The grocery aisles seem to be filled with all things coconut – coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut water. Is it healthy?
Coconut is one of the only plant sources of saturated fats, which are normally only found in animal foods like meat and dairy. Getting too much saturated fat increases our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, so many health organizations – the FDA, World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, and more – recommend consuming only small amounts.
But compared to other sources of saturated fats, coconut has a larger proportion of a type called medium-chain fatty acids. Some studies indicate that these can have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. Indeed, they are linked to higher HDL (“good” cholesterol). However, they can also increase LDL.
Is coconut milk better than dairy?
Although coconut milk is now found in the dairy aisle, it’s not nutritionally the same as cow’s milk. It may be slightly lower in calories, but is low in protein and other nutrients compared to dairy milk. While coconut milk may be a nice addition to a smoothie or an option for those who are lactose intolerant, you may have to make up the calcium shortage with other foods.
How about coconut water, which is being marketed as nature’s sports drink? Coconut water does naturally contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which need to be replenished after intense exercise. But first, ask yourself if you’ve worked out hard enough to even need that. (Hint: You probably don’t, unless you’re doing extended vigorous exercise or you sweat profusely).
Also, consider how coconut water stacks up to sports drinks. Sports drinks typically have about 100 milligrams of sodium and 40 milligrams of potassium per cup. Compare that to a wide range of 40-250 milligrams of sodium and 600-700 milligrams of potassium per cup of coconut water. Chugging coconut water on a regular basis could potentially lead to high levels of potassium in the blood; for people with kidney and heart problems, this can be life-threatening.
The bottom line seems to be that coconut products aren’t necessarily worth going nuts over. As much as we’d like to believe it, there’s no such thing as magic foods or miracle cures. However, there’s nothing wrong with trying coconut milk or water to add a little variety in your diet.