What is this nut that’s so hard to crack? Coconut is cropping up everywhere these days—coconut water, coconut flour, shredded coconut, coconut milk, coconut oil, coconut cream. When I was a young girl we’d shake them to check for water inside (an indication of a good coconut, according to my mom). The next task was actually getting the hairy orb open so we could drink the water and carefully pry the meat out.
I’ve always thought of coconuts as a special treat, but in the islands of the South Pacific, coconuts have long been a staple food item. While doing research on the benefits of this mysterious “nut,” I found that the people of Polynesia have been consuming coconuts for centuries, and their population is amazingly healthy—free of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Now it’s true that coconut contains saturated fat, and it’s fair to say that most people are concerned about consuming too much saturated fat for fear of increasing their cholesterol and triglyceride (fats) numbers, along with the potential for heart disease.
But coconut doesn’t contain just any saturated fat—it contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and medium-chain lauric, capric and caprylic fatty acids, which are associated with many health benefits. In fact, medium-chain fatty acids (MFCAs) have long been used in hospitals to treat critically ill patients who have malabsorption and digestive problems, as well as in premature infants (MCFAs provide many of the same nutrients as human breast milk). In fact, coconut water is still a primary ingredient in infant formulas.
Let’s look at some of the other benefits of coconut.
Metabolism: A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that medium-chain fatty acids were three times more effective at raising metabolism than long-chain fatty acids. This is for two reasons: First, MCFAs do not circulate into the bloodstream. Instead, they are sent directly to the liver, where they are immediately converted into energy. Second, they don’t raise blood sugar. And it has been reported that coconut oil can actually help to control sugar cravings.
Candida: The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil have been shown to destroy Candida, a condition of yeast overgrowth in the body that triggers symptoms of weight gain, carbohydrate cravings and fatigue. Additionally, coconut oil slows the digestion of food, which helps you feel more satiated after a meal. The added bonus is that coconut oil has no carbohydrates or sugar—another reason coconut oil can help with weight loss and is a good alternative for diabetics.
Digestion: The saturated fats present in coconut oil have anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and help in dealing with bacteria, fungi, parasites, etc., that can cause digestive problems. MCFA molecules are smaller, and require less energy and fewer enzymes to break down for digestion, which reduces strain on the pancreas and digestive system. Coconut oil also helps in the absorption of other nutrients such as fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and amino acids, which can be beneficial for people who suffer from gallbladder disease, pancreatitis, Crohn’s disease and diabetes.
Cholesterol: Coconut oil contains about 50% lauric acid, which has been shown to help increase HDL (healthy cholesterol) and does not lead to increased levels of LDL (unhealthy cholesterol). As such, the saturated fats found in coconut oil are clearly not the same as those found in animal fat—the difference is in the length of the fatty acids.
5 easy ways to make coconut part of your healthy lifestyle
If you’re thinking about incorporating some of this “healthy” saturated fat into your lifestyle, here are some ideas to make it quick and easy.
Replace other cooking oils with coconut oil. I would start out by using half of the amount that you would normally use. If you don’t care for the flavor or smell of coconut, look for oil that says it’s odorless and tasteless. It’s great for cooking vegetables, eggs, meats and fish—even baking.
Add a tablespoon to hot cereal along with some raw walnuts or almonds, a drizzle of agave nectar and some fresh berries for a heart-healthy breakfast.
Coconut oil is a fantastic moisturizer and hair conditioner. Keep a jar of coconut oil in the bathroom and use it as a moisturizer after a warm bath or shower. It’s also great on dry heels and elbows. If you suffer from dandruff, apply a small amount to your scalp, massage it in and leave on for about 15 minutes (or even overnight), then wash your hair as you normally would.
Try using coconut in smoothies, soups, dressings, cakes, cookies, sauces, cereals or pancakes. Coconut products are relatively easy to find—look for coconut water or milk, coconut flour, shredded or flaked coconut, coconut cream or butter, and coconut sugar.
Use it as a deodorant. OK, you might think this one is a stretch, but consider the fact that coconut oil is anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. If you’ve been searching for a healthy alternative to conventional deodorant, give coconut oil a try. I’ve been applying odorless coconut oil as a deodorant for about four months and so far, knock on wood, no complaints from my co-workers at Pharmaca.
Sharon Wegner is a Certified Holistic Health Coach, Nutritional Consultant and member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Sharon teaches her clients how to make healthier food and lifestyle choices by creating simple and sustainable changes. She shares her passion for cooking with her clients by teaching them how to make fresh and delicious REAL food. You can find out more about her work at her Essentials for Healthy Living blog.