Most people have very strong opinions about coconut. They either love it or absolutely hate it. But regardless of how you feel, research is showing that coconut may have some pretty impressive health benefits.
Coconut is sort of a mix between a nut and a fruit. It is actually classified as a “drupe”—a fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a pit with a seed inside. Other well-known drupes include mangoes, olives, apricots, peaches, and cherries.
Thanks to the evolution of paleo dieting, coconuts have gained a great deal of popularity over the past several years. Paleo emphasizes low carbohydrate consumption (particularly refined carbs) and the avoidance of dairy, sugar, and grains. It also stresses higher intake of protein and fat.
It just so happens that coconut is very low in carbohydrates and a rich source of fat and other nutrients such as amino acids, potassium, magnesium, riboflavin and vitamin C, to name a few. But perhaps more importantly for the strict paleo dieter or health-conscious individual, many paleo-friendly products can be sourced or produced from coconut, including:
- Coconut water, which is often used as a natural sports drink (in place of high-sugar options such as Gatorade) because it quickly replenishes electrolytes such as potassium;
- Milk, a tasty dairy alternative created by blending together the water and meat from a coconut;
- Oil, which is extracted from the meat and is a heart-healthier alternative to vegetable, corn, and other pro-inflammatory omega-6-rich cooking oils;
- Butter, which is made from finely pureed whole coconut meat and can be used instead of regular butter in cooking and baking; and
- Flour, which can replace wheat- or other grain-based flours in baking. Coconut flour also has a low glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t raise blood sugar dramatically like other types of refined flours do.
The Key to Coconut’s Benefits
There’s one major elephant in the room when it comes to coconut: It contains a lot of fat—and up to 90 percent of it is saturated.
Many people still believe that all fats, but particularly saturated, equate to weight gain and heart problems. As I have documented in an earlier e-letter, most of the existing science no longer supports this notion. And when it comes to coconuts, the fat may actually contribute to its health benefits. Here’s why…
All fats are composed of fatty acids, which can be classified in two ways—saturation (saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated), or length of the carbon chain (short-chain, medium-chain, or long-chain). Short-chain fatty acids have fewer than 6 carbon chains; medium-chain have 6-12; long-chain have 13-21.
The vast majority of the fats we eat are of the short- or long-chain variety (present mainly in animal products and oils). The fat in coconut, however, is medium-chain, the predominant one being lauric acid. It’s the lauric acid in coconut that may give it its important health advantages. This is because:
1) Your body converts lauric acid to monolaurin. This compound, which is naturally present in breast milk, strengthens immunity and promotes normal brain development.
2) Lauric acid has been shown to raise levels of beneficial, protective HDL cholesterol and may reduce harmful LDL cholesterol.
In one study of 40 obese women who received either two teaspoons of soybean oil or two teaspoons of coconut oil every day for 12 weeks, those who took the coconut oil not only lost abdominal fat but increased their HDL levels, for improved LDL/HDL ratios.
Preliminary animal studies indicate that coconut oil may also reduce levels of harmful LDL cholesterol.
3) Other research reveals that medium chain fatty acids can aid in weight loss. Specifically, replacing long-chain triglycerides with medium-chain triglycerides enhances thermogenesis—the heat production needed to metabolize food. This extra energy expenditure can contribute to greater fat burn.
4) Finally, coconut also has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties.
The Latest Superfood?
Given this research, some have classified coconut as the latest “superfood.” I’m not sure I’d go that far just yet, but I am convinced that it can be a healthy addition to your diet…if you keep a few things in mind.
First, because it is a significant source of fat, coconut meat, milk, oil, and butter is high in calories. (The water, while not calorie-free, is better, with about 45 calories per cup for the unsweetened varieties.) So while adding a modest amount of coconut products to your diet can be a positive move, including too much can have a negative impact on your weight. Like all things in life, moderation is key, and coconut is no exception to that rule.
Second, coconut may upset the digestive tracts of certain sensitive individuals. It contains lectins, proteins that bind to cell membranes and may irritate the lining of the gut. Coconut is also high in salicylates, compounds found in many plants that help protect them against diseases, insects, fungi, and other infections. If you find that you have digestive discomfort after consuming coconut or a coconut-based product, then avoid it.