Crazy about coconuts | Munchwize Dietitians East London

What two things do water, milk and oil all have in common? They all come in coconut varieties, and they’re flying off the shelves.

A few years ago restaurants started removing trans fats from their foods, following this alternative oils began gaining popularity and this included coconut oil. The influence of celebrities who are promoting coconut products oversees has also influenced the craze in coconut products.  Consumers are on a mission  for ‘superfoods’—and the newest one is coconut. Vegetarian and raw food diets are also gaining popularity and momentum and this is another contributing factor to the coconut’s increase in popularity.

But is there any truth to all these health claims?


Coconut oil

Considered a staple ingredient of the popular ‘Paleo diet’ and ‘clean eating’ diet trends; hailed as the latest ‘superfood’  that aids weight loss; as well has having anti-microbial and anti-viral properties – coconut oil has ignited controversial discussion among professionals and the public and there has been great discussion around the potential benefits of coconut oil.

Coconut oil is pure fat, extracted from coconut flesh, leaving behind the fibrous part, the carbohydrate and protein. Fat can be divided into two major kinds: saturated (unhealthy fats that can promote heart disease) and unsaturated (healthy fats that can reduce your risk of heart disease). Saturated fats make up 92% of coconut oil – a higher percentage than butter. It is an accepted and known guideline that saturated fats should be eaten sparingly to minimise your risk of developing heart disease.

One of the main arguments put forward by coconut oil supporters is that the saturated fat in coconut oil behaves differently to typical saturated fats from your animal products, preventing any negative effects on health. Unfortunately the evidence is not that simple.

Coconut oil is particularly high in lauric acid (a saturated fat). This type of fatty acid tends to mimic healthy unsaturated fats by boosting HDL (good) cholesterol. This may make it less bad than other saturated fats. But, studies show that while the healthy HDL cholesterol levels appeared to rise when coconut oil was consumed, so too did the total cholesterol and unhealthy LDL cholesterol in the blood! And we don’t really want our total and LDL cholesterol to be increased. The bottom line, coconut oil simply does not stack up against healthy unsaturated fats.

Should I include coconut oil into my diet?

Coconut oils is very very energy dense! 92% is made up of saturated fatty acids and unlike other oils, it provides no vitamins or the polyphenol antioxidant compound that is found in e.g extra virgin olive oil.

There is currently not enough evidence to recommend choosing coconut oil over other oils such as canola or olive oil.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the liquid from an immature (green) coconut. It is being promoted as the natural alternative to sports drinks that contain 5 electrolytes that are essential for hydration. But when you compare the sodium and potassium content of sports drinks to coconut water, they differ significantly.

About 240ml of sports drink contains 95 mg of sodium and 40mg of potassium while the same amount of coconut water has between 40 and 250 mg of sodium and 600-700mg of potassium. In moderation coconut water can be considered safe but too much can be potentially dangerous leading to potassium toxicity.

If you’re consuming enough fluids and eating well for the rest of the day, having coconut water after a workout is not going to significantly benefit you any more than hydrating with water.

Unflavoured coconut water is low in sugar and calories and is not a perfect sports drink. Sports drinks are meant to replace fluids, supply energy, and replace sodium and potassium lost through perspiration. Sports drinks are also only meant to be used when doing extended periods of exercise. Exercising for under an hour, just hydrate with good ‘ol H20.


Coconut milk

The ingredients in coconut milk differ to those of dairy milk.  Let us compare coconut milk to diary milk:

One cup of original coconut milk contains:

  • 80 kcal (30 kcal from fat)
  • 1 g of protein
  • 10% of the Daily Value for calcium (100 mg)

In comparison, one cup of 1% dairy milk contains:

  • 100 kcal (20- 30 kcal from fat)
  • 8 g of protein
  • 30- 35% of the Daily Value for calcium (300 mg)

Parents who favour coconut milk over cow’s milk for their children should think twice. Cow’s milk contains various important vitamins and minerals that are essential for a child’s growth and development. The composition of coconut milk isn’t a close enough substitute for cows milk for children and the effects of a child ingesting too much coconut milk is unknown. Nutrient deficiencies could occur in children that aren’t adding other nutritious foods and drinks to their diet to make up for the lack in protein, calcium and other nutrients that they would be getting from dairy milk.


Proceed with caution:

We need to be wary of anything that is promoted or advertised as a new ‘miracle food’. It is important to remember that we need to look at the whole diet for the prevention of disease. Our bodies are complex and require a range of various nutrients for optimal health. Remember, no one food item provides all the important nutrients we need. It is not necessary to avoid coconut products all together, but include them as part of a healthy balanced diet.


Munchwize Dietitians recommend:

  • Choose to cook with unsaturated oils such as olive, avocado and canola oils
  • When a recipe calls for coconut cream or milk, use ‘light’ varieties and thicken with corn flour if a creamier texture is required
  • Experiment with other flavours, try kafir lime leaves, basil, lemongrass or ginger for an exotic flavour boost
  • For people who use lots of coconut oil in their diet, put a cap on the amount you use or try blending it with some monounsaturated oils such as olive, canola or avocado oil.



Feel like you are being bombarded with ‘healthy tips’ via the internet and social media? Contact Munchwize Dietitians in Cape Town to help debunk nutritional myths from truths.






Dietetics association of Australia. Coconut Oil.

Appold, K. Cuckoo for Coconut Products.
Denny, S. Coconut Water: Is It What It’s Cracked Up to Be? January 28, 2014