The “Cure All”: Coconut (?)
Coconut oil and coconut milk products are yet other food items that have become quite popular and deemed “superfoods.” Coconut oil has multiple uses ranging from a moisturizer to a coffee-addition. The sentiment towards coconut oil and other coconut products is actually quite polarized. There are some who believe that the antimicrobial properties of the oil help combat disease while others believe that the saturated fats increase cholesterol levels. So, who is correct? Are the superfood claims true? Let’s find out.
Claims about coconut oil:
Antimicrobial. Are you familiar with candida/yeast overgrowth? It often presents as thrush in the mouth, vaginal yeast infections, or yeast overgrowth in the gut resulting in digestive issues. Lauric acid, one of the fatty acids found in coconut oil has been found to reduce candida, fight bacteria, and create a hostile environment for viruses. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that virgin coconut oil was just as powerful as fluconazole, a regularly prescribed anti fungal agent, against Candida ablicans.
Enhances Weight Loss. The weight loss/fat burning effects associated with coconut oil have more to do with medium chain triglycerides (MCT). Studies have shown that compared to long chain triglycerides (LCT), MCTs require more energy (calorie) expenditure in the metabolism process. This is because these fatty acids go straight to the liver and are utilized for production of immune factors among other fatty acids. Studies have found that MCTs are less likely to be deposited in peripheral tissue (think belly fat) because during digestion, they bypass the peripheral tissues and go directly to the liver. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders reported that in obese women, long term consumption of MCTs increased fat oxidation, thermogenesis (fat burning) and increase satiety (keep you more satisfied) as compared to LCTs.
Coconut oil contains about 15% of C-8 fatty acids as found in MCT oil and the rest are made of 12 carbon chains. Though coconut oil contains the largest percentage of MCTs than other oils, the fat burning effects have primarily been studied regarding MCTs specifically. However, a 2009 study conducted on obese women compared the effect of coconut oil and soybean oil on abdominal obesity. Both study groups lost the same amount of weight but the coconut oil group had a decrease in waist circumference, whereas the soybean oil group had an increase. This does suggest that coconut oil might have the same effect as pure MCTs, however more research is needed.
Additional Coconut Benefits:
Promotes heart health. The fat found in coconut is saturated. How could that possibly lead to heart health? As published in Today’s Dietitian, saturated fats are solid at room temperature so they make cell membranes less fluid as compared to unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, and make membranes more flexible (which is more desirable).
- However, one of the fatty acids found in coconut oil, lauric acid (12 carbon chains) does have a lower melting point than longer-chain saturated fats, and may therefore impart less rigidity.
- Studies have found an association among consumption of coconut products (whole coconut, coconut cream, and coconut oil) and higher levels of HDL cholesterol.
- However, a 2016 review of literature on coconut consumption and cardiovascular disease (CVD) in humans found that coconut consumption also might raise LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and serum triglycerides—all CVD risk factors.
- Results of clinical studies have been inconsistent.
Studies have found that when lauric acid replaces carbohydrates in the diet, HDL levels increase. Higher levels of HDL is said to be a “negative” risk factor against CVD. However, experts recommend consuming more mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (olive oil, fish oil, etc) if heart health is a concern. Coconut oil is certainly not “bad” for you. Increased HDL levels is an excellent side-effect of consumption, but the potential to raise LDL and triglycerides means that until more research is done, vary up your healthy fats.
Self care product. If you are sensitive to fragrances or chemicals found in many commercial moisturizers, coconut oil is a safe alternative. Additionally, the anti-inflammatory properties of fatty acids (Caprylic and Lauric) found in coconut oil combined with its antioxidants and antimicrobial benefits (as discussed above) make it ideal for healing the skin. The anti-fungal properties of coconut oil also make it a convenient way to treat dandruff. Massage onto your scalp and let sit for a minimum to 10 minutes. Be sure to rinse thoroughly. If you are using it as a moisturizer, I recommend rubbing it in very well and waiting until it has absorbed before putting on your clothes. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with unwanted oil stains.
“Healthier than milk”
- Full-fat coconut milk (often found in cans) is known most for its use in Thai curries. It is an excellent addition to cooking but when compared side-by-side to whole milk, it doesn’t provide the same nutritional benefits. Full-fat coconut milk contains 140 calories and 14g and 1g of protein of fat in a 1/3 cup serving. If it were used as a direct substitute for whole milk in your morning cereal, 1 cup would provide 420 calories, 42g of fat and just 3 grams of protein. Conversely, the equivalent 1 cup serving on whole milk would provide 150 calories, 8g of fat and 8g of protein. Whole milk also provides an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and a small amount of vitamin A, none of which can be found in full-fat coconut milk. For those with dairy sensitivities, full-fat coconut milk is an excellent replacement for heavy cream or regular milk in soups or baking, but I would not recommend drinking a glass for breakfast, as you would far surpass your total saturated fat needs for the day and receive very little protein.
- “Drinking” coconut milk. I’m not sure what the “technical” name for this variety of coconut milk is, but since it is used to replace milk in cereal or coffee, I’ll call it “drinking” coconut milk. Like almond milk, coconut milk can now be found in boxes or cartons. Starbucks even offers it in lattes as an alternative to regular milk. Is it healthier? Again, unlike regular milk, “drinking” coconut milk is lacking in protein, often providing 1-2g per 1 cup serving instead of 8g found in milk. Beware; this variety of coconut milk, since it is made to be consumed in lieu of regular milk often contains added sugar. Have you ever wondered why the coconut milk in your Starbucks coffee tasted so good? It is because, unless you’re using “unsweetened,” there are added sugars. You might counter that a 1-cup serving contains 9g of sugar compared to 11g in a 1 cup serving of whole milk. What makes the sugar in whole milk any “better?” It’s naturally occurring from lactose, the naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products. The sugar found in coconut milk is added. You’ll find it on the ingredient list as “cane sugar” or another sugar derivative. Unlike canned coconut milk, “drinking” coconut milk is fortified with calcium, vitamin D and some also contain B vitamins. If you have a dairy sensitivity, by all means, use coconut milk! I use it in tea and cooking very frequently. If you purchase it, make sure that it is labeled “unsweetened” to avoid added sugars. Unsweetened vanilla is perfectly fine as well. Remember, it doesn’t compare to regular milk in terms of protein content so plan on getting your protein elsewhere.
Coconut flour. Coconut flour is an excellent gluten-free flour alternative. Due to it’s unique ability to absorb liquid, most recipes that use coconut oil call for a large amount of eggs and/or additional liquid. It can’t be replaced 1:1 for flour but is often used in blends with other gluten free flours. A ¼ cup serving provides a whopping 10g of fiber! It provides a nice mildly sweet taste and fluffy texture to baked goods.
Coconut sugar is healthier. Sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. Enough said. Really though, don’t look to coconut as being a “healthier” way to consume high simple carb/ high sugar products. Your focus should instead be on reducing the overall amount of sweetener used. As you do this, your palate will change and you’ll actually begin to have a lower tolerance for sugar-containing foods. In baking, consider using mashed banana or other fruit purees for a more natural sweetener.
Bottom Line. Coconut milk, oil, and other byproducts all have their place in a healthy diet. Remember that the healthiest diet is a balanced diet. Use your common sense and don’t replace unhealthy foods with coconut and think that you’re doing your body a favor. (On that note…no..coconut chips are not a health food.
They can be consumed in moderation but provide minimal nutritional value.) Use canned coconut milk in curries and other ethnic dishes, as it is designed for. Swap out canola oil for coconut oil in baked goods and try replacing ¼ of your flour mix with coconut flour for added fiber.
Venture out and try new things, but don’t think that one food product is the ticket to ever lasting health. ☺
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