October 12, 2020

Coconut: What are the Health Benefits?

Coconut makes a delicious addition to just about anything, whether you’re trying to bring a tropical vibe to your plate or add a little sweetness to your favorite baked goods, but this fruit is more than just tasty. Coconut is packed with nutrients that offer a number of different health benefits when the meat of the coconut is consumed. There are many different ways to enjoy coconut while receiving all of its health and nutritional benefits.

Coconut Nutrients

If you’ve never given much thought to coconut outside of its delicious taste, you might be surprised to know just how nutritious it is. While many fruits are high in carbohydrates, coconut is high in fat and also contains protein, B vitamins, manganese, copper, iron, and selenium. Most notably, coconuts are an excellent natural source of manganese, which is a mineral that the body uses to support bone health and to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins, and cholesterol (1). Copper and iron are critical in the formation of red blood cells, while selenium is an antioxidant that helps protect the body from cellular damage caused by free radicals. Although some people may be concerned about the high fat content in coconuts, it’s important to note that the majority of fat found in coconuts is a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. MCTs like the kind found in coconut are used differently by the body than other types of fats because they can be absorbed directly from the small intestine and used for energy immediately (2). Compared to long-chain saturated fats, many of which come from animal products, MCTs may help people struggling with obesity lose body fat when they replace long-chain unsaturated fats in the person’s diet (2).

Coconut Benefits

Regularly consuming coconut is linked to numerous health benefits, including improved heart health, lower blood sugar levels, prevention of oxidative stress, improved digestive health, weight loss support, and improved immunity. 

Improve heart health

Recent research has shown that coconut oil may be able to increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol and lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol in the body, which can lower the overall risk of heart disease (3). One study compared the benefits of coconut oil to olive oil and unsalted butter and found that those ingesting coconut oil received a significant boost in their levels of HDL cholesterol compared to the other groups (4). Another study showed that taking one tablespoon of coconut oil twice a day can significantly increase levels of HDL cholesterol compared to a control group (5). Higher levels of HDL cholesterol correlate to a lower risk of heart disease because HDL cholesterol is responsible for removing extra LDL cholesterol from the blood and plaque buildup from the blood vessels and sending it to the liver for removal from the body. Lower total cholesterol levels and reduced plaque buildup lower the overall risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

Regulate blood sugar

Two nutritional components of coconut, fiber and arginine, are the drivers behind coconut’s ability to help regulate blood sugar levels. Fiber helps to regulate blood sugar because it slows the digestive process down and also increases insulin resistance, which helps to lower blood sugar levels and may be able to help prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes (6). Arginine is an amino acid that has been linked to stable blood sugar levels. One study found that the high amounts of arginine found in coconut can encourage the pancreas to make more insulin, which is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar (7). A study conducted in rats showed that animals who were fed coconut had lower levels of blood sugar, insulin, and other glucose metabolism markers compared to rats that did not consume protein (7). 

Prevent oxidative stress

Oxidative stress is a condition in which the amount of free radicals in the body is higher than the number of antioxidants for an extended period of time, allowing the free radicals to cause damage to the cells. The condition can lead to premature signs of aging, chronic inflammation, and a host of other medical issues. Antioxidants, like those contained in coconut, are essential to help prevent oxidative stress as we age. Coconut contains gallic acid, salicylic acid, caffeic acid, and p-coumaric acid, all of which are phenolic compounds that can help protect cells from oxidative damage. Studies conducted on coconut meat have shown that coconut contains antioxidants that scavenge for free radicals, helping to stabilize them before they are able to damage the cells (8). 

Improve digestive health

If you’re struggling to maintain regular bowel movements or are experiencing other problems with your digestive system, coconut may be able to help. Coconuts are high in fiber, which is critical to help increase stool bulk and encourage regular bowel movements (9). In addition to coconut’s ability to improve bowel movement regularity and prevent constipation, the high fat content in coconut also helps your gut to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Without a sufficient amount of fat, your body is not able to properly process and utilize these critical vitamins. As mentioned above, MCTs are immediately absorbed by the small intestine, and studies have shown that they can help strengthen the healthy bacteria in your gut microbiome (10). The bacteria in the gut is responsible for protecting the body from infection by pathogens and harmful bacteria that have entered the body through the mouth or nose, so a healthy population of good bacteria is essential to minimize inflammation, support the immune system, and prevent conditions like metabolic syndrome. 

Support weight loss

Eating a food that is high in fat, like coconut, might not seem like the best weight loss strategy, but studies show that MCTs can actually aid in weight loss (11). Although MCTs are high in calories, they also help to promote calorie burning, encourage the body to burn fat, and promote feelings of fullness. Coconut is also high in fiber, another nutrient that encourages feelings of fullness and can help prevent overeating, as demonstrated by several studies (12). There is a distinct difference between MCTs, the kind of fat contained in coconuts, and other types of fat when it comes to weight loss. One small study found that adding 100 grams per day of fresh coconut resulted in significant weight loss compared to adding the same amount of peanuts or peanut oil, another food that is high in fat (13). The same study also showed that fresh coconut can decrease blood glucose levels in adults of a normal weight, possibly helping to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes. 

Improve immunity

The antioxidants contained in coconut may also help to boost immune function. A study published in 2018 indicated that the MCTs in coconut contain antioxidants that are capable of increasing immune function and minimizing systemic inflammation throughout the body, which can help to protect the body against infections; it is believed that the high levels of manganese in coconut also contribute to the fruit’s immune boosting capabilities (14). MCTs also appear to have a number of other beneficial properties, as studies indicate that they may also have antiviral, antifungal, and tumor-suppressing properties (15). 

How to Eat Coconut

If you are intrigued by the health benefits that coconut offers but aren’t in love with the taste, whole food supplements offer a great way to get a daily dose of coconut without the need to incorporate it into meals. Whole food supplements also offer a great option if you’d rather not have to hassle with figuring out ways to add coconut into your diet. However, if you do love the taste of coconut, there are lots of different ways to incorporate this fruit into your diet. Coconut is delicious when blended into smoothies or sauces, and it can also be added into baked goods, mixed into trail mix, or shredded to add to salads and yogurts. It should be noted that fresh, unsweetened coconut meat is the healthiest option for adding coconut to your diet, and drinking the milk of the coconut, using coconut oil, or drinking coconut water will not offer the same nutritional benefits as consuming the meat of the coconut.

Did You Know:

  • Coconut water can be used as a substitute for blood plasma in a transfusion emergency. It was used during World War II to give wounded soldiers emergency transfusions in tropical areas (16)!
  • The Philippines, Indonesia, and India grow the most coconuts of any countries in the world, but coconuts are grown in over 80 countries.

Myth Busters:

Myth: Coconuts are a type of nut. 

Fact: Coconuts are actually a type of fruit - a stone fruit, to be exact! Other stone fruits include apricot, plums, cherries, and peaches.

This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and contains trusted sources.

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