If you have read any “health” related periodicals or perused the aisles of Whole Foods recently, you may have noticed that coconut is getting a lot of attention lately, primarily coconut water and coconut oil. So what is the deal? Is it all hype, or is coconut actually a healthy food that we should be consuming more of? Let’s take a deeper look at the claims and the science to get a better idea, so that you can be an informed consumer and decide for yourself.
Coconut water is not the “milk” used in pina coladas and Thai food, but rather the actual clear watery fluid found in the middle of the hollow coconut, beneath the meaty part we are used to eating. There have been many articles written in recent years about the benefits of coconut water. Claims have included everything from an anti-aging tonic, to a chronic pain reliever. You can find bottled coconut water in the store, but it costs a bloody fortune. So, is it worth shelling out $10 for 2 cups of coconut water? Hmmmm, probably not.
One thing that coconut water definitely does have going for it is the fact that its electrolyte composition is very close to that of the human body. So it is a wonderful rehydration beverage. Electrolytes are vital minerals that our bodies need (in specific amounts) in order to carry out the numerous metabolic reactions that occur in the body. Electrolytes are also lost in sweat. That’s what makes your sweat salty! Typically one does not need to hydrate with anything other than water to replenish fluid loss from exercise lasting less than one hour. After one hour, an electrolyte replacement is recommended and coconut water would be a great, natural one. Isn’t it interesting that it is in tropical regions where these coconut palms grow prolifically – the same regions where locals who are exposed to hot weather, combined with hard work would really benefit from such a tonic. However, most of them are unaware of the electrolyte properties of coconut water, they just drink it because that is what is cheap and available.
When I visited El Salvador several years ago, you could find a pick up truck filled with coconuts and a man sitting on the tailgate with a machete, in nearly every town square. He’d be carving up these coconuts and serving up the pulp (or meat) and water to locals and tourists alike… FOR ONE DOLLAR! To them, the coconuts are just part of the local food landscape, not unlike pupusas, tortillas and beans.
BOTTOM LINE: If you find yourself exerting a lot of physical effort over an extended period of time, in a tropical country where coconut water is readily available and affordable, then coconut water a great choice for electrolyte replacement and hydration.
I recently had a conversation with a woman about coconut oil. She was talking about how wonderful it was and how she consumed it just about everyday. When I asked if she was concerned about the fact that it is 92% saturated fat (the kind that clogs up your arteries), she responded, “Oh, but it’s a healthy saturated fat, because of the medium chain fatty acids.” What!? A “healthy” saturated fat! It was at this point I decided to get to the bottom of this whole coconut oil thing and see where hype ends and truth begins.
Coconut oil is one of the few vegetable/fruit oils that is a saturated fat; meaning that it is solid at room temperature, like butter or lard. Coconut oil also has a very high smoke point (meaning you can cook with it a higher temperatures without burning), and is more resistant to rancidity than other oils. Remember, saturated fat is the one that is responsible for clogging up our arteries and leading to obesity and heart disease. All fats contain 9 Calories per gram, as opposed to carbohydrates and protein which contain only 4 Calories per gram. One Tablespoon of coconut oil has over 100 Calories. That’s over twice as many calories per bite without any fiber filling you up and making you feeling full!
So, coconut oil is very high in calories, but is it high in nutrients? The short answer is no. Coconut oil contains no carbohydrates for brain function and energy, protein for growth and muscle development, fiber, essential fats, vitamins or minerals. So when you add coconut oil (or any oils for that matter) to your food, you are adding flavor, and a LOT of calories without any real nutrients.
What about these medium chain fatty acids mentioned by the woman in the conversation I discussed earlier? Well, it turns out that yes, a small amount of the fatty acids in coconut oil are medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Some research has shown that these MCFAs are oxidized more quickly and may be less fattening, however they only make up a very small amount of the total fat found in coconut oil.
One of the MCFAs found in coconut oil is lauric acid (the other is capric acid). Lauric acid has been found to have some antimicrobial properties, but again, only very small amounts of these fatty acids are found in coconut oil. While these antimicrobial properties may sound like a good thing to include in your diet, please keep in mind that the major diseases that are killing us today aren’t infections, parasites and the like, but rather a diet high in calories and low in the nutrients our bodies need to function properly and help us to avoid today’s most common killers like heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Studies have been published on the native Polynesian diet. Despite the fact that this diet is very high in coconut consumption, many of them had very low levels of cardiovascular disease. Now is that because of the coconut? These individuals also ate a lot of unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains and minimal animal products. They also had very high levels of physical activity, tended not to smoke, and the vast majority didn’t suffer from western diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity. These additional factors may have mitigated the negative influences of a diet higher in saturated fat.
BOTTOM LINE: If you are going to include coconut in your diet, please remember that the less refined, the better. Eating raw coconut meat (the white part) and water is best. If you are going to use coconut oil, try to stick with the unrefined, expeller-pressed virgin coconut oil. The more processed it is, the more unhealthy it becomes. Also remember that coconut is high in fat and calories, so if you start consuming more of it on a regular basis, don’t be surprised if your clothes start to feel a bit tighter.
To sum up what Dr. John McDougall once stated: Have you ever tried to open a coconut? Maybe nature designed it to be that difficult to open in an effort to slow us down in its consumption.