What a funny time we live in. Supermarkets display Paleo bars and virgin organic coconut oil right next to marshmallows, super-sized jugs of soda, and Cheetos. The consumer is faced with a myriad of conflicting messages in the media; one minute we are told that carbs are evil, and the next minute, we are told that whole grains help prevent heart disease. Is coconut healthy? If you go by the news, there is a constant onslaught of confusion.
Never has been so unsettling to eat than now, when the movements of Paleo and Keto diets are exploding, and foremost health groups like AHA are telling us that coconut and trendy diets are evil.
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Coconut: Do We Need Guidelines?
I want to put forth a narrative about people, their eating patterns, facts about coconut, why it has become so popular, and why it is so hotly debated.
I also want to describe why choosing a type of fat in your diet may not be as simple as following a guideline given to us by the AHA or the ADA or whatever governing health group you might choose to review.
Coconut Use Today
Coconut products, ranging from coconut milk to coconut water, coconut oil, and coconut Paleo bars have become increasingly visible on the shelves in most supermarkets in the last decade for a number of reasons, and I will go into some details about this here.
The demand for coconut products has soared since 2005. A coconut tree is slow to grow, so the coconut supply is falling behind the demand.
In fact, the use of coconut products as a whole has tripled since then and has grown 5-fold for coconut oils. This demand is expected to grow even further.
Coconut producers project a 10% increase in coconut consumption in the next 3 years. Movie stars like Emma Stone, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Mandy Moore have spoken out publicly about their use of coconut in their diets and tout their use in their cosmetic routine, claiming that it helps their skin and energy. As part of the Paleo and Keto movements, people rely on many coconut products in lieu of grains and legumes.
Coconut is also used frequently in autoimmune protocols to help dampen inflammatory responses. Let’s face it; coconut products also taste really, really good to most people, making it a persuasive taste bud experience when faced with the choice of products on the market.
Coconut Traditional Use and Disease Risk
It is clear that a shift in the market is taking place in the US and in Europe, but the use of coconut for indigenous people in many regions of Asia is time-honored and has been a source of sustenance and stable nutrient source in this part of the world, regardless of what consumers are eating in the US due to trends.
Several limited population studies show NO increase in cardiovascular disease in South Pacific or Indian groups consuming larger amounts of coconut oil. This is in the context of consuming a traditional diet, however.
Is coconut sustainable? We absolutely have to think about sustainability as part of the wide lens of health.
Projections show that as the demand for coconut grows, the supply goes down, which in turn is driving up the prices of coconut products. This is only one facet of sustainability.
Luckily, most coconut puts a minimum amount of burden on the environment relative to other oils like palm, and arguably soy or corn oils. Very few chemical pesticides or herbicides go into the agrarian side of coconut production.
Refining non-organic coconut oils does pose a health risk because chemicals like hexane are used to purify upon preparation for consumption. Hexane is thought to be a neurotoxin and is also a pollutant.
All parts of coconut are used, so waste is a minimal concern. For example, the outer protective layer, also known as coir, is used as a very effective ingredient in potting soils. The meat of the coconut is used to make coconut milk and coconut shreds, and the coconut water is an electrolyte-rich liquid that comes from the center of the coconut.
Eating Patterns of Coconut
What are the eating patterns of people choosing to eat coconut? This is a matter of debate. I watch people, and I observe trends in feeding habits.
The people who are choosing coconut oil over other oils are often the same people who are consciously making the choices to cook at home, and often being mindful of limiting processed food intake. They probably aren’t simply buying the chips fried in coconut oil. I can speak to this type of person because I am this type of person.
The people choosing relatively expensive coconut products are not the same people putting Fruit Loops in front of their kids before they go off to school. Sure, it’s possible to seek out coconut oil only for frying chicken, but it is likely the more informed consumer that is buying coconut, using it in a whole-food-based curry they are making at home that night.
These are simply my observations. Looking at the whole picture of a person’s diet is so much more important than the gram section on the nutrition facts.
Coconut Cholesterol Effects
Will choosing coconut oil over soybean oil move the dial on health? This is a matter of how you measure health. Is it a number like LDL or HDL?
The science that AHA gathered for this data is at least partially flawed, as total cholesterol or LDL was measured without consideration of HDL, or even particle size for that matter in most of their papers cited.
Some research shows that coconut oil is LDL-neutral or even improves LDL and helps HDL and body composition. What’s more, some people get a reduction in body fat when eating coconut oil. The key here is SOME people.
A randomized clinical trial found that virgin coconut oil was BETTER than olive oil at improving cholesterol numbers.
Another aspect of the mystery of coconut and cholesterol is the type of coconut used in the research. This is why we see conflicting information, at least in part.
Coconut milk was found to be beneficial for all types of cholesterol in those with normal baseline cholesterol levels.
Here is the trick: those who had elevated LDL cholesterol did not gain benefit from coconut and had an increase in LDL numbers. If the researchers had measured genetic susceptibility to LDL and cardiovascular risk here, we would probably know more.
People with a type of gene called APO4, which accounts for about 25% of the population, may respond poorly to fats like coconut. This is where we need personalized medicine, not medicine for the masses.
But what are we really trying to achieve as people living on the earth for such a short time in the big picture? Is it LDL perfection? Or is it healthspan or quality of life?
These are the important questions that science is currently lacking, and the health-governing bodies so flippantly disengage from. Feeling healthy and functional, I believe, is a much more important indicator of wellness, as it measures the vitality of the human condition over a number like LDL cholesterol.
Coconut and Wellness
Quantification of coconut’s effect on wellness currently isn’t possible because this is not where research dollars are going.
However, I’ve had countless numbers of people tell me how much better they feel when they integrate coconut oil into their healthy lifestyle. There is some scientific basis supporting these somatic improvements.
For example, coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a type of fat that is ready fuel for the brain, and also seems to enhance physical performance in athletes.
Coconut also appears to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral effects, making it a logical choice for skin care, oral care, and possibly in aiding in healing the gut in certain circumstances. In some people, it decreases inflammation, according to a randomized, double-blind trial.
Reducing inflammation is part of why coconut has become so hot in the world of autoimmune disorders, making it a preferred choice over inflammatory foods like added sugars and refined carb-based foods.
Coconut contains MCT oil as well, which can be a boon to our health.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.