuming LCTs (6).

Some studies suggest that MCT oil could promote the release of two hormones that help people feel full when eating: peptide YY and leptin. However, when the results of 29 studies were analyzed, researchers found no link between MCT and appetite-related hormones (6, 7).

Even so, one study found that people taking 2 tablespoons of MCT oil as part of their breakfast ended up eating less food for lunch compared to those taking coconut oil (8).

The reason for this potential effect isn’t clear. Some people believe that MCT oil can help you feel fuller or reduce your appetite, which could lead to eating less. But across studies, there’s little evidence to suggest that taking MCTs reduces your appetite (6).

Future studies may help to reveal the relationship between MCT and calorie reduction.

Summary

MCT oil has been linked to lower calorie intake, which could help with weight management. However, more research is needed.

Some older studies showed that taking MCT oil could help reduce body weight and waist circumference. Researchers reported that it could help prevent obesity (9, 10, 11).

Note that some of these studies don’t take other factors into account, such as activity levels and other calorie consumption.

A review of 13 randomized controlled trials found that MCTs supported modest weight loss, fat loss, and reduced body size. But the authors commented that many of the studies were of questionable quality, and the results could be influenced by industry funding (12).

Another review of 11 trials made very similar conclusions (13).

Your body can convert MCTs into ketones, which provide a fat-based source of energy for the body when carbohydrate intake is low (14).

If you’re following a ketogenic diet, taking MCT oil could possibly help you stay in the fat-burning state known as ketosis. Ketogenic diets are very low in carbs and high in fat. While some studies suggest this diet can aid weight loss, the long-term effects of following a ketogenic diet are not known (15, 16, 17).

Summary

MCT oil may support weight loss and fat loss. High-quality research is needed to determine its efficacy.

The body absorbs MCTs more rapidly than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which contain more carbons in their fatty acid chains (18).

Due to their shorter chain length, MCTs travel more quickly from the gut to the liver and do not require bile to break down like longer-chain fats do (18).

In the liver, the fats are broken down to be either used as fuel or stored as body fat. Since MCTs easily enter your bloodstream without being broken down, they can be used as an immediate source of energy (18, 19).

When you’re on a ketogenic diet, MCTs can also be converted into ketones in the liver. These ketones can pass through your blood-brain barrier, making them a source of energy for your brain cells.

Summary

MCT oil is easily absorbed and transported throughout the body. It can be used as an instant source of energy or can be converted into ketones.

Researchers have examined whether MCT oil could help you burn fat instead of carbs during exercise.

One older study found that athletes who took 6 grams or about 1.5 teaspoons of MCTs with food before cycling used more fat instead of carbs for energy, compared to those taking LCTs. However, the difference was not significant (20).

In a randomly controlled trial, males who consumed MCTs burned more fat during exercise, but female participants did not (21).

Overall, most studies have not shown significant changes in the body’s use of fat after taking MCTs. (22)

While MCTs might potentially help increase fat burning during exercise, study results are mixed as to whether MCT oil can help you exercise better (23).

The results of an animal study suggest that a MCT-rich diet may not impair exercise performance, unlike a LCT-rich diet, which may worsen exercise performance (24).

However, a review of 13 human studies found that MCT offered minimal or no benefits for exercise. MCT supplementation had no significant effects on energy use in the body or other markers of exercise performance (25).

Summary

MCT oil could potentially increase fat burning and reduce the need for carbs during exercise, but evidence is mixed. It’s also unclear whether this could translate to improved exercise performance.

Studies have shown that MCT oil and a ketogenic diet may help manage conditions such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism (26).

It’s important to remember that MCTs are not a replacement for prescription medications or medical treatments. You shouldn’t start taking any supplements without speaking with your doctor first.

Epilepsy

While the ketogenic diet has gained popularity among people wishing to lose weight, it was first introduced as a way of managing epilepsy.

Researchers found that fasting increases ketone production and that this may reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures (27).

Since MCTs can be converted into ketones, they may be beneficial in managing epilepsy.

While there are few human studies examining MCTs and epilepsy, in-vitro and animal studies suggest promising results (28).

One small study included adults with epilepsy that did not respond well to medication. As a group, the participants had 42% fewer seizures when supplementing with MCT oil for 3 months. But the authors caution that more studies are needed (29).

The type of MCT may be important. An in-vitro study suggested that the MCT capric acid had more potent effects on seizure control than a widespread anti-epileptic drug (30).

Another study in rats found that the same MCT blocked receptors in the brain that cause seizures, though more human studies are needed (31).

If you’re considering a ketogenic diet or MCT oil to help manage your epilepsy, talk to your doctor first.

In addition, it’s important to note that a ketogenic diet is not for everyone and can be challenging to follow long term (32).

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease impairs your brain’s ability to use sugar (33).

A ketogenic diet offers an alternative energy source: ketones.

This provides fuel for your brain, and could allow brain cells to survive better with Alzheimer’s (26).

Researchers found that prioritizing MCTs as the source of fat in a ketogenic diet allows people to eat more carbs than a standard ketogenic diet, while still effectively producing ketones. Eating more carbs can make the diet easier to follow over time (26).

Plus, one study found that taking MCTs for 30 days improved cognition in people with Alzheimer’s disease with a certain gene type, specifically APOE ɛ4-negative (34).

In another study, people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease saw increased ketone use in their brains when they took 30 grams of MCT supplements daily. Their brains used ketones at a similar rate as healthy young adults taking MCTs (35).

Other researchers have proposed that 20 to 70 grams of supplemental MCTs that include caprylic and capric acid could modestly improve the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s (33).

A meta-analysis of 12 studies indicated that MCTs may promote improved cognition with Alzheimer’s disease, but stronger evidence is needed (36)

Overall, the use of MCT oil in Alzheimer’s disease shows some promise, but longer and larger scale studies are needed.

Autism

There is limited evidence suggesting that MCT oil may help children manage autistic characteristics.

When considering this research, it’s important to keep in mind that many autistic people do not support therapies aimed at making people appear “less autistic” (37).

One preliminary study found that a ketogenic and gluten-free diet with MCTs substantially lowered behaviors associated with autism. This change was seen in 6 of the 15 children involved in the study (38).

A handful of small studies have suggested some potential for ketogenic diets with or without MCTs to lower autistic behaviors. However, more research is needed before conclusions can be made. It’s currently not known if this type of diet is safe or has any therapeutic benefits for autistic children (39, 40).

What is known is that placing a child on a restrictive diet carries risks, including malnutrition and delayed growth (41).

Plus, sensory issues can cause some autistic people to eat a limited diet of preferred foods. Adding further restrictions to the diet may not be appropriate and could lead to nutritional deficiencies (41).

If you’re considering dietary changes or supplements for your child, always talk with your doctor first.

Summary

MCT oil may improve brain function, which could have benefits for people with epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism. However, you shouldn’t start supplements without talking with your doctor first.

MCTs have been shown to have antimicrobial and antifungal effects (42, 43, 44).

Some researchers suggest it may have certain anti-inflammatory effects, which could contribute to this outcome, but more studies are needed. (45).

Coconut oil, which contains numerous MCTs, has been shown in an older in-vitro study to reduce the growth of Candida albicans by 25%. This is a common yeast that can cause thrush and various skin infections (46).

Another small study found that MCTs reduced Candida infections in infants born prematurely (47).

An in-vitro study also showed that coconut oil reduced the growth of a disease-causing bacteria called Clostridium difficile (43).

Coconut oil’s ability to reduce yeast and bacterial growth may be due to the caprylic, capric, and lauric acid in MCTs (43).

In a test-tube study, virgin coconut oil slowed the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and helped immune cells destroy the bacteria. Staphylococcus aureus causes skin infections and other potentially-serious conditions (48)

However, note that most of the research on MCTs and immune support has been conducted via in-vitro or animal studies. High-quality human studies are needed before stronger conclusions can be made.

Summary

MCT oil contains fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the growth of yeast and bacteria. Overall, MCTs may have a variety of antimicrobial and antifungal effects, though more research is needed.

Some older studies suggest that MCT oil may also have benefits for those with diabetes and metabolic syndrome (49, 50).

One small study from 2007 followed 40 people with diabetes. Those who consumed MCT oil daily saw reductions in body weight, waist circumference, and insulin resistance, compared to those taking corn oil containing LCTs (34).

Newer studies on MCTs and blood sugar have shown mixed results.

A review of 18 studies examined the effects of coconut oil, which is high in MCTs. Eating a meal containing coconut oil may promote a small improvement in after-meal blood sugar control (51).

However, long-term use of coconut oil had the opposite effect — it was shown to increase insulin resistance, which means your body can’t control blood sugar as well (51).

A randomized controlled trial followed people with metabolic syndrome after 4 weeks of daily coconut oil consumption. Participants had significantly lower fasting blood sugar and triglycerides, and higher “good” HDL cholesterol. But they also had higher “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol (52).

While MCTs many be beneficial for blood sugar under some circumstances, more evidence is needed to draw strong conclusions.

Summary

In some studies, MCT appears to improve blood sugar control, but evidence also suggests it could increase insulin resistance. More research is needed to draw strong conclusions.

Although MCTs are a popular supplement, they may have some disadvantages.

MCT may increase risk factors for heart disease

Your diet affects your heart health (53).

The foods you eat can change the type and amount of fats, or lipids, that circulate in your bloodstream. High levels of certain fats in your blood are often associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease (53).

MCTs are saturated fats. Studies indicate that eating more saturated fat in the form of MCTs or coconut oil may increase blood lipids associated with heart disease (54, 55).

An analysis of 16 clinical trials found that coconut oil significantly increased “bad” LDL cholesterol compared to non-tropical vegetable oils (54).

A second analysis of 12 studies found a similar effect. When compared with liquid (non-tropical) plant oils, coconut oil may increase LDL cholesterol (56).

In both of these studies, “good” HDL cholesterol also increased. In many cases, this can be beneficial. However, when HDL becomes very high, it’s associated with heart health risks (54, 56, 57)

Fewer studies have examined MCT oil specifically. An analysis of 7 randomized trials found higher triglyceride levels when using MCT oil, versus other fats or oils. High blood triglycerides are associated with heart, stroke, and liver conditions (55).

On the other hand, when compared to animal-sourced fats in particular, consuming MCTs and coconut oil may promote a healthier blood lipid profile (55, 56).

Plus, MCT oil may support weight and fat loss. This may, in turn, help reduce your risk for heart disease (1).

Additional older studies found that MCT-oil-based mixtures can have a positive effect on other heart disease risk factors, as well (59, 60).

When rats were fed fish oil and MCTs, researchers saw significantly reduced C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker that increases the risk for heart disease (58).

It may be too soon to say whether MCTs are a negative or positive choice for heart health.

However, if you want to include heart-healthy fat in your diet, other plant oils such as olive oil have stronger evidence for their benefits.

MCT may stimulate the release of hunger hormones

If your goal is to lose weight, you’re probably not looking for ways to increase your appetite.

While some people believe that MCTs can help you feel fuller longer, they may also stimulate the release of hunger hormones in some people (7, 61, 62).

A study involving people with anorexia found that MCTs increased the release of two hormones that stimulate appetite: ghrelin and neuropeptide Y (61).

People who took more than 6 grams of MCTs per day produced more of these hormones than those who had less than 1 gram per day.

This could provide a therapeutic benefit to people who are seeking to increase their calorie intake, but it’s unclear whether the increase in these hormones actually causes you to eat more.

High doses could lead to fat buildup in the liver and other side effects

High doses of MCT oil may increase the amount of fat in your liver in the long term.

One 12-week study in mice found that a diet in which 50% of the fats were MCTs increased liver fat. Interestingly, the same study also found that MCTs reduced total body fat and improved insulin resistance (63).

Keep in mind that high doses of MCT oil, such as those in the study above, are not recommended. Overall, more research is needed on the long-term effects of MCT oil.

MCT oil doesn’t currently have a defined tolerable upper intake level (UL). But a maximum daily intake of 4 to 7 tablespoons (60–100 mL) has been suggested as a safe upper limit (64).

Even in lower amounts, consuming too much MCT oil can lead to digestive side effects for some people. These include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and bloating. To reduce side effects, some people may need to start with smaller amounts and slowly increase MCT intake over time (64).

MCTs are saturated fats and they are high in calories. To protect heart health, the American Heart Association recommends getting about 5% to 6% of your calories from saturated fat. In a 2000-calorie diet, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day (65).

In most cases, you’ll want to consume MCT oil as part of your total amount of fat intake and not as an additional amount of fat.

Summary

MCT oil may increase blood lipids associated with heart disease. For some people, it may raise hunger hormones. Large amounts could increase the amount of fat in your liver or cause stomach upset.

Medium-chain triglycerides could potentially have health benefits.

Remember, though, that whole food sources may provide additional benefits over supplements.

Potential drawbacks may include higher blood lipids and possible fat accumulation in your liver.

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about the benefits and risks of adding MCT oil to your eating plan.