MCT oil is to the ketogenic diet as Regina George was to North Shore High School: the queen bee. While popping up briefly in 2008 in niche nutrition circles, the buzzy fat blew up in 2018 and 2019 thanks to the ascendance of the keto diet. Fast-forward to the present, and MCT oil is a household name, and can be found in products ranging from coffee to low-carb cookies and protein powders.
ICYMI, MCT stands for medium-chain triglyceride, which is a type of fatty acid. “Most fats from the foods we eat are made up of LCTs—aka long-chain triglycerides—whereas MCTs are found naturally in just a handful of foods, like coconut oil, breast milk, and full-fat cow’s milk,” says Charlotte Martin, RDN, CPT.
In the body, MCTs behave differently than LCTs because of their shorter chain length, which Martin says allows them to be more rapidly absorbed and sent directly to the liver to be used as an immediate energy source. This is why folks on the keto diet love all things MCTs, since fat (not carbohydrates) are their main source of energy.
Want to learn more about MCT oil? Here’s what a top dietitian thinks about the ingredient:
But while it’s pretty obvious what to do with olive oil or even coconut oil, MCT oil might feel a little niche. So if you’re new to the ingredient and want to know where to start, consider this your 101 guide.
Why would someone want to use MCT oil—and does it have any downsides?
MCT oil has certain properties that make it appealing to certain folks, particularly those who are following the ketogenic diet. For one thing, it might help people stay in ketosis, the metabolic state that burns ketones (aka fats) for energy instead of glucose. Since staying in ketosis can be tricky (and requires a very precise balance of carb-to-fat intake), some people might like supplementing with MCT oil to meet their macros.
Martin says the oil is often touted as “brain fuel,” because it can be converted into ketones in the liver; those ketones can pass through the blood-brain barrier to feed your brain when no glucose is available. However, she says that the brain prefers glucose—so that’s what the brain will always use first when available. (Basically if you’re not in ketosis, MCT oil isn’t going to do much for your brain.) Plus, some of the cognitive benefits long touted with MCT oil may be a tad overhyped, Martin says. “Those following a very low carb diet like the keto diet may feel a slight energy boost when consuming MCT oil, but there’s no solid evidence to support that MCT oil offers any cognitive benefits like improved focus or memory,” she says.
“People with age-related cognitive disorders have shown reduced glucose metabolism in the brain, and so it’s theorized that MCT oil could help provide these individuals with an alternative brain fuel source,” Martin adds. However, there’s not enough evidence to support this benefit for this population yet.
Some people also may choose to try consuming MCT oil for weight management purposes. “Since MCTs are absorbed rapidly and used immediately for energy, they’re less likely to be stored as fat than LCTs and may be more satiating,” Martin says. “MCTs also have a higher thermic effect than other fats, meaning your body burns more calories processing MCTs than it does other fats,” she adds. However, the differences here are small and unlikely to lead to a noticeable difference, she says, so it’s important not to overdo it.
The ingredient also has two big downsides to keep in mind. It’s relatively high in saturated fat (a one tablespoon serving has seven grams of saturated fat), which in excess can be bad for heart and liver health. And because it’s pure fat—and digested quickly—“it can could potentially cause temporary digestive upset,” says Martin.
How to use MCT oil
Lots of people just take it straight (like apple cider vinegar). “Start with one teaspoon and gradually increase your intake,” Martin says. The typical dose is 1 to 2 tablespoons. However, “taking MCT oil on an empty stomach may also cause stomach discomfort,” she warns, so go slow and see what your system can tolerate.
The taste of MCT oil isn’t necessarily for everyone either, so adding it to food might be more your speed. These are some options Martin suggests:
Add it to your coffee. This method was popularized by Bulletproof. “The standard recipe is: one cup of brewed coffee plus one teaspoon to one tablespoon MCT oil and one teaspoon to one tablespoon butter or ghee,” Martin says. Combine in a blender and blend on high speed until frothy and emulsified. (Or try Well+Good Council member Robin Berzin, MD’s go-to recipe.)
Add it into a smoothie. Fat can add satiety to smoothies, which is important if you’re hoping for it to serve as a meal. Try this delicious smoothie recipe (featuring MCT oil!) from functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD.
Make “fat bombs” with it. These keto-friendly snacks are designed to provide lots of energy without the crash, and MCT oil or coconut oil can be used to make them. This option from blogger Wholesome Yum is like a low-carb take on a peanut butter cup.
As for what to buy, Martin recommends the brand Orgain (they carry an organic MCT oil for $40). Other great options include Bulletproof Brain Octane Oil ($25) and Nutivia Organic MCT Oil ($25). Given that the price is higher than your standard bottle of regular coconut oil, canola oil, or olive oil, you probably shouldn’t be cooking with MCT oil.
The bottom line: The keto-friendly oil might not be the right fit for everyone, nor does it offer a ton of proven benefits. That said, many people have found personal benefits to using MCT oil (it’s a $1.7 billion market in the U.S. for a reason!), so if you like it or are curious to try it, go for it. You might find Bulletproof-style coffee is officially the thing that perks you up in the morning.
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