The Science Behind MCT Oil, and When to Avoid It
There are numerous low-carbohydrate diets currently in vogue; the Mediterranean Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Paleo Diet, the Atkins Diet, and others. All restrict the intake of grains, starchy vegetables, refined sugar, and fruits. But while there are a number of similarities, when it comes to macronutrients, that’s where things start to diverge. Some low-carb The ratio of macronutrients then diverge some featuring high fat, others higher in protein.
The Ketogenic Diet (sometimes referred to simply as “Keto”) is a very low carbohydrate, moderate protein, and high-fat way of eating. Conversely, the standard western diet, characterized by its high intake of red meat, potatoes, processed foods, refined grains, and high-sugar drinks is comprised of 50% – 65% or more carbohydrates. This eating pattern is largely responsible for the high rates of obesity, both in adults and children in the U.S. today.
Keto has emerged as an effective method to counter this obesity epidemic, while also providing additional health benefits.
The macronutrient ratio in most Ketogenic Diets is approximately 65% fat, 25 – 30% protein, and 5 – 10% from carbohydrates. Obviously, this is a dramatic departure from most of today’s U.S. diets. The concept of the Ketosis Diet is to so severely restrict the amount of glucose available (through the elimination of carbohydrates) that the body will start to burn fat for energy and produce ketones. Once ketones in the body reach a certain level, you enter a state of ketosis.
The Keto Diet has become very popular, spawning an entire industry of Keto programs and products. We’ll delve into one of those products, MCT Oils, in detail in this article. Once the body enters a state of ketosis, weight loss can be achieved rapidly as the body is burning fat for fuel. Other benefits of ketosis include improved insulin resistance, and reduced risk of cardiac disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer. Additionally, the Keto Diet has been used extensively since the 1920’s in the treatment of seizures and epilepsy in children.
One reason the Ketogenic Diet is so popular is that the higher ratio of fats and moderate protein provide a greater feeling of satiety, allowing one to go longer without eating. As a result, many Keto dieters also practice intermittent fasting, which can speed the onset of Ketosis and result in fast weight loss without the dangers of starvation.
The Science of Ketosis
Nutritional Ketosis, induced by the Ketogenic Diet, is a state in which your body is efficiently burning fat for energy rather than glucose. From a scientific viewpoint, this is determined by the percentage of ketones in the bloodstream, stated as mM (millomolar) per DL (deciliter) of blood. At .05mM you enter ketosis, the optimal range is 1.5 mM – 3.0mM, and one really doesn’t want to exceed the upper range of 3.0mM.
This definition begs a couple of questions:
- How does the body achieve a nutritional state of ketosis?
- How do I know when I’ve achieved ketosis?
Through carb restriction on the Keto Diet, you have reduced glucose to a level that requires the body to adjust its metabolism. This process may take several days. No longer able to produce glucose, the body turns to its second choice of fuel for energy: fats. As a part of this conversion process, the body breaks down stored fat into fatty acids and glycerol. Although the cells of the body can use fatty acids and glycerol for energy, the brain cannot.
The alternate source of energy produced to supply the brain is ketones. Fatty acids are converted to ketones in the liver through the process of ketogenesis, while the glycerol is converted to sugar through gluconeogenesis. Through ketogenesis, a ketone body called acetoacetate is produced. These ketone bodies are further segregated into BHB, (Beta-hydroxybutyrate) and Acetone. Over time the body begins to utilize BHB as its preferred source of energy. That’s when you have achieved ketosis.
Although there are tests to determine if you are in ketosis, and the level to which you are in ketosis, let’s first discuss signs you should observe to let you know you’ve arrived. Unfortunately, the first indicators that you’ve achieved ketosis are not exactly pleasant: moodiness, lethargy, headaches, and bad breath, almost as if you are becoming ill. Congratulations, you have the “keto flu”. The good news is that the “flu” is normally brief and can be eased by increasing water, electrolytes and fat consumption.
The more scientific approaches to determine Ketosis include blood tests to determine ketone levels, urine ketone test strips, and breath acetone meters.
MCT Oils, (Medium Chain Triglycerides) and the Keto Diet
Much like Atkins in the 60’s, the Keto Diet has inspired entrepreneurs and manufacturers to create products to supplement the program. Today there are meal replacements, powdered shakes, bars, collagen protein, exogenous ketones, BHP salts, diet aids (pills), low-carb bread, low-carb chocolate snacks, and even Fat Bombs, all designed to make the diet more convenient and easier to adhere to, some promising faster entry, or faster return into ketosis.
Right at the top of this list, and one of the most efficacious products is MCT Oils, (from Medium-Chain Triglycerides). But, just what is a triglyceride, and what makes one medium-chained? And, more importantly, what does MCT Oil do?
What is a Medium-Chain Triglyceride?
Let’s start with a definition of a triglyceride and perhaps we can then decipher the length of its chain? Triglycerides are a type of fat that comes from the foods we eat, such as butter, oils, and other fats. They are the most common type of fat found in our bodies, a result of excess caloric intake. They are stored in fat cells and later released when energy is required.
Triglycerides are composed primarily of fatty acids and are named after the length of their fatty acid chains. MCTs may also be referred to as MCFA’s (Medium-Chain Fatty Acids). Most fats in our diet are made of long-chain fatty acids, Omega-3’s contain from 13 – 21 carbon atoms. And so, a triglyceride with a fatty acid carbon chain of only 6 to 12 atoms is known as a “medium-chain triglyceride!” Riddle solved, right?
How MCTs are Digested
What makes MCTs unique is that they are metabolized differently than long-chain fatty acids found in most other foods. Typically, fats are absorbed by intestinal cells, placed inside chylomicrons which transport them to the lymphatic system to be circulated to the liver and adipose tissue throughout the body. These lipids with long-chain fatty acids are more easily stored. MCTs however, go straight to the liver meaning they are absorbed much faster. Once in the liver, MCTs can be used for instant energy, or they can be converted to ketones. And, remember, the brain uses ketones as it’s only alternative, and perhaps preferred, source of energy.
Let’s look at the four different MCTs; Caproic Acid – (C6), Caprylic Acid – (C8), Capric Acid – (C10), and Lauric Acid – (12). Each of the first three, the “Capr Acids,” go straight to the liver as mentioned above. In fact, the shorter the chain, the better the absorption and faster availability of energy. Lauric Acid, however, is routed through the stomach and the small intestine, does not go directly to the liver, and is a slower burning fuel source.
Interestingly enough, Lauric Acid is a prominent ingredient across several major brands of MCT Oils. Ostensibly, the Lauric Acid is included to provide an extended energy curve. Further, Lauric Acid is a source material of monolaurin, a potent nutrient not found in a normal diet, but naturally occurring in human breast milk.
How MCT Oils are Made
What is an MCT Oil and how is it made? In the context of this article, MCT Oils are dietary supplements manufactured to support your Ketogenic Diet. Unlike coconut oil and palm oil which contain MCTs as a part of their makeup, quality MCT Oils are made predominantly, if not exclusively, of MCTs.
MCT Oils are derived from coconut oil and/or palm kernel oil through a process generally known as fractionation. The process involves isolating or distilling the MCTs, and the fractionation of the different types of MCTs, Caproic, Caprylic Acid, Capric Acid, and Lauric Acid, from the base coconut or palm kernel oil. Manufacturers of MCTs produced from coconut oil are quick to point out that products made from palm oil are cheaper and less environmentally friendly, being harvested from native palm forests. We recommend you do your research to ensure any MCT Oil sourced from palm oil is RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified.
Where to Find MCT Oils
There are numerous manufacturers and brands in the MCT Oil space. Some of the better-known brands would include;
- Bulletproof’s Brain Octane (Pure Caprylic Acid) and XCT (Caprylic Acid and Capric Acid)
- Onnit, derived from 100% Pure Coconut Oil, (Caprylic Acid, Capric Acid, and a small amount of Lauric Acid)
- Garden of Life, sourced from 100% Organic Coconut Oil, (also Caprylic Acid, Capric Acid, and a small amount of Lauric Acid)
- Now Foods, sourced from Coconut and Palm Kernel Oil, (no further breakdown of MCTs)
- Perfect KETO, sourced 100% from Coconuts, (Pure Caprylic Acid)
- Perfect KETO, MCT Oil Powder, 10 grams of MCT Oil with Acacia (no further breakdown of MCTs)
You will find MCTs online at various websites and in brick and mortar specialty retailers such as GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Sprouts and Whole Foods. In fact, MCTs are becoming so popular they are now available in your traditional food stores and even your local Walmart. See examples below of popularly priced, mass market MCT Oils.
- Nature’s Way, from Coconuts (no further breakdown of MCTs)
- Jarrow, from Coconuts (MCTs, Caprylic and Capric Acid)
Other Foods High in MCTs
Some people prefer to get their MCTs through food as opposed to Oils. For those individuals, we suggest ordinary coconut oil, palm kernel oil, dairy products such as cheese, butter, (particularly butter from grass-fed cows), milk, and full-fat yogurt.
See below for the ratio of MCTs in these foods:
- Coconut Oil – 15%
- Palm Kernel Oil – 7.9%
- Cheese – 7.3%
- Butter – 6.8%
- Milk – 6.9%
- Yogurt – 6.6%
Benefits of MCT Oils
MCT Oil can offer certain benefits when used properly and in the appropriate dosages. Below we recap several reasons people are using MCT Oil supplements. However, it’s important to note that a great deal of the publicity regarding MCT Oils today is anecdotal. MCTs have been the subject of research and certain clinical trials; however, most of the data to date relates to medium-chain triglycerides, not processed MCT Oils.
- Many people supplementing with MCT Oil are doing so for body composition purposes, to lose weight and maintain lean muscle.
- A benefit of MCT Oils as positioned by manufacturers is that they can improve cognition and memory function. Your brain is made up primarily of fatty acids. Given ketones role in providing energy to the brain, this seems a logical conclusion. Initial research, primarily on Alzheimer’s patients, shows promise, however, more clinicals are required before established connections can be proven.
- Many people rely on MCT Oil for an instant energy boost, to fuel their workouts, and for increased stamina.
- Additional benefits may include:
- Lowered cholesterol levels
- Better blood sugar control
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- Enhanced immune system
- Combats harmful bacteria and viruses
Potential Issues with MCT Oils Use
When taken in excessive amounts, MCT Oils may cause certain issues such as gastrointestinal distress, anxiety, mood swings, loss of appetite, and headaches.
Additionally, there is a good deal of confusion surrounding the use of MCT Oils in cooking. Due to its lower smoke point, many prefer not to cook with them. To be safe, solid coconut cooking oil, olive oil, or other cooking oils should be used in its place.
And, keep in mind, the use of MCT Oils means that you’re adding extra fats and calories to your nutrition. Excessive use could stall your weight loss progress.
But perhaps the biggest issue for Ketogenic dieters is that MCT Oils, although useful for supplying an intense boost of energy when needed (such as for workouts or in the morning), they can actually prevent your body from burning your own fat reserves and stall your weight loss goals. At the same time, some Keto practitioners have been known to overdo the MCTs, using it as a crutch to try to return to ketosis after consuming carbs.
Best Ways to Use MCT Oils
With the dangers of incorrect MCT use always present, knowing how to use this powerful keto diet aid is absolutely vital. The primary use of MCT Oil supplementation is in conjunction with the Keto Diet for weight management. The product can be used in several different ways:
- With coffee, for cognition and energy
- Taken alone, by the tablespoon, in the morning for mental performance
- Between meals for fat burning
- Mixed into protein shakes, smoothies, or meal replacement shakes, to make them more Keto friendly
- Pre-workout for a boost of energy/endurance
- As a substitute for conventional oils in salad dressings
But while often effective in the short term, MCT Oils should not be relied upon as quick fixes, or as viable alternatives to the Ketogenic Diet. The truth is that when it comes to achieving fat adaption, there is no miracle potion — it takes time and discipline, and if you take something looks like an easy shortcut, then there’s a good chance that you’re just going to end up lost.
There is more than sufficient evidence to support many of the claims associated with MCT Oils, but for those who are looking for more than just a short-term solution, the straight path is the more reliable one. The good news is that as your body becomes fat adapted, you’ll find that you won’t need supplements to give you the quick bursts of energy that MCT Oils are known for. After all, the main point of the Ketogenic Diet is to train your body to better use the fuel stores it already has (rather than developing dependence on yet another outside source).
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