Let’s Cool it on the Coconut

Photo credit: pazoo.com
Photo credit: pazoo.com

Hello lovely readers, I’m back 🙂 I took a hiatus from blogging as the summer is now in full swing. And you know what that means: weddings, showers, weddings, showers, bachelorette parties, weddings, showers…. repeat!

As many of you know, I like to write about things I see in my everyday practice. Common questions I get from my clients are questions I assume many of us want to know the answer to- especially when it comes to “of-the-moment” foods. Enter the humble coconut. Coconut (more specifically, coconut oil and coconut water) are making a HUGE comeback. When I was in school learning about nutrition, NO ONE used coconut oil and coconut water was often collecting dust on grocery store shelves. We were taught that coconut oil is a “bad” fat, full of saturated fats and can increase the risk for heart disease. Now…

Virgin coconut oil

I’ve heard virgin coconut oil  (coconut oil that has not been processed) being touted for it’s antimicrobial properties, reducing heart disease risk, softening skin/hair, reducing belly fat etc etc. Sounds like the miracle cure right?? Ehhhh…. not so much. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence:

1) One of the reasons why people believe virgin coconut oil is different from other conventional fats/oils (e.g. butter, canola oil, olive oil) is that it contains medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs). Research around MCTs started in the 1950’s, mostly for people who have difficulties absorbing fats (MCTs are basically full triglyceride fats that have been broken down, making them super easy for the body to absorb and use quickly). The majority of studies out there looking at MCTs do not use the virgin coconut oil you find in the grocery store. They use a super-concentrated, refined derivative of coconut oil, that is liquid at room temperature. Take a look:

MCT oil
Photo credit: Heart Foundation of New Zealand

Virgin coconut oil is a solid. This is because virgin coconut oil is mostly made from saturated fat (92% saturated fat to be exact) and saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think butter, lard, bacon fat etc). Virgin coconut oil only has 4% MCT¹

Therefore, if virgin coconut oil only has 4% MCT, there is no way you can compare a study looking at refined MCTs with the same virgin coconut oil you make your slammin’ stir fry with. For example, many studies² looking at energy expenditure (or the amount of energy we burn to keep our bodies working) show that MCT oil (NOT virgin coconut oil) can increase energy expenditure, which in turn may decrease weight gain risk. You would need to eat A LOT of virgin coconut oil to match the refined MCTs used in clinical trials, which won’t help your weight loss efforts 🙂

2) What about these antimicrobial/antifungal properties? Again, the majority of the evidence³ comes from the following studies:

– Studies that look at super-concentrated MCT oil DERIVED from coconut oil

– Studies in animals or in vivo (aka cell studies), NOT in humans

-Pilot studies where the samples are small and difficult to extrapolate to the general public

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the clear liquid that comes out of a coconut when it is freshly opened (not to be confused with coconut milk, which is the liquid expelled from processing coconut meat). Coconut water has become increasingly popular as an alternative to sports drinks to rehydrate after physical activity. Looking at some of the nutritionals of pure coconut water:

-Relatively lower calorie (about 30-70 calories per cup*)

-Moderate amounts of naturally-occurring sugar (about 10g per cup*, which is pretty low compared to juices, sodas etc)

-Moderately high in potassium (~370mg per cup*, healthy adults need about 4700mg of potassium per day to help lower risk of hypertension and heart disease)

-Low amounts of sodium (~65mg per cup*)

*depending on the brand
Woman-looking-at-the-ocean-and-drinking-Coconut-Water
I wish I was her right about now…. **stares out at dreary rain clouds**

Keep in mind these numbers are for PURE coconut water, not for flavoured kinds (e.g. ZICO© chocolate coconut water, which will have more added sugar). So is coconut water actually superior when it comes to rehydrating during physical activity? Well here is some of the research4:

Sports medicine authorities recommend that sports drinks, especially for exercise in the heat, contain:

  • ~460-690 mg/L of sodium
  • ~78-195 mg/L of potassium
  • ~30-60 grams of carbohydrate/L
Most analyses have found coconut water to have significantly less sodium than sports drinks, considerably more potassium and slightly less carbohydrate. Therefore if you are exercising heavily for greater than one hour (e.g. marathons, cycling, a big soccer game etc) you may not get enough carbohydrate or sodium to replace losses through coconut water. I couldn’t really find any published trials on the efficacy of coconut water for hydration during exercise, but a few small trials5 found that coconut water was as effective as sports drinks for rehydration (especially if the coconut water was enriched with sodium). Similar to the virgin coconut oil studies, most studies looking at coconut water are based on small sample sizes or done in specific populations (e.g. athletes).

Bottom Line

1) Fat is still fat. If you like the taste of virgin coconut oil, by all means keep it in your kitchen. I personally love the taste in stir fries, as well as vegan cooking. However based on the research seen above, don’t expect miracles. Too much fat in our diet (from any source) can increase our risk of weight gain, heart disease and diabetes. Stick with smaller amounts (about 2-3 tablespoons of added fat per day) and use it to enhance the flavours of your foods.

2) Hydration with water is still #1. For the majority of us, the amount of activity we do usually doesn’t warrant specialty sports drinks (coconut water or otherwise) to replace carbohydrate or electrolyte losses. Plain ol’ water before, during and after activity is the best form of hydration. However if you like the taste of coconut water, it can be a fun alternative to juice (as it contains less sugar) and can add a nice tropic punch to smoothies, even piña coladas 🙂 Just make sure to read the ingredients list of coconut waters, and choose ones without any added flavourings or sugars.

References

1. Eyres, Dr. Lawrence. Coconut and the Heart. 2014. New Zealand Heart Foundation: http://www.hearfoundation.or.nz.

2. St. Onge, MP et al. Medium- versus long-chain triglycerides for 27 days increases fat oxidation and energy expenditure without resulting in changes in body composition in overweight women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Jan;27(1):95-102.

3. Shilling, M et al. Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile. J Med Food. 2013 Dec;16(12):1079-85. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2012.0303.

4. PEN Nutrition: The Global Resource for Nutrition Practice. Sports Nutrition Evidence Summary. 2014

5. Kalaman, DS et al. Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Jan 18;9(1):1. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-1.

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