Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) have been used so widely, both as a nutritious food and traditional medicine among populations in Asia and the Pacific that the coconut palm is known as the “tree of life”.
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Yet only recently has modern medical science started to acknowledge the healing powers of the coconut.
Fats in coconuts good for you
One of the most interesting properties of coconut oil is that, while it’s high in saturated fat, it boosts levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in the body – according to Dr Walter Willett of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Writing in a Harvard Health newsletter, Dr Willett explains that there are two kinds of saturated fat, differentiated by the number of carbon atoms in the molecule.
Roughly half of the saturated fat in coconut oil comprises lauric acid (known as the 12-carbon variety), which seems to be responsible for the oil’s unusually potent HDL-enhancing effects.
Until recently, there was a perception that consuming the saturated fat in coconuts and coconut oil increases cholesterol levels – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
However, an article published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition states that a coconut’s medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) are metabolised differently than the long-chain saturated fatty acids (LCFAs) found in meat and butter.
Coconut oil mainly contains MCFAs, also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
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Dr Marie-Pierre St-Onge and fellow researchers – involved in studying participants consuming MCTs as part of a 16-week weight loss programme – commented that “medium-chain saturated fatty acids (such as those in coconut and coconut oil), have been shown to have favourable effects on total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels”.
She added that, instead of aiding in the synthesis or transport of cholesterol, the MCTs are metabolised in the liver where they’re utilised as energy.
Dr Willett cautions, however, that consuming coconut oil in large quantities may not be wise until scientists have determined its impact on reducing the risk of heart disease. This, he asserts, is because “most of the research on the effect of coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol levels consists of short-term studies”.
Coconut’s other health benefits
It’s not just coconut oil that makes the fruit a health powerhouse. Coconut flesh, juice and milk are all extremely nutritious, with a high vitamin, mineral and fibre content – hence coconut’s classification as a “functional food” (a food that provides benefits beyond basic nutrition).
More recently, modern medical scientists have studied the nutritional benefits of coconuts. Studies published in various medical journals suggest that among their numerous health benefits, coconuts:
• Contain high levels of naturally sterile electrolytes, which nourish the body’s muscle function.
• Are rich in phosphorus, potassium and manganese.
• Are able to destroy numerous viruses, bacteria, fungi and yeasts involved in a host of conditions including influenza, measles, throat infections, pneumonia, ringworm and thrush.
• Are a quick energy source that enhances physical endurance and athletic performance.
Studies have found that coconut oil appears to be especially effective in reducing abdominal fat, found around organs and in the abdominal cavity. This is the most dangerous fat, as it’s linked to many lifestyle diseases.
In a recent article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, natural health physician Dr Joseph Mercola pointed out that another benefit of the lauric acid found in coconuts is that it “considerably boosts the human body's ability to abolish the onslaught of various viruses and bacteria”.
Describing lauric acid as a “miracle compound”, Dr Mercola explained that it assisted the body in generating monolaurin, which acts as an internal natural shield when foreign agents such as bacteria and viruses invade the body.
In addition, natural health experts claim that the naturally occurring saturated fat in coconut oil provides several other “profound health benefits” such as boosting thyroid function, improving cardiac health and supporting the immune system.
A study conducted by Dr Nigel Turner and Associate Professor Jiming Ye of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research (GIMR) in Sydney found that a diet rich in coconut oil protects against insulin resistance (an impaired ability of cells to respond to insulin) in muscle and fat, and also inhibits the accumulation of body fat.
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These findings are important because obesity and insulin resistance are major factors contributing to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Fascinating coconut facts and tips
- Spanish explorers named the tropical fruit “coco” (monkey face) because of the three indentations on the bottom of the coconut.
- Doctors treating wounded soldiers in World War II saved many lives by using coconut water as an alternative for intravenous hydration when medical supplies in the Pacific were scarce.
- A coconut’s indentations also come in handy when opening its hard outer shell. First insert a screwdriver into the softest hole to drain the coconut liquid into a bowel, then use a sturdy knife to get around the seam of the fruit several times. Lastly, bash the coconut on a hard surface to break it in two.
- According to the Coconut Research Centre, roughly one-third of the world population relies on coconut and coconut products for nourishment and economic growth.
- The best way to preserve the natural properties of fresh coconut is to consume it immediately after it’s been cracked open.
- You can keep coconut water fresh by refrigerating it in a tightly sealed container for up to 12 hours.
- Many grocery stores and health shops sell commercially packed coconut milk, water and virgin coconut oil.