Health Benefits of Coconut

Coconut: From Suspected Villain to Superfood Status

“Superfood” is a word that is thrown around a lot these days. From the ordinary (blueberries) to the exotic (mangosteen), there is something exciting about a superfood. A food that has an edge over others, a food with powerful health promoting benefits; a food so super that it is able to support health and vitality in a single bound. Coconut is such a food; one that contains unique nutrients that truly support health. Long vilified in conventional nutrition because of its saturated fat content, coconut has finally taken its rightful place as a true superfood, saturated fat and all.

Super Fats

Unlike much of the fat we eat, coconut oil is mostly made up of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) which are readily digested and easily metabolized by the body, and rather than being stored in fat cells they are burned for energy. More than half of the fats in coconut are MCFAs and nearly all of coconut’s health benefits come from these fats.

Antimicrobial

The MCFA lauric acid has strong antimicrobial properties, and once ingested, it is converted to monolaurin, another compound that exhibits significant antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. The MCFAs caprylic acid and capric acid are also converted to compounds in the body that exhibit antimicrobial properties. Interestingly, the MCFAs in coconut seem to work synergistically, making them stronger together than apart.[1]

Brain Support

The body can use MCFAs to produce ketones, which provide a high-energy fuel source for brain cells as an alternative to glucose. Ketones also support the healing and growth of brain cells. And ketones produced from MCFAs may actually reduce the plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and may benefit other neurological disorders such as ALA (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, and autism.[2]

Soothe the Gut

Because MCFAs are so efficiently absorbed and metabolized by the body, they have been used therapeutically since the 1950s for conditions of compromised digestion.[3] Unlike other types of fats, MCFAs are efficiently broken down by gastric acids and don’t require fat-digesting enzymes from the pancreas, putting less strain on the pancreas and digestive system. This is especially beneficial for the very young and the very old; those with digestive disorders; those who have difficulty digesting and absorbing fats and fat-soluble vitamins; or anyone who is weakened by a disease state or illness.[4]

Insulin sensitivity

MCFAs help to preserve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.[5] [6]

Energy

Because they are easily and preferentially utilized for energy in the body, MCFAs can improve energy production, in part by maintaining healthy mitochondrial function.[7] [8] They may also have the potential to improve energy metabolism in heart disease.[9]

Cancer

The MCFAs found in coconut are even being explored for their potential ability to inhibit tumor formation and as an alternative fuel source during cancer-starving ketogenic diets.[10] [11] [12] [13]

Metabolism

Because MCFAs are readily burned for energy, they can increase the body’s metabolic rate (thermogenic effect) and may contribute to weight loss. Some speculate that these benefits may be due to improved thyroid function.[14] [15]

Super Flour

A relatively new product on the coconut scene is coconut flour. Made from the dried and defatted coconut meat that is leftover after making coconut milk, coconut flour is very high in fiber, but low in digestible carbohydrate, making it a great option for those on low-carbohydrate diets or those who want to get more fiber in their diet. Just two tablespoons of coconut flour supplies five grams of fiber, with only three grams of digestible carbohydrate. Compare that to two tablespoons of whole wheat flour which supplies just under two grams of fiber but 10 grams of digestible carbohydrate. Coconut flour is also gluten free and grain-free. Generally speaking coconut flour can be substituted for up to 20 percent of the flour content in a recipe without much effort, but it should not be substituted one to one with other flours.

Super Hydration

Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is the slightly sweet, clear liquid found inside young green coconuts. It is packed with nutrients, especially the minerals potassium and magnesium. One cup of coconut water supplies almost twice as much potassium as a small banana. Potassium (along with sodium) is one of the main electrolytes lost from the body during sweating and one that should be replenished after bouts of heavy exercise. Coconut water has become a favorite replacement for artificially-colored and flavored sports drinks. Be aware that if you are sweating for prolonged periods of time (more than 90 minutes) you may also need to add sodium since coconut water is relatively low in this mineral.

Super Skin   

Once a secret of island women, coconut oil is now the go-to beauty trick of women everywhere, for everything from moisturizer to make-up remover to deodorant. Coconut oil is emollient and provides a protective layer to skin and hair, helping to lock in the moisture. It can be used in place of lotions and creams and as a conditioning treatment for the hair. Because of the high amount of antimicrobial MCFAs in coconut oil, it has also been used for wound healing and skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis.[16] [17]

Super Freedom

Anyone with food allergies or sensitivities knows how hard it can be to find suitable replacements for common cooking and baking ingredients. As it turns out coconut is a food allergy lifesaver! While it is certainly possible to be allergic or sensitive to coconut, it is typically considered hypoallergenic and can be enjoyed in gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, and nut-free eating. Try using coconut flour as part of a grain-free, gluten-free blend to replace regular flour in a breading for chicken or when grain-free baking. Use coconut milk in your morning coffee or in place of milk in soups. Coconut oil makes a great substitute for vegetable oils and shortening in all your favorite recipes. And although it has the word nut in the name coconut is not actually a tree nut (it’s technically a “drupe”) and can be used in all sorts of nut-free applications.

Coconut is a true superfood—one that has powerful health-promoting benefits and is at once versatile and delicious. And one of few foods that naturally contain a special class of saturated fats that are proven to benefit whole body health. Don’t you just love it when the suspected villain turns out to have been the good guy all along?

The Many Sides of Coconut

Coconut Oil

The richest food source of MCFAs, this oil is more stable, making it suitable for most of your cooking and baking needs. Look for unrefined or extra virgin.

Unsweetened Dried Coconut

Available in fine shreds or flakes this is simply dried coconut meat. It can be used in sweet and savory applications alike. A good source of MCTs and fiber.

Coconut Milk

Available in cans, this milk is can be used for making smoothies, added to coffee, in soups, stews and curries, and for making many dairy-free products such as ice cream, yogurt, and creamer. Be sure to choose full-fat for the most MCFAs.

Coconut Butter

Made by grinding the coconut meat into “butter.” It can be used in place of other nut-butters or is delicious eaten off the spoon! A good source of MCFAs and fiber.

Coconut Concentrate

Made from coconut meat that has been finely ground and pressed into blocks, it can be added to soups and sauces or to water to make coconut milk. It is also a good source of MCFAs and fiber.

Coconut Flour

A great high-fiber, low-carb option for grain-free/gluten-free baking. Different to work with than traditional flours, and tested recipes can be helpful to get the hang of using this non-traditional flour.

Coconut Water

The “juice” found inside young coconuts. Drink it straight or add it to smoothies.

Coconut Aminos

Made from the sap of coconut palm flowers, this is a great soy-free alternative to soy sauce.

Coconut Sugar

Made from the sap that drips from the coconut palm flowers, this granulated sweetener has a maple-like flavor and can be used one for one in recipes calling for white sugar.


References

[1] Batovska DL, Todorova IT, Tsvetkova IV, Majdenski HM. Antibacterial study of the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and their 1-Monoglycerides: Individual effects and synergistic relationships. Polish Journal of Microbiology. 2009;58(1):43-47.

[2] Pratt H. A new reason to love coconut, your brain will thank you! NGVC Health Hotline. October 2011.

[3] Calabrese C, Myer S, Munson S, Turet P, Birdsall TC. A cross-over study of the effect of a single oral feeding of medium chain triglyceride oil vs. canola oil on post-ingestion plasma triglyceride levels in healthy men. Altern Med Rev. 1999;4(1):23-28.

 [4] http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/article10612.htm

[5] Nagao K, Yanagita T. Medium-chain fatty acids: functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Pharmacol Res. 2010;61(3):208-212.

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2768163/

[7] St-Onge MP, Bourque C, Jones PJ, Ross R, Parsons WE. Medium-versus long-chain triglycerides for 27 days increases fat oxidation and energy expenditure without resulting in changes in body composition in overweight women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003;27(1):95-102.

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23703093

[9] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18253821

[10] Cohen LA, Thompson DO. The influence of dietary medium chain triglycerides on rat mammary tumor development. Lipids. 1987;22(6):455-61.

[11] Kimoto Y, Tanji Y, Taguchi T, Sugimoto T, Watanabe T, Tsukamoto F, et al. Antitumor effect of medium-chain triglyceride and its influence on the self-defense system of the body. Cancer Detect Prev. 1998;2(3):219-24.

[12] Nebeling LC, Lerner E. Implementing a ketogenic diet based on medium-chain triglyceride oil in pediatric patients with cancer. J Am Diet Associ. 1995;95(6):693-7.

[13] Stafford P, Abdelwahab MG, Kim do Y. Preul MC, Rho JM, Scheck AC. The ketogenenic diet reverses gene expression patterns and reduces reactive oxygen species levels when used as an adjuvant therapy for glioma. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:74.

[14] Enig M, Fallon S. Eat Fat, Lose Fat. New York, NY: Plume; 2005.

[15] http://jn.nutrition.org/content/132/3/329.full

[16] Verrallo-Rowell VM, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut  and virgin olive oil in adult atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis. 2008;19(6):308-315.

[17] Nevin KG, Rajamohan T. Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin Pharmocol Physiol. 2010;23: 290-297.