We all know the lyric and phrase “you put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up” from the smash hit song Coconut by Harry Nilsson, but how much do you know about the island staple?
Coconuts probably originated somewhere in Indo-Malaya and are one of the most important crops of the tropics. Coconut flesh is high in fat and can be dried or eaten fresh or processed into coconut milk or coconut oil. The liquid of the nut, known as coconut water, is used in beverages. Coconut can also be used as medicine. Coconut is taken by mouth for bladder stones, diabetes, high cholesterol, and weight loss.
1 tbs of coconut oil contains*(1):
- 121 calories
- 0 g of protein
- 13.5 g of fat, of which 11.2 g is saturated
- 0 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol
Coconut oil contains vitamin E, but no fiber and little to no other vitamins or minerals.
Coconut oil is almost 100% fat, most of which is saturated fat. However, the structure of fat in coconut oil differs from that of many animal products, which mainly consist of long-chain fatty acids.
Coconut oil is high in MCTs. These are harder for the body to convert into stored fat and easier to burn off than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Supporters of coconut oil attribute many of its benefits to the high MCT content.
However, researchers* (3) have questioned these perceived benefits from coconut oil itself because many of the reported benefits stem from MCT oil itself. Experts* (3) have called on people to treat coconut oil as they would any other saturated fat until there is enough evidence to prove otherwise.
The Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has grown in popularity in recent years, amid claims that it can do everything from supporting weight loss to slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
In July 2016, results of a survey in the United States showed that 72% of people believed that coconut oil was healthful, but only 37% of nutritionists agreed.
Coconut oil contains over 80%*(1) saturated fat. Some experts have linked saturated fats with cardiovascular and other diseases.
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting consumption of saturated fats to less than 10%* (2) of a day’s calories. This means that someone following a 2000-calorie per day diet should eat no more than 20 grams (g) of saturated fat each day.
Supporters claim coconut oil provides various health benefits.
Increasing good cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. HDL appears to help reduce levels of LDL, and high levels of HDL may help boost cardiovascular health.
Some researchers* (4) have argued that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a component in coconut oil, may help boost levels of good cholesterol. Participants took 1 tablespoon of coconut oil twice daily for 8 weeks.
However, results*(5) have varied. One small study in 2004 found the opposite. In research, dietary MCT increased bad cholesterol in 17 healthy young men. The scientists did not study any other indicators of heart health.
A 2016 study*(6) found no clear evidence that coconut oil either benefits or harms cholesterol levels.
However, findings*(7) published in 2018 suggested that extra virgin coconut oil’s impact on cholesterol may be similar to that of olive oil. So far, the results remain inconclusive, and more studies are needed.
Virgin coconut oil may have antioxidant properties. In a rodent study*(8), it appeared to reduce stress resulting from exercise and chronic cold. Researchers believe that virgin coconut oil could be useful in treating some kinds of depression.
Some people apply coconut oil to their hair to increase shine and protect it from damage. It may penetrate the scalp better than mineral oils.
However, one study*(9) of people with similar hair types found no difference in hair condition between those who used coconut oil and those who did not.
Applying a coconut extract to human skin may enhance its protective barrier functions and have an anti-inflammatory effect, says a 2017 study*(10).
These findings could have implications for medicine but not for the diet.
Reducing asthma symptoms
Inhaling coconut oil has helped reduce*(11) asthma symptoms in rabbits.
However, no studies have taken place in humans, so people should not inhale coconut oil.
A 2017 review*(12) discusses the importance of oil pulling for dental health. Oil pulling is a traditional oral treatment. It involves swishing an oil around the oral cavity, in a similar way to the modern mouthwash.
Studies have found coconut oil pulling to protect against cavities, improve gingivitis, and influence the oral bacterial balance.
A study*(13) comparing two products found that coconut oil was less likely to trigger diabetes and weight gain in mice. Some have interpreted this as meaning coconut oil can help people lose weight.
One reason weight gain occurs is when people consume more calories than they use for energy.
All high fat foods and oils are high in calories. One tablespoon of coconut oil, weighing 13.6 grams (g) contains 121 calories*(1), which is more than lard and butter and slightly less than sunflower oil.
Adding more high fat, calorie dense foods to a diet that contains carbohydrates and plenty of calories may not result in weight loss.
Benefits of Coconut Milk
Coconut milk comes from the white flesh of mature brown coconuts, which are the fruit of the coconut tree. The milk has a thick consistency and a rich, creamy texture. Unlike coconut water, the milk does not occur naturally. Instead, solid coconut flesh is mixed with water to make coconut milk, which is about 50% water.
By contrast, coconut water is about 94% water. It contains much less fat and far fewer nutrients than coconut milk.
Coconut milk is a high-calorie food. About 93% of its calories come from fat, including saturated fats known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
The milk is also a good source of several vitamins and minerals. One cup (240 grams) contains* (14):
- Calories: 552
- Fat: 57 grams
- Protein: 5 grams
- Carbs: 13 grams
- Fiber: 5 grams
- Vitamin C: 11% of the RDI
- Folate: 10% of the RDI
- Iron: 22% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 22% of the RDI
- Potassium: 18% of the RDI
- Copper: 32% of the RDI
- Manganese: 110% of the RDI
- Selenium: 21% of the RDI
Effects on Weight and Metabolism
There’s some evidence that the MCT fats in coconut milk may benefit weight loss, body composition and metabolism.
Lauric acid makes up about 50% of coconut oil. It can be classified as both a long-chain fatty acid or a medium-chain, as its chain length and metabolic effects are intermediate between the two* (15).
But coconut oil also contains 12% true medium-chain fatty acids — capric acid and caprylic acid.
Unlike longer-chain fats, MCTs go from the digestive tract directly to your liver, where they’re used for energy or ketone production. They are less likely to be stored as fat* (16).
Other Potential Health Benefits
Coconut milk may also:
- Reduce inflammation: Animal studies found that coconut extract and coconut oil reduced inflammation and swelling in injured rats and mice* (17,18,19).
- Decrease stomach ulcer size: In one study, coconut milk reduced stomach ulcer size in rats by 54% — a result comparable to the effect of an anti-ulcer drug* (20).
How to Use It
Although coconut milk is nutritious, it’s also high in calories. Keep this in mind when adding it to foods or using it in recipes.
Ideas for Adding It to Your Diet
- Include a couple of tablespoons (30–60 ml) in your coffee.
- Add half a cup (120 ml) to a smoothie or protein shake.
- Pour a small amount over berries or sliced papaya.
- Add a few tablespoons (30–60 ml) to oatmeal or other cooked cereal.
How to Select the Best Coconut Milk
Here are a few tips for selecting the best coconut milk:
- Read the label: Whenever possible, choose a product that contains only coconut and water.
- Choose BPA-free cans: Purchase coconut milk from companies that use BPA-free cans, such as Native Forest and Natural Value.
- Use cartons: Unsweetened coconut milk in cartons usually contains less fat and fewer calories than canned options.
- Go light: For a lower-calorie option, select light canned coconut milk. It’s thinner and contains about 125 calories per 1/2 cup (120 ml) * (21).
- Make your own: For the freshest, healthiest coconut milk, make your own by blending 1.5–2 cups (355–470 ml) of unsweetened shredded coconut with 4 cups of hot water, then strain through a cheesecloth.
The Bottom Line
Coconut is full of important nutrients like manganese and copper. Including moderate amounts in your diet may boost your heart health and provide other benefits as well.
- Food Data Central, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/343868/nutrients
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015
- Health Effects of Coconut Oil-A Narrative Review of Current Evidence, T. Wallace et al., J Am Coll Nutr. 2019 Feb;38(2):97-107. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30395784/
- Daily Consumption of Virgin Coconut Oil Increases High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol Levels in Healthy Volunteers: A Randomized Crossover Trial, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017; 2017: 7251562.
- Effects of medium-chain fatty acids and oleic acid on blood lipids, lipoproteins, glucose, insulin, and lipid transfer protein activities, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 79, Issue 4, April 2004, Pages 564–569.
- Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans, Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr; 74(4): 267–280.
- Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women, BMJ Open. 2018; 8(3): e020167.
- Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo, Exp Ther Med. 2015 Jan; 9(1): 39–42.
- A Study on Scalp Hair Health and Hair Care Practices among Malaysian Medical Students, Int J Trichology. 2017 Apr-Jun; 9(2): 58–62.
- Enhanced barrier functions and anti-inflammatory effect of cultured coconut extract on human skin, Food Chem Toxicol. 2017 Aug;106(Pt A):367-375. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2017.05.060. Epub 2017 May 28.
- Does Inhalation of Virgin Coconut Oil Accelerate Reversal of Airway Remodelling in an Allergic Model of Asthma? Int J Inflam. 2017; 2017: 8741851.
- Oil pulling and importance of traditional medicine in oral health maintenance, Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2017 Sep-Oct; 11(4): 65–70.
- Soybean Oil Is More Obesogenic and Diabetogenic than Coconut Oil and Fructose in Mouse: Potential Role for the Liver. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132672
- Nuts, coconut milk, raw (liquid expressed from grated meat and water) Nutrition Facts & Calories. Nutrition Data. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3113/2
- Lymphatic absorption of glucose and fatty acids as determined by direct measurement. J Pediatr Surg. 1999 Jan;34(1):39-43. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3468(99)90225-7.
- The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil, Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society volume 92, pages1–15 (2015)
- Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial activities of Cocos nucifera var. typica, BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 May 16;13:107. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-107.
- Evaluation of antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory activity of hydromethanol extract of Cocos nucifera L, Inflammopharmacology. 2013 Feb;21(1):31-5. doi: 10.1007/s10787-012-0135-7. Epub 2012 Apr 17.
- Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil, Pharm Biol. 2010 Feb;48(2):151-7. doi: 10.3109/13880200903062614.
- Antiulcerogenic effects of coconut (Cocos nucifera) extract in rats, Phytother Res. 2008 Jul;22(7):970-2. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2318.
- Coconut Milk, Light (118ml = 1/2 c = 1/7th of the can | 1 can = 13.5 oz) Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/2098885/2#ixzz756ptqoW0