What is the obsession with coconuts? This “superfood” hit the mainstream food market in big way a few years ago and has stuck around quite successfully. The products are endless (water, oil, milk, juice, sugar, flour) and each one touts a dense nutritional content of antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals…but is it too good to be true?
The health claims of coconuts are endless, with all of the following benefits marketed:
High in vitamins
High in minerals
High in fiber
Healthy saturated fat content
Anti viral and anti fungal properties
Saturated Fat and Digestion
One of the more controversial claims surrounding coconut products, particularly the products that are made from coconut meat (like coconut oil) is the “healthy fat” claim. As we reviewed in our article “Fat: Our New Friend,” new research indicates that consumption of healthy fats can help increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL), aka good cholesterol, which helps your body regulate overall cholesterol levels and possibly lower your LDL cholesterol levels. According to Harvard Medical School, coconut oil gives your body a good HDL cholesterol boost, which can actually help improve overall blood cholesterol levels.
But, before we hop on the coconut bandwagon, the D2D team wanted to make sure that these health claims are substantiated by scientific research. While we found many small, short term studies that indicated coconuts are a healthy addition to your diet, there is still a significant need for long term research and human trials to conclude that coconuts can provide these health benefits over time.
A very small study published in 2003 by the Journal of Nutrition followed 11 women over a 20-22 day period and studied the affects of high-fat versus low-fat coconut oil consumption. The research found that the women who consumed high fat coconut oil demonstrated the biggest reduction in inflammation markers as well as markers for heart disease risk. (And as we discussed in “Are You Inflamed?”, chronic inflammation negatively affects overall body health.)
As with all fats, the important thing to remember is overconsumption can cause cholesterol to rise—even if you are overconsuming healthy fats! Every individual is different and if you are prone to high levels of cholesterol, consuming healthy saturated fat can cause an increase in your LDL cholesterol, which is something you want to avoid. Additionally, definitive research on the health content of coconut oil only exists in the short term, so there is no certainty over how the high fat content of coconut oil affects heart disease or long term heart health.
Although the healthy fat composition of MCT fatty acids* has been confirmed, coconut meat and oil should be consumed or used in moderation. Simply adding fat to your diet can cause an increase in your overall caloric intake, which would cause you to gain weight. It is important to examine your diet as a whole and see if you need the additional fat content before adding it to your routine. But, if you are replacing coconut fat with the saturated fat from butter, for example, it is possible that your LDL cholesterol will begin to decrease because coconut oil is easier for your body to digest.
*MCT fatty acids are not digested in the same manner as traditional saturated fats. Instead of entering your digestive system, being processed, and either being metabolized or stored as fat, MCT fatty acids are digested more easily, processed by your liver, and can be more efficiently used for energy. To put this into perspective, 1 tablespoon of coconut oil contains approximately 11 grams of saturated fat, with roughly 7 of those grams being MCTs, whereas 1 tablespoon of butter provides only 1 gram of MCTs per approximately 7 grams of saturated fat. Thus, coconut oil is easier to digest. Keep in mind, according to the American Heart Association, if you adhere to a 2,000 calorie per day diet, you should be consuming no more than 16 grams of saturated fat per day.
Anti-fungal and Anti-bacterial
Antioxidant, Electrolytes, Vitamins and Minerals…oh my!
One of the biggest health benefits and one of the biggest reasons to drink coconut water or coconut milk is the vitamin and mineral profile. Coconut water is the water found inside a young coconut whereas coconut milk is made from grated coconut meat. Coconuts are particularly high in B vitamins, like B6, B2 (riboflavin), and B1 (thiamine). B vitamins are a good source of energy and can give your body a quick pick me up. Coconut meat is also high in vitamin C, which helps the immune system stay healthy. Vitamin C consumption is especially important during cold and flu season. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant and helps aid digestion.
In addition to a rich vitamin complex, coconuts have a dense mineral content. These minerals include, potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorous, manganese, iron, and calcium. Of these minerals, potassium, calcium, sodium, phosphorous, and magnesium are electrolytes. These positive ions help your body stay hydrated.
Coconut provides significantly higher electrolytes compared to the average sports drink. For example, let’s look at Gatorade versus the average serving of coconut water…
One serving of “Thirst Quencher” Gatorade Vs. One serving of pure coconut water:
o Potassium: 40mg Vs. 600mg
o Magnesium: 0 mg Vs. 60mg
o Phosphorus: 5mg Vs. 48mg
o Sodium: 250mg Vs. 252 mg
o Calcium: <5mg Vs. 57 mg
Coconut water contains five important electrolytes:
Potassium: regulates heartbeat and muscle function.
Sodium: easily depleted with exercise.
Magnesium: helps maintain healthy cells, aids muscle function, and prevents calcium buildup.
Phosphorus: supports bone health, and helps your body transfer energy.
Calcium: important for bone health.
These minerals may also be good for your blood pressure as high potassium content can balance some of the negative effects of sodium. A 2005 study published by the West Indian Medical Journal found that 71% of participants that were given coconut water experienced a decrease in blood pressure.
Lastly, coconuts are believed to have a strong antioxidant component. But, as we learned in our recent article on chocolate, antioxidant content is very complex. Unfortunately, there is very little research that proves the effects of antioxidants in the human body. However, in a 2007 study performed over a 45 day period on rats, researchers at the University of Kerala found that animals fed virgin coconut oil had higher antioxidant vitamin levels at the end of the study than the animals fed sunflower oil or copra oil (which is oil from more mature coconuts). Additionally, a 2013 study conducted in Brazil determined green dwarf coconuts exhibited antioxidant properties.
There are many health benefits associated with the consumption of coconut. However, when incorporating coconut into your diet, there are a few things to keep in mind if you are buying processed products…
These various health claims are often associated with different coconut products. Coconut meat is high in fat, dietary fiber, and minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, and phosphorous. Coconut water, on the other hand, contains the same minerals as well as amino acids, electrolytes, and B-complex vitamins.
Be sure to stick to the raw, unrefined options. Unprocessed coconuts (both juice and meat) will provide a host of nutritional benefits, however you also want to follow the serving size! For example, one serving of coconut water (8 ounces) provides provides roughly 14 grams of sugar. As we have discussed in “Sugar is Sugar”, that is roughly half of the added sugar recommended per day.
Processed coconut products are what you need to be particularly mindful of. One cup of store-bought coconut milk, for example, provides 57 grams of fat (51 of those being saturated fat) and 522 calories. That is 255% of the recommended daily value of saturated fat. However, the sugar content is less in coconut milk than in coconut water, with roughly 8 grams in a serving.
Of course there will often be overlap as consumer products are being made with the same base ingredient: raw coconut. If you are consuming coconut products regularly, you might not be getting all of the aforementioned health benefits and you should be sure to check the nutrition panel to confirm the percent of daily value for these components.
When buying coconut products, be sure to look for unrefined (or virgin) products, as they are made with the freshest coconuts and typically contain the most nutrients. It is also important to look out for products that have a fair trade certification, which ensures that the coconuts are grown sustainably.
The Bottom Line:
The health benefits reliably associated with the consumption of coconut are the vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. When incorporating coconut into your diet, you want to make sure the products are unrefined. These nutritional benefits can also come with a high sugar and fat content. Therefore, coconuts should be consumed in moderation! Be aware of the sugar and fat content you already have in your diet before adding coconut to your routine.
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