I rarely question any food that much of the world has been using for thousands of years. Eventually, science confirms the health benefits of foods and medicines of traditional cultures, and I believe that holds true for coconut. However, a food that is used liberally in one culture does not necessarily mean that the health benefits transfer to other cultures—we must take into consideration climate, other dietary factors, genetics, and lifestyle.
Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) grows near the equator, and is a staple for people who live in areas that are hot and sunny all year round. All parts of the coconut tree are used in the daily life of people in traditional coconut growing areas, and the coconut itself (which is actually a fruit, nut, and seed) is especially valued for its nutritional and medicinal benefits. Coconuts offer coconut water, coconut flesh, coconut milk, and coconut oil produced from the kernel. The shell, husk, and leaves are also used for creating a variety of household and decorative items.
As beneficial as coconuts and coconut oil appear to be for people living in a hot, tropical climate, coconut is not appropriate as a dietary staple for someone living in a cold climate. Coconut oil is 92 percent saturated, and is liquid in the tropics but a solid fat in northern climes. (There’s a botanical reason—the increased saturation of the oil helps to maintain stiffness in the plant leaves. Foods in different climate zones have different fatty acid profiles to help them adapt and thrive.) Because coconut oil is so highly saturated, it is very stable in hot weather and when used for cooking at higher temperatures, unlike polyunsaturated fats, which oxidize at high temperatures.
I do not recommend heavy use of coconut oil or other coconut foods for daily use or as a “health supplement”, unless you live in the tropics and adopt the traditional lifestyle of the cultures that live there. Nature is our best teacher, and the healthiest approach is to eat foods that grow in our climate because those best meet our needs. At the same time, I believe that it is beneficial to vary our diets according to the season, as well as eating in accordance with our genetic heritage, locale, and climate. For example, I recommend coconut in the summer, and walnuts in the fall—but always, I advise moderation.
Why is Coconut Controversial?
Much of the confusion and negative press about coconut relates to its saturated fat content. It’s true that coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fats—almost 90 percent of its fatty acids are saturated. But as I have stated on many occasions, it is refined oxidative polyunsaturated trans-fats that are problematic, not saturated fats.
In the 1950’s, coconut oil was frequently used in America for frying and baking. It was excellent for both purposes (and highly stable), but the popularity of coconut oil came to a sudden halt when studies reported that saturated fats cause high triglyceride levels. The conclusion was that saturated fats raise cholesterol levels, and the U.S. Government adopted new dietary guidelines stating that all saturated fats, including coconut oil, contribute to heart disease and strongly recommended that these fats be avoided.
Unfortunately, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings took the place of coconut oil, with disastrous health effects that have come to light in recent years. The trans fats contained in partially hydrogenated fats have been clearly linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases, and the government now recommends that we avoid trans fats—a recommendation that I wholeheartedly agree with.
It’s important to note that the type of saturated fat contained in coconut oil is different from that found in meat or dairy products. Whereas most saturated fats are comprised of long-chain fatty acids, coconut oil is unusually rich in short and medium chain fatty acids. Shorter chain length allows fatty acids to be metabolized without use of the carnitine transport system. This means the fatty acids in coconut go directly to the liver, where they are used as an immediate source of energy, or are transformed into ketones, which may be beneficial in brain and nervous system disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Additional Health Benefits of Coconut
The coconut kernel and young coconut water have numerous medicinal properties, including antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, antidermatophytic, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, hepatoprotective, and immunostimulant. Coconut water and coconut kernel also contain numerous health supportive microminerals and nutrients. For these reasons, in Indian classics, the coconut palm is referred to as ‘Kalpavriksha’ (the all giving tree).1
Studies show that coconut has antioxidant properties; reduces inflammation; protects liver function during chemotherapy; and in certain forms, even improves lipid profiles (despite its high saturated fat content).
Drinking fresh coconut milk, particularly from the young green coconut, is an excellent way to prevent both dysentery and dehydration when traveling in tropical countries.
The health benefits of coconut are substantial. However, as with most things, I believe in practicing moderation when consuming coconut milk, coconut oil, and other coconut products.
I use (and recommend) extra virgin olive oil for low to medium heat cooking and for salad dressing. For high heat cooking, and often for baking, I use coconut oil. In my morning smoothies, I add 1-2 ounces of coconut milk or coconut milk powder, and coconut water. I occasionally use high-oleic sunflower oil in cooking if a light, neutral flavor is most appropriate.
Recent Published Scientific Studies Supporting the Health Benefits of Coconut
- Antioxidant and Stress Protective Properties of Coconut Oil
Medium-chain fatty acids have been shown to have antidepressant effects. However, this effect had not been studied in virgin coconut oil (VCO), which is rich in polyphenols and medium-chain fatty acids. In a 2015 study, researchers found that laboratory mice treated with VCO exhibited higher levels of brain antioxidants and reduced physiological stress (measured by serum cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and corticosterone levels) when subjected to a forced swim test and cold temperatures. The results suggest the potential value of VCO as an antistress functional oil.2
- VirginCoconut OilProtects Against Chemotherapy (Methotrexate)-Induced Liver Damage
Methotrexate (MTX) is a chemotherapy drug used to treat cancer of the breast, skin, head and neck, or lung. It is also used to treat severe psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The drug can cause life-threatening side effects, including liver damage. In a laboratory study, researchers found that supplementing with virgin coconut oil (VCO) prior to methotrexate administration lessened liver injury and oxidative stress, evidenced by significant improvements in serum liver markers, hepatic antioxidant enzymes and malondialdehyde, a lipid peroxidation marker. The researchers suggest that the findings may have beneficial application in the management of hepatotoxicity associated with MTX cancer therapy.3
- Coconut Oil: Body Composition, Lipids, and Inflammatory Markers in Postmenopausal Women
A number of studies indicate that including coconut oil in the diet can alter body composition in a beneficial way, helping people lose weight and particularly, aiding in reducing abdominal fat.
Researchers studied postmenopausal women who consumed either 30 mL of virgin coconut oil (VCO) or safflower oil (SO) to determine the effects on blood lipids. They found that although VCO raised total cholesterol, it also increased protective high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL). The researchers concluded that women who wish to use coconut oil in their diets can do so safely.4
- Coconut Oil and Cardiovascular Health
Coconut oil has been heavily promoted in the popular press as being beneficial for cardiovascular health. The results of this scientific review support my assertion that the most healthful way to use coconut is in moderation.
Twenty-one research papers were identified for inclusion in the review: 8 clinical trials and 13 observational studies. The majority examined the effect of coconut oil or coconut products on serum lipid profiles. Coconut oil generally raised total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol to a greater extent than cis unsaturated plant oils, but to a lesser extent than butter. The effect of coconut consumption on the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol was often not examined.
Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet. Overall, the weight of the evidence from intervention studies to date suggests that replacing coconut oil with unsaturated fats would alter blood lipid profiles in a manner consistent with a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease.5
- Coconut Flakes Improve Lipid Profiles
In contrast to coconut oil, coconut flakes have been shown to improve serum cholesterol levels. In a clinical study, researchers investigated the effects of coconut flakes on 21 subjects with moderately raised serum cholesterol (ranging from 259 to 283 mg/dL).
Researchers tested corn flakes as the control food, oat bran flakes as the reference food, and corn flakes containing 15% and 25% dietary fiber made from coconut flakes. Results showed a significant reduction in serum total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol for all test foods, with the exception of corn flakes.
Serum triglycerides were significantly reduced for all test foods.
Coconut flour is a good source of both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber, and both types of fiber may have an important role in the reduction of serum cholesterol.6
- Coconut Oil and Alzheimer’s Disease
Medium chain triglycerides are a direct source of cellular energy, and some studies indicate that coconut oil can be a nonpharmacological alternative to the neuronal death that occurs in Alzheimer patients.
In a recent study, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of coconut oil in the development of Alzheimer’s dementia. Participants were given 40/ml day of extra virgin coconut oil, and results were evaluated using cognitive testing and compared to a control group. The findings indicated that subjects taking the coconut oil showed an improvement in cognitive status. Those benefiting the most were women, those without type-2 diabetes, and those with more severe disease.7
~Two of My Favorite Recipes Using Coconut~
Coconut-Lime Broiled Tempeh
I created this recipe several years ago, and our family enjoys it at least a couple of times a month. Toasted sesame oil adds a rich, nutty flavor, while coconut oil, lime, and cilantro add and Indonesian flair to the dish. This is delicious served over steamed brown basmati or black rice. Serves 4.
- Juice from 2 limes, freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp. fresh grated lime peel
- 2 tbsp. toasted sesame seed oil
- 2 tbsp. coconut oil
- 1-2 tbsp. tamari
- 2-3 minced cloves garlic
- 1-2 tbsp. fresh sliced ginger
- 1 tbsp. maple syrup
- Dash of ground pepper (black and/or crushed red pepper)
- Optional: 1-2 tsp. Za’atar, 1 tsp. dried cumin powder
- 1 12-ounce package tempeh
- 3 medium zucchini, sliced
- 2 cups shitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 red pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 large sliced onion
- 1 sliced carrot
- Garnish: fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Additional Seasoning Added at End of Baking Time:
- 2-4 oz coconut milk
- 1-2 tsp. red curry paste
- Combine all ingredients (through tempeh) in a glass baking dish, cover, and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
- When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Transfer tempeh, vegetables, and sauce to heavy broiling pan. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes.
- Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. At end of baking time, add coconut milk and curry paste and finish by broiling for 10 minutes.
- Serve over black or brown rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.
Easy Coconut Whipped Cream
An easy, dairy-free alternative to traditional whipped cream! Author: Detoxinista.com
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk, chilled (cream only)
- 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Chill the can of coconut milk in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
- Chill a pint glass canning jar for at least 10 minutes in the freezer. Remove the chilled can of coconut milk from the refrigerator.
- Open the can of coconut milk and scoop the thickened cream into the chilled canning jar. Reserve the remaining coconut liquid for a smoothie.
- Add the pure maple syrup and vanilla extract to the heavy coconut cream, then screw the lid onto the canning jar. Shake vigorously for 3-5 minutes, until the cream is thickened and fluffy in texture.
- Serve immediately over your favorite fruit or dessert.
- DebMandal M1, Mandal S. Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): in healthpromotion and disease prevention. Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2011 Mar;4(3):241-7. doi: 10.1016/S1995-7645(11)60078-3. Epub 2011 Apr 12.
- Swee Keong Yeap, Boon Kee Beh, Norlaily Mohd Ali, etc. Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo, Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine. 2015 9: 39-42.
- Famurewa AC, Ufebe OG, Egedigwe CA, et al. Virgin coconut oilsupplementation attenuates acute chemotherapy hepatotoxicity induced by anticancer drug methotrexate via inhibition of oxidative stress in rats. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017 Mar;87:437-442. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2016.12.123. Epub 2017 Jan 6.
- Harris M, Hutchins A, Fryda L. The Impact of Virgin Coconut Oiland High-Oleic Safflower Oil on Body Composition, Lipids, and Inflammatory Markers in Postmenopausal Women. J Med Food. 2017 Apr;20(4):345-351. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2016.0114. Epub 2017 Mar 9.
- Eyres L, Eyres M, Chisholm A, Brown R. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans, Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr;74(4):267-80, doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuw002
- Trinidad TP, Loyola AS, Mallillin AC, et al. The cholesterol-lowering effect of coconut flakes in humans with moderately raised serum cholesterol. J Med Food. 2004 Summer;7(2):136-40.
- Hu Yang I, De la Rubia Ortí JE, Selvi Sabater P, et al. Coconut Oil: Non-Alternative Drug Treatment Against Alheimer’s Disease. Nutr Hosp. 2015 Dec 1;32(6):2822-7. doi: 10.3305/nh.2015.32.6.9707.