Are Coconuts a Health Food?

By: Amy Harris MS, RN, CNM 

Confused by all of the chatter about the health benefits or risks of coconut?  Me too!  Is coconut a true “health food” or another marketing diet food scam? 

What IS the difference between coconut water, coconut oil and coconut milk? From a health view point, it really matters what type of coconut product you are thinking about using in your recipes, eating and drinking.  Read on for the details.

Coconut water

Coconut water

This is the water from inside a green, unripe coconut.  It is fat-free and cholesterol-free. Coconut water also contains more potassium than 4 bananas, which is an electrolyte that helps your muscles work correctly and helps with controlling blood pressure as well.   Since it has a lot of potassium, it can be a good source to drink, along with water  It does contain  sugar, but there is less sugar in each serving of coconut water than in other sports drinks.  It is "healthier" for you than a sports drink because it has fewer calories, less sodium and more potassium than most sports drinks (like Gatorade).

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat (higher percentage than butter, beef fat, or lard).  Too much saturated fat is bad for heart and blood health because it can raise LDL cholesterol (the "bad" type).  High amounts of “bad” cholesterol can damage the arteries and the heart, which can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, and many other diseases. BUT coconut oil also gives "good" cholesterol (HDL) a boost. “Good” cholesterol removes some of the bad cholesterol and can help keep your heart and arteries healthy. It is also a plant-based oil which contains antioxidants which can be beneficial to health (butter, lard, and beef fat do not).  From what I read, it seems that these HDL-raising effects of coconut oil make it a slightly better choice for cooking from a health-perspective than butter, beef fat or lard. Still though, there are other, healthier oils available which could help to reduce the risk of heart disease (canola, corn, safflower, olive).

Coconut milkCoconut milk

Coconut mild is made from a brew of coconut meat and water.  Per cup, the full-fat variety of coconut milk contains 445 calories and 48 grams of fat (43 of which are saturated).  By using low-fat coconut milk, you can cut about 2/3 of that fat and calories. Therefore, low-fat coconut milk can be okay when used in moderation (1-2 times/week).  It is lactose-free, so is a good substitute for those trying to avoid lactose.  Remember to look at the sugar content in the sweetened varieties.

Here is a link from the BBC which includes some yummy-sounding recipes for coconut milk at the bottom if you were looking for ways to incorporate coconut milk into your lifestyle and diet:

 

If you would like more information on this, or any other health related topic, the health educators at the Learning Resource Center are happy to help. They provide trusted & reliable health information and connect people to local resources in the community. Connect with a health educator today! Be well, be well informed.

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