Coconut is another food that’s brought controversy to the health and fitness world. Some advocate its plant-based buttery fat, even going so far as to proudly announce how much they slathered into their morning coffee, while others decry how eating its saturated fat is a one-way ticket to a heart attack.
Ubuntu Fitness likes to use the ancestral lifestyle as a template (for now, as science is constantly evolving) and our opinion is that when it comes to a healthful diet, many answers lie in genetics and how our environment influences our bodies.
Coconuts are ubiquitous in Southeast Asian diets, with India the third largest producer (behind Indonesia and the Philippines) at 7.6 million nuts annually (1). I was pretty surprised to learn before the 1940s, Americans relied heavily on coconut oil as a major source of fat in their diets (1), yet the increased popularity of seed oils (e.g. corn oil, canola oil) caused a shift in what the US relied on for fat.
Let's talk about coconuts.
One cup of shredded coconut contains:
As mentioned in the Avocado post, it is rare to see high fat foods that are also rich sources of fiber. One cup of coconut has 7 grams of fiber, whereas one cup chopped of the superfood broccoli has only 2.4 grams. The primary fat in coconuts is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT), which bypasses the liver during digestion and is thought to be unrelated to our bodies' cholesterol production (1).
In a study in healthy men, consumption of MCTs did not detrimentally affect liver function or liver fat accumulation, and affected cholesterol levels the same as unsaturated fat such as vegetables oils, however post prandial triglycerides and lipids do seem to increase (3).
I looked for any papers discussing coconut fat and health benefits, and was excited to find Dietary intake and the risk of coronary heart disease among the coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. It discusses the incidence of heart disease in a population that reportedly eats a high amount of coconut products and transitively eat a high amount of saturated fat.
According to Lipoeto et. al., the Minangkabau, known for their female power-dominant society, follow diets largely uninterrupted by Western civilization. The amount of fast food they consume was categorized as "nil" and amounts to 0.7 grams per day. That's exactly 1.3% of a standard hot dog.
Researchers took two groups of Minangkabau people – one with confirmed coronary heart disease (CHD) and the other without, and asked them to complete a survey of most commonly eaten foods over the past year.
The subjects completed a “food frequency questionnaire” to help researchers examine what foods they ate most commonly over the past year. They also took physical activity, stress levels, gender and smoking status into account. The researchers were specifically interested in the relation between saturated fat from coconut and their heart health.
The researchers’ findings were as follows:
- The Case group ate more animal products on average, mainly meat and eggs, and therefore had higher intakes of protein, cholesterol and arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fat) from these foods. They ate significantly more sugar, tea, coffee, and fruit and consumed fewer amounts of soy products, rice and cereal.
- Both groups consumed similar amounts of unsaturated fat and saturated fat from coconut, about 27 grams per day, which is the same as 129 grams of coconut milk or 31.5 grams of coconut oil. This suggests coconut was not the CHD culprit.
- Most importantly, there was no association found between this population’s saturated fat consumption and CHD events. Especially since coconut-derived foods (milk, oil) are the primary saturated fat in their diets, it was concluded eating coconuts did not increase their risk.
- As a side, but related finding, 22% of cases and 7% of controls use margarine - about 1.5 and 0.7 teaspoons per day, respectively.
To tie this in the beginning of this post, the researchers said there is no strong evidence linking high dietary fat and CHD risk, although most studies with these findings are done in populations with already high fat intake and that populations with low fat intakes (such as Caucasian) are of low CHD risk and have lower blood lipids (a.k.a. your risk will depend on your evolutionary history/genes). Historically, Caucasian populations have not eaten diets typical of Southeast Asian fare so it makes sense to see higher CHD risk when this population is studied under conditions encouraging them to eat more fat.
Going back to the final bullet point about margarine, the researchers mentioned there may be an association between introduction of Western foods and disease risk, and that one Japanese study found a positive correlation between fat-rich foods like butter, cheese, ham and sausage and mortality from degenerative diseases (2). My thoughts are that margarine, a Western invention, may have been one of many contributing factors to CHD in the case group.
So – if a certain population already eats a high fat diet, it would be sensible to imply they’re genetically able to handle high amounts of fat without putting themselves at risk for a nutrition-related disease.
While coconut seems to be a nutritious fruit and a healthy alternative to Dairy Queen or Cheesecake Factory, it’s still a high calorie food. Here are some quick tips for how to healthfully eat coconut
- Sounds weird, but a 2T of coconut oil as a dip or a handful of coconut flakes with carrot sticks tastes GREAT
- ~2oz of coconut milk in tea or coffee can be a creamer substitute
- Check out our recipe for Almond Butter Prune “cookies”, which offers using coconut flour in place of oat flour
Third and final post: cocoa!
- Debmandal, Manisha, and Shyamapada Mandal. "Coconut (Cocos Nucifera L.: Arecaceae): In Health Promotion and Disease Prevention."Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine 4.3 (2011): 241-47. Web. 14 July 2015.
- Lipoeto, Nur I., Zulkarnain Agus, Fadil Oenzil, Mark L. Wahlqvist, and Naiyana Wattanapenpaiboon. "Dietary Intake and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease among the Coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia." Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 13.4 (2004): 337-84. Web. 14 July 2015.
- Nosaka, Naohisa, Michio Kasai, Masahiro Nakamura, Isamu Takahashi, Megumi Itakura, Hiroyuki Takeuchi, Toshiaki Aoyama, Hiroaki Tsuji, Mitsuko Okazaki, and Kazuo Kondo. "Effects of Dietary Medium-Chain Triacylglycerols on Serum Lipoproteins and Biochemical Parameters in Healthy Men." Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 66.8 (2002): 1713-718. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.