The media blast on MCT oil is mind boggling. You see it poured into coffee, added to smoothies, mixed into oatmeal. We are told that MCT’s suppress hunger, increase energy and boost mental clarity. Sound too good to be true? Let’s take a closer look at the impact of loading MCT’s into your diet.
Just the Facts on MCT
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are fat molecules with 3 saturated fats attached to a glycerol backbone. MCTs contain between 6 and 12 carbons in their fatty acid chain and are commonly found in coconut oil, palm kernel oil and dairy products. The main MCTs are caproic, caprylic, capric and lauric acids. Coconut oil has the greatest percentage of these, at >60%, followed by palm kernel oil at >50%, and dairy with only about 10%. Straight MCT oil has a higher concentration of the shorter-chain fats that are more efficiently converted to ketones, with caprylic in the lead. Standard MCT’s are liquid at room temperature, while coconut oil is usually solid or semi-solid.
MCTs serve us exclusively with energy and calories; they do not contain essential fatty acids nor are they bioactive lipids. MCTs are broken down and absorbed rapidly, going straight to the liver, where they can be used as instant energy sources or turned into ketones, which can cross to the brain and supplant the carbohydrates/glucose that are normally used for fuel. Additionally, the calories in MCTs are so efficiently utilized that they are less apt to be stored as fat.
Scientific Deep Dive
A shot of MCT oil can give rise to ketone manufacture in liver cells, even when there is ample glycogen availability. This occurs because medium-chain fatty acids can stream into mitochondria in the liver efficiently and get converted either to ketone bodies or to carbon dioxide. The half-life of medium-chain fatty acids is such that they demonstrate a high oxidative metabolism and trigger thermogenesis, reducing the potential for weight gain.
The Ketogenic Diet, a very high fat diet, has been used to help control seizure activity since the 1920s, prior to the development of anticonvulsant drugs. However, when children did not respond to medications and developed ‘intractable’ seizures, the classic therapeutic ketogenic diet (90% fat) was introduced in a clinical setting at Johns Hopkins. In the mid-1990s, when a movie producer’s son responded to the extreme ketogenic diet, the concept became more popular, and eventually more moderate approaches were used, such as the ‘Modified Ketogenic Diet’. Since that time, thousands of medical papers have emerged on the subject to attempt to create a ‘ketogenic pill’.
More currently, MCTs have been reported to enhance memory in mild cognitive impairment (Krikorian, 2012) (Veech, 2004). These observations, then, support rationale for a ketone fuel replacement. However, medical diets attempting to use MCT oil exclusively for seizures failed and they had to go back to the drawing board.
MCTs are unlikely to exacerbate obesity; they do not give rise to ectopic fat metabolites that mediate metabolic syndrome; and they have little adverse impact on serum lipid profiles, despite an increase in total cholesterol.
The idea behind adding MCT’s to your coffee is that it converts the human body into a fat-burning instrument, thus promoting healthy weight loss and eliminating hunger pangs. Proponents argue that this is because the MCT oil in coffee turns to ketones instantly and boosts your metabolic rate.
Energy from MCT is more readily available than from butter or other fats or oils (saturated, unsaturated, monounsaturated). Furthermore, MCT does not require bile (released from the gall bladder), as other fats do, to be digested. So for those who struggle with fat intolerance, MCT oil is easier for the body to use as a source of calories, energy and satiety.
On the Down Side
MCTs are nothing more than a storehouse of calories and coincident energy. They do not, and cannot, support cellular health because they lack essential fatty acids, making them non-bioactive lipids. Overwhelming the system with a surge of MCTs is apt to cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Though it is possible to obtain MCT oil from coconuts, it is more likely derived from less costly palm oil or palm kernel oil, thereby raising harmful levels of palmitic acid. It is prudent to proceed with caution, as this ingredient that is contained in some processed foods and the fat calories that are touted as grandly “healthy fat” may return to haunt you. Palmitic acid is the fuel that stimulates macrophages, white blood cells that drive inflammation.
What About Increased Energy? Brain Function?
MCT in your coffee is supposed to increase focus and eradicate brain fog—seems like an awful lot of pressure for one cup to contain. The claim is that the addition of butter to the coffee slows caffeine absorption, effectively micro-dosing the caffeine’s effects throughout the day, making you less jittery and more focused.
The routine of eating fat in your coffee, even grass-fed Kerry Gold, and more fat from palm kernel oil, doesn’t arouse passion in many people. Breakfast without protein? Nah! Studies to support this behavior are rarely seen, if at all. Any weight lost through this regimen is apt to return with a vengeance. What’s more, the saturated fat in this recipe exceeds 24 grams, equaling 120% of the daily recommended amount for a woman and 80% of that for a man. (Percentages will vary according to the tables used.)
You can lose weight on any fad diet, however, it’s a change in lifestyle that makes a lasting difference. That means making healthy choices such as eating balanced meals, consuming pure, balanced essential fatty acids, exercising regularly, and yes, even the occasional cup of *regular* coffee.