The health pros - and cons... - of coconuts
When taken in moderation and in certain forms, coconut can be tasty and nutritious, says Sam Wylie-Harris
COCONUTS are incredibly versatile, conjuring tropical holiday vibes and adding sweetness and flavour to food.
But how much do you know about their health benefits? And why does coconut sometimes gets a less than glowing rep in the wellness stakes?
"There are so many different ways to consume coconuts - coconut water, cream, milk, oil and the pure flesh," says Jess Hillard, sports nutritionist from sports nutrition brand Warrior (teamwarrior.com).
"Luckily, with so many ways to consume it, it's easy to incorporate more into your diet so you can reap the benefits."
So what are these benefits, and what else should we be aware of?
1. COCONUT CAN BE SUPER HYDRATING
"The electrolytes found in coconuts have great benefits - not only to maintain fluid levels inside cells, but for delivering water to where it is needed most," explains Hillard.
"This helps keep us hydrated, which subsequently improves skin health, regulates body temperature and supports joint health."
Rohini Bajekal, nutritionist and a board-certified lifestyle medicine professional at Plant Based Health Professionals (plantbasedhealthprofessionals.com), says: "It is a good idea to consume liquids and foods rich in water and electrolytes (calcium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, sodium) for optimum hydration - coconut water is one such food."
However, moderation is important here too. Bajekal adds: "Plain water should always be the main beverage of choice."
2. COCONUT CAN BE GREAT FOR YOUR SKIN
"Coconut oil can be used not only for cooking, but also on the body, hair and skin, with high anti-bacterial properties," suggests Hillard.
It's a great moisturiser, and Hillard adds: "It also contains antioxidants that help slow down the ageing process."
3. COCONUT CAN BE A GOOD SOURCE OF FAT
"Consuming coconut in its whole food form in moderation can be healthful, as it is a source of fat, so can help you absorb nutrients from food such as dark leafy greens," says Bajekal.
"It contains a small amount of B vitamins and some other minerals, and is a great source of manganese, which plays a role in our bone health. It also provides other micronutrients such as selenium, iron and copper, as well as antioxidants."
However, Bajekal notes: "A drawback is that it is high in calories, which means that for those with excess weight, it should be limited, as well as by those who need to follow a low-fat diet for medical reasons."
4. COCONUT FLAKES ARE HIGH IN FIBRE
Coconut flakes are "also a high fibre food", Bajekal notes, saying coconut in this form can be a "good choice that may help you lower cholesterol - unlike coconut oil".
Again, coconut flakes are something to enjoy in moderation - perhaps something to add to a weekend breakfast. "Sprinkle on porridge and enjoy with fresh pineapple for a tropical taste," suggests Bajekal.
5. MODERATION IS KEY
"Coconut as a wholefood is popular in parts of South Asia. However, in general, we rarely consume coconut as a wholefood," says Bajekal.
"It is usually consumed in the form of coconut water, coconut oil or coconut milk."
This might influence how 'healthy' the coconut products we're consuming actually are overall.
Bajekal recommends moderation. "Coconut oil is one of the few plant foods that is very high in saturated fat; most saturated fat is found in animal foods such as meat and dairy. Unlike the whole coconut or even coconut flakes, it contains zero fibre," she explains.
"Coconut milk has been associated with increased risk of vascular disease, stroke and heart attack when consumed frequently (three or more times per week)."
If you're making a curry, Bajekal advises switching to half coconut milk and half low sodium vegetable broth for a healthier option, and swapping out coconut cream for light coconut milk.
"To summarise, the best way to consume coconut is as a wholefood occasionally, rather than in its refined form as an oil or milk. If you have very high cholesterol or are at risk of heart disease, speak to your doctor before incorporating it."