Coconut is one of the hottest trends to hit the nutrition arena. Coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk, shredded coconut, coconut sugar, coconut lattes…the list goes on. With trans fats banned due to their significantly negative impact on health, and the limits on saturated fats, there’s been a search for a fat that’s tasty, creamy, versatile-on top of offering valuabe nutrition. But is coconut the answer? If my recent visit to The Natural Products Expo is any indication, the coconut craze is on
There have been a lot of claims associated with coconuts. Some suggest that it’s antiviral, can help to manage diabetes, or lower bad cholesterol. Then there’s the average consumer’s perspective is that it’s healthy - really healthy. Certainly it’s gained popularity by exciting the vegan crowd, the nut-free crowd and dairy - free individuals who are wary of soy products.
It’s important to realize that coconut fat is still saturated fat. Any cardiologist will tell you that saturated fat clogs arteries. Meanwhile, coconut "anything," seems to have some sort of health halo. Back in 2014, the FDA came out with a strong statement disallowing health claims on products containing varying levels of coconut. Therapeutic claims suggest that these foods should be viewed like drugs, which in the case of coconut and its health impact, are not yet proven or clear. So if the product is pure coconut or if it contains real coconut, its level of fat negates any health claims.
Coconut water, on the other hand, does not contain coconut fat. The FDA has issued warnings to several companies over the last few years, whose products made specific health claims. Coconut sugar does have a lower glycemic index, compared to table sugar, but that doesn’t mean companies should claim it mitigates or lowers risk of diabetes when used in lieu of sugar. Coconut water has about 45 calories per serving with some nutrients, but again, plain old H2O can suffice when it comes to general hydration needs. Similarly, adding coconut sugar to beverages may seem healthier, but there isn’t much difference in sugar calories.
Coconut oil also does not reduce heart disease - it’s as full of saturated fat, as any other oil. And when compared to olive oil, you’ll find that coconut oil has similar calories (117 calories compared to 119 calories/tablespoon). But it also has 11.8 grams of saturated fat in that tablespoon, compared to olive oil’s 1.9 grams of saturated fat. If you’re trying to pick cholesterol lowering oils, stick with olive oil and vegetable oils like soybean or corn oil (without added trans fats).
When it comes to coconut milk, eight ounces has about 550 calories and 51 grams of saturated fat, compared to a skim milk’s 86 calories, and less than a half-gram of saturated fat (0.29). Making coconut milk your beverage of choice on a regular basis means you are going to gain weight. But you can find lightened versions of coconut milk that can have significantly less saturated fat, about 4 grams per serving.
Bottom line: If you have high cholesterol levels, weight issues, or heart disease, coconut products are not a good fit for you. For the rest of us, as an occasional treat, maybe. Or you can use coconut oil as a great after shower moisturizer. Now that’s good use of a fatty product!!
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”