Coconut – Magic Healer or Major Hype?

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Once shunned due to its high saturated fat content, coconut has been regaining favor recently. There was a New York Times article on coconut oil last year, and it has been embraced by vegans and followers of the Paleolithic (caveman) diet alike. According to the Coconut Research Center, coconut fruit and its variety of products can heal or prevent a slew of medical conditions. So can coconut really be this awesome super food or is it all hype?

Coconut Water is the clear liquid extracted from green, or very young, coconuts. This is not to be confused with coconut milk, which is richer and higher in fat and comes from more mature coconuts. Coconut water has gained popularity as brands like Zico and VitaCoco promote their products as a natural sports drink.

The Research In the past decade there have been several small studies comparing the effect of coconut water, pure water, and sports drink on measures of rehydration in athletes. In all three studies (Saat et al 2002, Ismail et al 2007, and Kalman et al 2012) coconut water and sports drinks performed better than plain water, but coconut water was found to be no more or less effective at replacing lost fluid and electrolytes than standard sports drinks. In two studies participants who drank coconut water reported less nausea and stomach distress and in the other study the coconut water group reported more nausea and stomach upset. All three studies were small and studied only healthy, athletic men.

My Advice  Although the research is limited, it does show that coconut water can in fact be an effective and more natural alternative to sports drinks. When compared to Gatorade, it is relatively similar in calories and carbohydrate but is higher in potassium and lower in sodium. While this makes it a good source of potassium – which helps the body maintain proper functioning of the heart, kidneys, nerves, muscles, and digestive system – when sweating you actually lose more sodium than potassium. As I’ve said before, when it comes to hydration unless you are exercising in extreme heat or at high intensity for over 60-90 minutes, it is unlikely you will need anything more than water to rehydrate. However, if you are doing a long workout, coconut water as well as sports drinks, dried fruit, or other “energy gels” will provide the carbohydrates and electrolytes you need. If you choose coconut water, add a little extra sodium to foods to replace what you lose. Finding what works for you is trial and error, so experiment with both and see which one you tolerate best with the least GI distress or nausea.

Coconut Oil is pressed from the fruit part of a mature coconut. Once given a bad wrap because it is a saturated fat (the type of fat known to raise cholesterol levels), some are now saying it is actually good for you. Internet and literature sources claim it is a powerful medicine that can lower cholesterol, boost energy, improve digestion, protect against osteoporosis, promote weight loss, prevent liver disease, and support thyroid function, among many others.

Coconut oil contains a different type of fat than most other saturated fats like meat or dairy. Most other fats are made up of long chain fatty acids, but coconut oil has medium chain fatty acids (or MCT for medium chain triglycerides), which are shorter and more easily metabolized by the body. Another benefit of coconut oil is its heat stability. This means it has a longer shelf life and is good for frying/sautéing because it goes rancid less quickly than other oils.

The Research According to the Natural Medicines Database, there is not enough evidence to evaluate the effect of coconut oil on weight loss, hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), diabetes, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or thyroid conditions. It has been claimed that MCTs can boost your metabolism, but while some animal studies have shown weight loss when substituting MCT for LCT fats, this hasn’t been shown in human studies.  Evidence suggests that coconut oil can lower, raise, or have no effect on total cholesterol levels, depending on the person. However it does not raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”) but instead raises HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”) thus making it potentially beneficial for heart health.

My Advice Coconut can be good for you, but it doesn’t mean you need to throw away your olive oil. Coconut oil can improve cholesterol levels, is good for certain types of cooking, and does not appear to have any major negative effects on human health when consumed in moderation. However other oils like olive and walnut also have health benefits. Based on the evidence, coconut is not the miracle food some claim it is, but it can be a healthy part of your diet and I would recommend using it in moderate amounts. It is also important to note that there are two types of coconut oil: hydrogenated and virgin. Hydrogenated coconut oil contains trans fats and should be avoided, whereas virgin coconut oil does not. If you use coconut oil, be sure to buy virgin coconut oil.

To Wrap it Up

  • Coconut water can be an alternative to sports drinks for some people, but others may experience nausea or GI discomfort. In most cases, when you are exercising less than 60-90 minutes, you won’t need a sports drink (or coconut water) if you drink water and eat a good post workout meal or snack containing sodium and potassium.
  • Coconut oil can improve cholesterol numbers and is better than other oils for certain types of cooking, but further health claims can’t be validated by research at this time.
  • Coconut products can add some variety to your fat intake and add a different flavor to your foods. Add them to your diet in moderation.

 

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