Go Nuts For Coconuts!
How did something as yummy and nutritious as the coconut get such a bad rap? Since the fat-free craze of the 1980s, coconut has been stigmatized as a saturated fat and associated with other artery-clogging evils such as red meat and trans fatty acids. Yet traditional native cultures of Asia and the South Pacific have relied on the coconut for centuries for both its nutritional and healing properties. So revered is the coconut in this part of the world that it’s considered the “Tree of Life.” More interestingly, these populations are noted for their longevity and significantly lower rates of chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Recently, Western attitudes have begun to shift as ongoing research uncovers the many benefits of all things coconut.
In 1960, obesity rates in the U.S. hovered around 12 to 14 percent. By 1980, 20% of Americans were obese, prompting the American Heart Association and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to declare a war on all fats and cholesterol. Saturated fat in particular became a target for its cholesterol-raising effects. While it’s true that approximately 90% of the fats in coconut are saturated fats (primarily in the form of lauric acid, capric acid, and caprylic acid), there’s an important distinction that even researchers in 1980 knew about that the mass media didn’t: not all saturated fats are created alike. In fact, it’s been claimed that the profit-seeking soybean oil industry initiated this campaign against tropical oils, raising alarm bells against the imported and more expensive coconut oil.
You may be wondering how a saturated fat could possibly be good for you. Well, it’s molecular structure that comprises the difference between coconut oil and other vegetable oils such as olive, safflower and sunflower. These polyunsaturated fats are made up of long chains of fatty acids, which are known to deposit in the body as fat in adipose tissue, or as cholesterol in blood vessels. Long-chain fatty acids go through the digestive tract, are bundled into lipoproteins and are then released into the bloodstream, allowing them to collect in the body’s fat stores and artery walls. The saturated fat in red meat is also almost exclusively made up of these long-chain fatty acids and has a similar effect.
On the other hand, the fats in coconut oil are made up of medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs), which the body metabolizes differently. MCTs are smaller molecules that are digested more rapidly, and therefore are sent directly to the liver and are available as an immediate fuel source. They essentially supply energy – not fat or cholesterol deposits. In fact, they increase the metabolic rate and, as such, have been touted as a possible aid for weight loss.
Studies have begun to reveal a myriad of benefits from coconut. Its oil has been shown to increase nutrient absorption, most notably of calcium, magnesium and the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K). It can also help in the prevention of osteoporosis and cancer. It improves blood sugar regulation and the secretion of insulin, crucial in the management of type 2 diabetes. By boosting HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), coconut oil can even be considered heart-healthy.
By carrying harmful LDL away from artery walls, HDL thereby reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. The presence of lauric acid has been attributed with coconut oil’s antiviral and antibacterial actions, which can boost immunity and may be particularly effective against H. pylori, yeast infections and herpes. Early studies in the fight against AIDS look promising, and research continues in this area.
But coconut’s health benefits aren’t confined to your insides. Apply coconut oil generously all over your body after you bathe or shower. Massage it into your scalp as a natural conditioner or into any dry flaky patches on your skin. You won’t just feel good – you’ll smell great, too.
Coconut products are also ideal for cooking. The oil has a high smoke point and, because it’s saturated, it won’t turn rancid when heated. It adds a yummy subtle flavor to stir-fried veggies. Cook your rice in coconut milk for a delicious change from the same old plain side dish, or add it to your smoothie along with some frozen pineapple and mango for an invigorating post-workout tropical treat.
The benefits of coconut aren’t confined to its oil, either. Coconut meat is rich in fiber and is a good source of iron and manganese. Coconut water, which comes from the young green fruit, is an excellent alternative to more sugary sports drinks. It’s also a rich source of electrolytes (and particularly high in potassium), which we need to replenish when exercising in the heat. Electrolytes are responsible for optimum muscle contraction, and they help regulate the body’s fluids and a healthy blood pH. For a refreshing change, try sipping on coconut water either during or after your next workout.
Whether you eat it, sip it or slather yourself with it, take advantage of all things coconut for your peak performance, your vitality and your health.