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MCT oil has become extremely bougie, with famous actors, physicians, health coaches and everyday people touting the health benefits. But what is MCT oil and how does it work in the body? With limited research in pregnancy, is it safe?
MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides. MCT is most famously extracted from coconuts, but it is also found in avocados, sesame seeds, and palm plants. Of these, though, coconut is the most popular. These fats fall into the category of healthy saturated fats. Studies have highlighted many of the benefits of MCT oil in a variety of health conditions, but few have highlighted the effects that supplemental doses of these oils have on pregnancy physiology.
MCT and Body Fat
One of the biggest benefits and claims to fame for MCT oil begins in the digestive system. MCT oil is converted to Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) in the gut. Because these dietary fats are absorbed quickly and lack the ability to be stored as fat, they are amazing producers of energy and promote weight loss...which is why they are popular supplements for athletes.
This sounds amazing, doesn't it? A high energy nutrient that doesn't put on body fat. But, maybe not during certain times of pregnancy.
You see, the body is amazing, and during pregnancy metabolism shifts to allow for things like FAT DEPOSITING. This is important for both maternal function and fetal development. We need body fat.
This is especially important in two phases of pregnancy.
First Trimester Metabolism
One of the coolest things happens in the first trimester. As HCG rises, so does the production of insulin. The idea, biologically, is to begin storing body fat to be used later in pregnancy (you may have heard me say before that in pregnancy we are preparing for preparing) when the metabolism shifts again. As well as fueling the formation of the placenta (it takes a lot of energy to grow organs).
This is one of the main reasons that mothers will CRAVE carbohydrates. They really do need an increase in natural sugars. No, this does not mean they need cupcakes and cookies for breakfast. This means whole grains, sweet potatoes, bananas, etc...to meet these needs.
Mother's need to have a little body fat gain the first trimester, it is crucial and important for the remainder of pregnancy.
It is possible that consuming considerable amounts of MCT that are known to reduce weight gain could, in theory, affect pregnancy function. But no study has been done directly associating MCT oil/Coconut oil consumption by trimester with changes in fetal growth/development or negative maternal outcomes.
Third Trimester MEtabolism
Part of the reason we see a building of body fat in the first trimester is to get a mother through the third trimester. In the first trimester she is metabolically anabolic (meaning she is taking smaller particles and turning them into larger particles for storage). In the third trimester her metabolism does a 180 and becomes catabolic. This means her body begins to breakdown stored nutrition (iron, sugars, proteins, etc...) for fuel as the demand for fetal development increases before delivery.
The placenta is amazing and does an incredible job of mediating the transport of nutrients from mother to baby. During this time, the placenta begins to produce insulin blocking chemicals. These chemicals block a portion of mom's insulin from bringing sugar into her own cells with the idea of bringing more sugar to the growing baby who now must put on body fat before birth. So, her own metabolism and energy production relies heavily on the breakdown of fats for energy production. The breakdown of fats produces ketones. These ketones also pass the placental barrier, and interesting in the third trimester there is no cap! The placenta allows a bit of a "free for all" flow of sugars and ketones to the baby.
This is where things get interesting. Studies on the effects of ketogenic diets in pregnancy are not promising. In fact, they show some disturbing trends. Glucose is the primary fuel source for the brain, the brain uses more sugar than any other cellular system (which is why too much, and too little can be a problem).
Studies on mice have shown that a ketogenic diet before and through pregnancy was associated first with larger fetuses in the first half of pregnancy followed by smaller and weaker fetuses in the second half of pregnancy with distorted organ development...specifically in the cardiovascular and brains and association with behavioral problems.
Back to MCT in Pregnancy
Supplementing with MCT oil in the morning is in no way the same as a full ketogenic diet. But it is often used to increase healthy fats. This isn't a bad thing, but moderation is key. Too much of a good thing can quickly turn into a bad thing.
The studies around MCT and coconut oil use in pregnancy are limited...seriously limited. Which is why it is hard to determine the pros and cons of using it supplemental in pregnancy.
There is some conflicting information.
But studies consistently show that mothers who consume higher MCT diets in the third trimester, and during breastfeeding have smaller babies and some show physical changes. (Animal studies) These studies have created enough of a concern than many organizations now have a warning on the use of coconut oil/concentrated MCT oil in pregnancy.
On a Positive Note
Everything I just wrote most likely made you think that I am anti-coconut oil in pregnancy. I'm not. There are so many wonderful things that coconut oil provides to a healthy pregnancy.
Coconut oil isn't just high in MCTs, but it also contains other phytonutrients and beneficial chemicals, such as lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted to monolaurin, which is known to be a potent anti-viral, antibacterial, and antifungal chemical.
It has also been shown to promote a healthy gut microbiome, balancing, and encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria.
I'm a firm believer of everything in moderation and everything has a place in the diet. Balance is key. Too little or too much of any nutrient (macro or micro) can have negative implications. I think with the limited research that is out there, and understanding the effects on metabolism, it is best to avoid the concentrated MCT oils and just go back to a coconut oil that provides a blend of nutrients.