From cloud bread to pizza crust made from an odd mixture of spinach leaves and cheese, there are a lot of seemingly peculiar things in the world of keto diet. If you’re new to keto, you might be overwhelmed by the incredible amount of information out there. Does a celery stick count as a carb, how much cheese can I have, do I need to supplement with electrolytes, what about probiotics, what about other keto supplements, the list goes on.
In your courageous quest for information, you may have heard of MCT oil, the new darling of the keto world, with powers that rival those of Superman (if Superman were a supplement).
What is a Ketogenic Diet?
Keto diet has become very popular nowadays, promising relief from any number of health issues and assisting with weight loss. It has clear guidelines about what types of food you can eat and how much of those foods you should be consuming.
What makes the ketogenic diet different from others you may be familiar with is the high fat, low carbohydrate requirements. Most of your daily calories should come from a healthy fat source such as meats, dairy products and natural oils like coconut oil. Fat should account for 70-80% of your daily calorie intake. Protein is next at about 20%, and the remaining 10% is carbohydrates, specifically low carb vegetables and should total about 20 grams per day. It is different for each person, so calculating your keto macros is a good idea before starting the diet.
On a traditional diet, your body converts carbohydrates into glucose to use for energy. But this drastic reduction in fuel source from low carbs causes your body to use a different fuel, in this case, fat. In the case of a ketogenic diet, the types of fat you eat are burned as energy rather than being stored as body fat. This is the process of ketosis.
What is MCT oil?
With the rise in the popularity of the ketogenic diet, there are many different foods and supplements that are recommended to achieve success on what may seem like a restrictive way of eating. One such supplement is MCT oil, derived from the fatty acids found in natural oils like coconut oil and palm oil.
This oil is liquid at room temperature and can be added to any type of food, but is not recommended for cooking as it has a low smoke point. It is most likely to be processed from coconut oil though palm, sesame, and olive oils contain smaller and less concentrated amounts of medium-chain triglycerides.
MCT is an acronym for medium-chain triglycerides. Medium-chain triglycerides are saturated fatty acids with 6-12 carbons per carbon chain. This configuration of fatty acids makes it easy for the body to break down fats and turn them into quick energy.
There are different types of MCTs, depending on your food source. Fatty acids known as C8 and C10 are derived from coconut oil and concentrated into MCT oil. They may also be known as caprylic and capric acid. C12, known as lauric acid, also a component of coconut oil, is often called an MCT, but only about 20% of it is digested by the body, and it may be more likely to be stored as fat. Some MCT manufacturers include C12 in their oils, even though it is not the most efficient medium-chain triglyceride.
Coconut oil is often a staple of the keto diet, used for cooking and even just to add fat to a meal or snack. Because about 60% of coconut oil is medium-chain triglycerides, it is excellent whole food for adding fat needed to a ketogenic diet.
MCT oil concentrates the properties of the medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut oil. MCT oils can technically be made up of any number of fats classified as MCT's - so any C6, C8, C10 or C12 fatty acid. However, the best MCT oil will be made up of only the quick digesting MCT's: C8 and C10. These will be quickly digested to ketones in the body. If you're looking for a slow release of energy, then an oil with a mixture of C8, C10 and other types of MCT's may be beneficial for you.
MCTs are easily broken down by the body, bypassing several steps of digestion that other substances require, such as sugar. They are smaller in structure and so are absorbed by cells more easily than other, longer chain fatty acids, whose chemical makeup require more enzymes to break down.
MCT oil encourages the production of ketones in the liver, so even more ketones are produced than with the keto diet alone. Even non-keto dieters should have a temporary effect if they ingest this oil.
Why would people use MCT oil on a keto diet?
As was stated before, MCT oil is much easier for the body to break down due to its chemical composition. This means that it can provide faster energy without the body needing to involve several different kinds of enzymes or organs.
Extra Energy for Exercise
This quick energy may make it ideal for a workout. It can be used to provide extra calories later in a session when you may usually feel tired and lose the energy you began with. Many athletes need a constant supply of carbohydrates to replace the glucose they burn during activity, but the breakdown of sugar is a long process in the body and requires the involvement of more body systems. (1)
In addition, you won’t experience the side effect of a crash or the jittery feeling of stimulants like caffeine when using medium chain triglyceride oil. It has a low effect on blood sugar, so you don’t have to constantly replenish your glucose supply. MCT’s energy comes from being broken down by the liver and much faster than other foods.
Many people experience a weight loss plateau when following the ketogenic diet. This could be for any number of factors including a low number of ketones produced by the body. MCT oil can supplement the ketones already being made by following the low carb, high-fat diet and jumpstart the body into a higher state of ketosis.
Consuming diets high in fat have had an observed effect of reducing food cravings and causing people to feel more satiated with less food. You may be likely to eat less but still get the necessary calories to be healthy. MCT oil in your diet may also help reduce cravings for sugar and highly refined carbohydrates so more whole foods are eaten.
Ketones also have an effect on your brain. Many people observe that they feel more focused when taking this oil. The ketones can be an alternative source of fuel for your brain and can be a steadier supply than the rise and fall of glucose levels in the blood. It can also be used as a supplement for those with neurological disorders trying to improve their health.
Why would someone not use MCT oil on a keto diet?
It takes quite a bit of processing to extract MCT oil from coconut oil and then to purify and deodorize in order to take out the coconut flavor and smell. This can lead to a very expensive product compared to the benefits you might see when taking it. It may be more cost-effective to get a lower dose of MCTs through coconut or palm oil. The smaller amount you’d get from whole foods may be more than enough to help you get into ketosis and a supplement would not be necessary.
The production of ketones is the purpose of the ketogenic diet when you lower carbohydrate intake to the point where the body has no choice but to use the fat taken in and already available in the body to create energy. Thus, when the diet is followed correctly, ketones should be readily available without using the oil to in addition to what is already found in the natural foods. Only people who find themselves with low levels of ketones, needing a boost for exercise, or are having problems getting into ketosis may want to consider using the oil.
Because of its ease of digestion, MCT oil may cause intestinal distress for some individuals. This includes gas, bloating, diarrhea, or cramping. The C8 fatty acid is antimicrobial and may damage some of the good bacteria in your gut that aids in digestion - but this is probably only concern with overconsumption. An oil with a higher lauric acid content may alleviate these symptoms, but if you have other sensitivities, medium chain triglycerides may affect you similarly.
Use of MCT oil may not be appropriate for people with liver issues either because of the way it is metabolized in the body. Fats need the bile created by the liver to be broken down in the body so people with liver problems may find their bodies having issues with breaking the fats down properly.
Using MCT oil
MCT oil is colorless and odorless. It is fairly simple to add it to any meal, especially liquids like shakes, smoothies, coffee, or tea. Being an oil it does not mix completely, but, since it is without taste, you may not even notice. It would be simple to drizzle over a salad alongside your favorite dressing. You could even take it by the mouthful before you start a workout.
Many followers of the keto diet add MCT oil to their coffee, along with butter, to create a tasty, filling drink. It helps those on the ketogenic diet get their fat calories easily without having to consume a lot of other carbohydrates. There are many recipes for keto compliant “fat bombs”, which are snacks made with coconut oil or with added MCT oil to eat throughout the day to keep you satisfied and reduce cravings for sugar and refined carbs.
While MCT oil can be used as a dietary supplement, the ketogenic diet is designed to make your body reach ketosis naturally and to create ketones from the fat you consume with your regular meals, including the medium-chain triglycerides you can get from other oils. With the serious reduction in carbs, your body looks for an alternate source of energy. MCT oil is helpful for anyone who is stuck in a low state of ketosis, but this may be purely for weight loss effect. Otherwise, MCT is not really necessary to the diet but can be appropriate in some situations.
1) Nosaka N et al., Effect of ingestion of medium-chain triacylglycerols on moderate- and high-intensity exercise in recreational athletes. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009 Apr;55(2):120-5.