If you’ve heard anything about the ketogenic diet, keto for short, you’ve probably heard about medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). If you’re new to keto, then you’ll want to understand MCTs and their significance to ketosis, the goal of the keto diet.
First, What Is Ketosis?
Before we delve into MCTs, let’s first understand ketosis.
- By-products of this process are ketones, energy molecules our bodies love to burn for fuel.
- The goal of the keto diet is to put our bodies into a state of ketosis.
Why? Because it switches our bodies from burning glucose for energy into burning fat and ketones instead.
Glucose comes from the carbohydrates we eat, meaning foods that contain sugar and starches that convert to sugar. Our bodies want to burn this first and then store any leftovers, which ends up in our love handles and spare belly tires. We want our bodies to rely on unwanted fat and ketones instead of glucose for energy. That’s why keto diet plans are high in fat, moderate in protein and very low in carbs.
The Types of Ketones
Your body produces three types of ketones:
- Beta-hydroxybutyric acid (BHB)
- Acetoacetate (AcAc)
Of the three, your body uses BHB most effectively for energy. AcAc is a precursor of BHB but can also be converted to energy. Acetone, a by-product of BHB production, cannot be used for energy so your body gets rid of it through your breath and urine. Keto dieters monitor acetone levels in their breath, so they know when they’re in ketosis. The longer your body burns fats for fuel, the more efficient it becomes at making more BHB and less acetone.
Rapid weight loss is one of the biggest benefits of ketosis, but ketosis delivers a bundle of health benefits.
What Are Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)?
Before we get into MCTs, it helps to understand a little about dietary fats:
- Fatty acids are the “building blocks” of dietary fats.
- Fatty acids form chains, which can be short, medium or long.
- Our dietary fats are mostly triglycerides, meaning they contain three fatty acid chains.
Regardless of whether the fat comes from plants or animals, the vast majority of the saturated and unsaturated fats we consume are long-chain fatty acids (LCFA) AKA long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Why does the triglyceride chain length matter? Because the shorter the chain, the easier it is for our bodies to break it into energy.
LCTs have a laundry list of needs before our bodies can convert them to energy:
- Our GI tract can’t easily digest LCTs, so our intestines need pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to break them down before it can absorb them.
- Then LCTs must go through a complicated process to be delivered to body tissues.
- Then LCTs are finally transported to the liver and prepared for energy use. LCTs also can get stored as body fat.
Contrast that soap opera rigmarole to medium-chain fatty acids or MCTs:
- Our GI tract can easily digest MCTs without the additional substances, steps and time.
- MCTs, go directly from our GI tract to our liver via our bloodstream.
- MCTs can enter our liver cells’ mitochondria directly and are metabolized immediately for energy. LCTs must hold hands with a substance called carnitine before they can enter the mitochondria.
- MCTs do not get transported to a variety of tissues — and are not stored as body fat, unlike LCTs.
- MCTs increase our metabolism and provide energy bursts that are particularly helpful to athletes.
It’s like LCTs take the long, scenic route, with some stopping to hang out and stay awhile enjoying the views, and MCTs are on a bullet express train to the liver with an all-access pass.
Where Do MCTs Come From?
MCTs are mostly made from coconut and palm oil. You’ll also find MCTs in breastmilk and full-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt. Dietary supplements can contain MCTs in the form of powders or pills.
What Do MCTs Have to Do with Ketosis?
So now we know why we want to get our bodies into a state of ketosis and why we want more MCTs in our diet. In short, MCTs help us get there a lot faster. MCTs can produce more ketones than fat from LCTs. In other words, MCTs are a more efficient way to produce energy compared to LCTs and glucose.
Are MCTs Good for Athletic Performance?
A variety of studies are finding that MCTs can be beneficial for improving athletic performance. During intense physical activity, when your body needs a lot of energy fast, MCTs provide quick, clean energy and your body relies less on glucose for fuel.
What About MCT Supplements?
Adding high amounts of MCTs to your diet can cause gastrointestinal distress such as vomiting and diarrhea, the last thing you want before or during an intense workout, run, ride or swim. You can gradually acclimate your body to MCTs by using supplements.
You can find high-quality MCT supplements that contain MCT oil, usually in powder or liquid form that can be mixed with water or other beverages. Many find powder MCT supplements easier to digest than MCTs from oils and foods such as dairy and coconut oil.
Some MCT supplements contain BHB, which if you remember is one of the ketone forms. BHB fuels your brain and muscles, so taking an MCT with BHB (usually in the form of salts) can help increase mental and physical performance. BHBs can also help reduce feelings of hunger and the flu-like symptoms sometimes caused by low-carb diets.
MCTs, especially if you already follow a keto diet, provide a multitude of benefits to your body and your brain. In addition to fast, clean energy, studies are finding that MCTs can better regulate blood glucose, increase mental focus, reduce the risk of some diseases and reduce inflammation. Adding an MCT supplement to your diet may help you achieve your health and fitness goals faster and easier.