You may have seen the buzz about medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) for weight loss. Coconut oil contains a large amount of these easily digested saturated fats. Concentrated MCT oils have come into the diet and health space due to claims they can jumpstart ketosis — a state of using ketones (breakdown products of fat) as an important energy source. Using an energy source other than blood sugar reduces the need for higher blood sugar, which can not only help you lose weight, but also reduce inflammation and damage to your arteries from higher blood sugar, as well as give your brain an alternative fuel, and minimize spikes in blood sugar and stress hormones driving moodiness and cravings.
While we are still gathering clinical data for a more complete picture of what MCTs can do for you, there is a lot we already know! Read on to learn more about how your body uses MCTs as we investigate the question of why and how MCTs can raise your ketones and what that may mean for your daily diet if you choose!
How does my body process MCTs?
Long-chain fat absorption and metabolism is a complicated process. You must first digest (break apart) triglycerides into free fatty acids and glycerol, package them, ferry them from your lymphatics, then through your bloodstream, then (finally) to your liver for further processing, repackage them, taxi those fats to your other tissues, and then burn (or store) them. That’s a lot of work! To complete this process, you use your lymphatic system, venous system, cholesterol carriers, liver, energy, and time. If your insulin is low enough that you aren’t storing that fat, then you still need adequate carnitine to get the fatty acids into your cellular engines (mitochondria) to burn. There are many potential nutritional roadblocks to burning fat, such as micronutrient deficiencies, low cholesterol, a sluggish liver, or problems making carnitine. These are a lot of “ifs” that could potentially roadblock you from using long-chain fats for energy.
The good news is, your body handles medium-chain triglycerides differently. You absorb MCTs more effectively in your small intestine than long-chain fats (such as vegetable oils) because the enzymes (lipases) that digest triglycerides into medium-chain fatty acids and glycerol work on MCTs faster than longer-chain triglycerides. Then you transport the medium-chain fatty acids directly through your bloodstream to your liver attached to your taxicab blood protein albumin. This allows you to bypass your lymphatic system and cholesterol carriers altogether. When they get to a mitochondrion, MCTs don’t need carnitine to get across the membrane and into the engine. They are burned preferentially, before other fatty fuels. At every potential roadblock, MCTs sail through! The result is more energy, more quickly, and with less potential for weight gain. A nutritional win!
As expected with this mechanism of action, studies in both animals and humans show greater energy expenditure with less body weight gain and decreased fat storage after months of consuming MCTs. Even more intriguing, MCTs replacing longer-chain fats in the human diet may result in faster satiety and better metabolic health than a diet rich in long-chain fats alone.
How do MCTs raise ketones in humans?
In addition to your basic need for energy, the length of a fatty acid and how saturated it affects whether you store it as fat or burn it for energy. Medium-chain fatty acids are 8 to 12 carbons long. The primary enzyme your body uses to assemble triglycerides works better with longer fatty acids that are at least 14 carbons long. Because medium-chain fatty acids are shorter and fully saturated (unlike fatty acids from long-chain triglycerides), you are more likely to burn them for energy than you are to repackage them into triglycerides.
Another interesting fact to note is that under normal circumstances, blocking the carnitine transporter into your mitochondria reduces ketone production; in contrast, medium-chain fatty acids will still ramp up ketone production with low carnitine levels because they don’t need the transporter at all. Medium-chain fatty acids are also more easily oxidized in other cell organs (organelles), such as peroxisomes. What does all this science talk mean? What the experts have explained to me is that all of these differences essentially add up to MORE ketone body production from consuming MCTs than from long-chain triglycerides, a well-documented result of studies where people increase the amount of MCT oils consumed versus other types of fats.
Do I have to eat a low carb diet all the time to raise my ketones with MCT oil?
This is a fascinating question! I highly value using fat as fuel in my fats first, carbs last paradigm along with strategic fasting via Intermittent Fasting and Protein Cycling. You can read all about how I apply these tools to promote optimal metabolic health in my New York Times bestselling book, Glow15. In Glow15, I encourage you to prolong the overnight fast by rotating days where you either skip breakfast or eat a fat-fueled meal. I also share the logistics and science behind cycling days of higher and lower protein intake. All of the dietary strategies you’ll learn about are important because of their benefits in triggering autophagy. Autophagy, your cellular detox process, is so fundamental to health and longevity and cannot be understated in its role in optimizing your health!
While my program is simple and quick, if you haven’t yet tried it, you might be intimidated upon hearing you’d skip breakfast or eat only fat for your first meal. Am I right? Don’t worry, many people report hesitation or challenges starting and there is a simple reason — most of us are sugar-burners, not fat-burners.
Essentially this means most of us consume a predominantly carb-based diet which puts us on a blood sugar rollercoaster where every two to three hours our glucose levels are low enough to trigger fierce hunger or cravings for sugar. This basically creates an addiction cycle of carbohydrates for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and desserts. And let’s not forget drinks too!
If blood sugar levels are not stable enough then fasting or eating fats only may feel crummy since you won’t yet be mobilizing fats as ketones for effective energy. If you aren’t a fat-burner, you might at first experience energy crashes, sugar cravings, moodiness, and other symptoms as you become fat -adapted. But this uncomfortable state is short lived and as you become fat-adapted, fasting or thriving on fats becomes the best thing since “sliced bread.” No one enjoys feeling this way, and this is where you can apply the science of MCT’s to your advantage! Since MCTs can be used to raise ketones, they should logically help bridge that gap between eating a carbohydrate-rich diet and a low-carbohydrate diet, mediating mood and energy by providing ketones for body and brain while you transition to a fat-fueled lifestyle.
While more research with larger study groups is needed to flesh out the answer to this question fully, the results are promising! In a 2013 study of eight healthy, mid-20s adults published in the journal Nutrition, the answer was no; you don’t need to only eat a low carb diet in conjunction with MCT oils to reap their benefits! Subjects consuming a normal diet also took an MCT supplement for seven weeks, starting with 20 and increasing to 30 grams daily (4 to 6 tsp of MCT oil daily). Researchers measured ketones, blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, free fatty acids, and insulin over two full study days before and after supplementation. The subjects not only saw a rise in their plasma ketones (B-hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate) but also reported no side effects! Moreover, the researchers estimated the subjects could get up to 9% of the energy their brains needed each day from that increase in ketones, which is a massive boon to those concerned about moodiness while becoming more fat-adapted.
Studies also show that energy expenditure increases with MCTs when replacing long-chain triglycerides with them even in diets with 30 or 40 percent of calories from fat, which is about half of the fat content of a typical ketogenic diet. While these findings are promising for those that cannot tolerate a low-carbohydrate diet, they do not speak to long-term use of MCTs. The effect of eating long-chain triglycerides mixed with medium-chain triglycerides has yet to be fully elucidated, but the trend indicates that MCT consumption does, to some extent, reduce how much and how fast long-chain triglycerides are burned for energy. Some studies show no effect. At this time, I advocate for moderation — replacing long-chain fats with medium-chain fats rather than simply adding MCTs without reducing other fat intake.
What kind of MCT oil should I consume?
There is no question, you should always consume a high-quality and organic MCT oil. An MCT oil grown and processed conventionally could have traces of toxins, mold or heavy metals due to chemical extraction or lack of safety testing… about 80% of MCT oils are conventionally grown. If you don’t know where your MCT oil is sourced, manufactured, and how it is processed, you may be introducing toxins into your system that rob your body of health instead of creating it. You want to look for pure, cold-pressed, and non-GMO coconut-based oil that is extracted and purified with enzymes, not harsh chemicals.
How much MCT oil should I consume to see benefits?
This is a tricky question. Reviewing the literature, many studies showing positive effects at 30 grams of additional MCT oil per day, which is about 6 teaspoons at 5 grams each. As with all metabolic adjustments to your diet, start low, go slow, and note how you feel as you increase.
How long does it take for ketones to become elevated?
Without MCTs as a large chunk of a keto-friendly diet plan, it takes the average adult three to five days to go into ketosis on a low carbohydrate/high-fat diet, meaning less than 10% of calories as carbohydrate and at least 70% of calories from fat. But add boosters such as MCT oil and fasting to a ketogenic diet protocol and you could achieve ketosis as early as the day after starting the diet — amazing right! As is my thinking for everything in nutrition though, we are all so different and beautifully unique! What works for me won’t necessarily be what works for you, so as you experiment with fasting and good fats like MCT’s in the name of ketosis, keep this jewel of wisdom in mind.
A general rule is to aim for less than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day and stay or decrease from there as you adjust and feel able. For different people, these numbers may be different, particularly with differences in nutritional status, exercise status, and protein intake. I highly recommend cycling your protein intake and exercise to avoid kicking yourself out of ketosis regularly. Those overfeeding with protein may find that they break down extra protein to generate glucose (gluconeogenesis) — hardly the goal of eating protein. Other reasons why our sweet spot for carbs differs may depend on what our diet looks like at entry. Vegetarians and vegans, for instance, may be low in carnitine, so long-chain fatty acids will be harder to burn for energy. Anyone with poor stomach acid production, especially those of us above 50 years old, may be low in B vitamins or certain minerals that hinder metabolism at many points, including in the fat-burning mitochondria.
With direct MCT consumption, in contrast, you might go into ketosis within an hour and ride a wave of ketones for a few hours afterward! That sounds extreme but notice how much less time and effort it takes to get medium-chain fatty acids to your liver! Combine those MCTs with longer-chain fats, such as the lauric acid in coconut oil, and fewer ketones are produced over a longer period of time.
How should I feel if I am in ketosis?
If you are in ketosis, you will stop storing excess carbohydrate as glycogen, so you will lose a few pounds of glycogen and water right away and feel generally less “puffy.” You might feel thirsty and have cravings for salt because your body will release more sodium and water as your urine output will increase as insulin decreases. A few fat-friendly solutions are to sip on some salted bone or vegetable broth, munch on mineral-dense seaweed snacks, or indulge in a fibrous fermented food such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or real pickles. Many people note that their skin seems clearer and they feel less bloated after maintaining a state of nutritional ketosis.
There are some negative reactions that many experience for the first few days and some for a few weeks going into ketosis as well, especially on very low carbohydrate ketogenic diets. Note that in my book, Glow15, I advocate for a fat first, carbs last approach so that you can avoid some of these challenges while still reaping the fat-burning benefits. Symptoms may include constipation, headache, muscle cramps, diarrhea, general weakness, and even rashes. These symptoms sound a lot like a hangover because they occur in a similar environment of water and electrolyte loss. You may also note a fruity or metallic scent to your breath from the acetone produced in your body. This diminishes after a few weeks but can be surprising if you aren’t expecting it. This is just yet again another marvelous reason why I am so fascinated by MCTs —you can think of them as a simple intermediate tool you can easily use to reduce the likelihood of these effects, sometimes referred to as the “keto-flu,” because they may speed up the transition to ketosis.
What are the other benefits of MCT oil aside from ketosis?
Seizures and Migraines: With all of this talk of metabolic optimization, keep in mind that there are many other benefits to being in ketosis a good chunk of the time. On the seizure front, MCTs appear to not only drive ketone production but also directly inhibit glutamate receptors (which are partially responsible for seizures) and stimulate cells to make more mitochondria. MCTs are also safer in therapeutic practice than the established treatment with a drug called valproate. There are also many studies supporting the use of MCT oils to help mediate glutamate-induced migraines and anxiety.
High Cholesterol: As early as 1971, researchers noted that replacing long-chain fats with MCTs in a ketogenic diet for childhood seizures made a notable difference in cholesterol levels: MCTs didn’t cause cholesterol levels to spike and therefore did not increase metabolic disease risk while the traditional ketogenic diet comprised of long-chain fats did. It doesn’t just affect weight — it also affects your liver’s workload and metabolic health.
Endurance Exercise: A 2016 study of 39 endurance athletes published in the journal Cell Metabolism concluded that supplying ketones directly, decreased muscle glucose use and lactate concentrations, leading to longer performance with less muscle pain. While MCTs may induce ketone body production, there may also be a role for consuming ketones directly to boost your fat-burning potential. Moreover, reducing your need for glucose to fuel exercise can spare muscle that would otherwise be broken down for emergency sugar. You may not be a professional athlete, but you can certainly reap the benefits of more stable, long-lasting energy!
Get Glowing: I’ve written a lot on this subject, but it’s worth repeating. Reducing your circulating blood sugar and insulin by boosting ketone production can be a big boost for healthier skin! If you can use MCTs to get glowing faster, win-win!
How will you include MCT oils in your metabolic makeover?
While I cannot answer this question for you, I hope after reading this you won’t question IF but HOW you will use MCT oils to your advantage. Clearly, they can give you a metabolic makeover! There are many ways to incorporate MCTs into your switch to becoming a fat-burning machine. Whether you take MCT oil by the spoonful for quick, reliable energy, mix it into smoothies, shakes, sauces, teas or coffee, or bake it into a delicious fat-friendly cookie for a less intense, longer duration spike in ketone production, one thing is clear — you certainly won’t raise your cholesterol doing so nor will you block metabolic function doing so!
At my house, food is fuel, but food is also fun! I love putting smiles on my kids’ faces when I serve them this breakfast cookie as a healthy, yet fun treat!
Chocolate Chip Fat Cookies
When I sat down to have dinner with keto connoisseur, Dominic D’Agostino, I knew I would be getting a lot of interesting and thoughtful conversation, but I hadn’t the faintest clue I would taste a real cookie, made with real ingredients, that was really, really yummy and also really good for me too. I had to recreate the experience, so I played around until I came up with these delicious (and good for you too!) cookies. These cookies are loaded with good fats from real grass-fed butter and coconut, as well as MCT oils. MCT oil is proving to be more than just any old fat — it has the ability to provide you with fast-acting energy that benefits your cellular and metabolic function as well as a nice jolt of mental clarity not to mention even energy levels throughout the day. I love the flavor of these because they taste just like chocolate chip cookies but with high-quality fats and zero sugars. Eat one for a snack, a healthy dessert or grab a couple for a quick fat-fueled breakfast!
3/4 cup almond flour
1/4 cup coconut flour
3/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup monk fruit sweetener
1/4 cup grass-fed butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup Simply GOODFATS® Organic MCT oil
2 tablespoons Simply GOODFATS® Organic coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips (such as Lilly’s)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Place dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times until evenly combined.
- Add in the butter, both oils and vanilla, and pulse a few more times.
- Add in one egg at a time, and pulse until combined.
- Fold in chocolate chips and stir to combine.
- Place a heaping 2 tablespoons of dough onto the sheet and repeat until all dough is used up. Bake in the oven for about 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Nutrition Facts: (serving size: 1 cookie) Fat: 12g Protein: 3g Fiber: 1g Carb: 5g Net Carb: 4g