You may have noticed that most people in the Paleo community are cuckoo for coconut products of all kinds including oil, creme, butter, milk, kefir and flakes. It is hailed for its rich saturated and medium-chain fatty acid content, antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant properties, low levels of PUFA, and the ability to remain stable in high heat cooking. So, you will see it is encouraged in almost every Paleo cookbook or website around and is held in the highest esteem in many other diet philosophies as well.
Since its medium-chain fatty acids (also known as medium chain triglycerides) don’t have to be acted upon with bile, they can be absorbed rapidly through the small intestine and then the liver converts it into ketone bodies, therefore providing a quick source of energy. This ketone characteristic has also made coconut oil a very successful treatment for a wide variety of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Ketones can be used in the brain instead of glucose, which these individuals are having trouble utilizing.
Additionally, coconut is low in sugar, therefore it doesn’t spike insulin too much; making it a good source of fat for many people and health issues like Candida overgrowth, adrenal fatigue, depression, anxiety, migraines, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and many more.
These are all great qualities, but there are a couple things to keep in mind. In an evolutionary context, not very many of our ancestors were eating coconut, because they simply didn’t have access to it, unless they were from the tropics. Many people will say, “well people in the tropics eat these foods abundantly without any negative consequences”, but I say people in the tropics would be genetically adapted to do so, while those of us outside the tropics not necessarily so.
Additionally, coconut contains a substantial amount of phytic acid (phytate), a known gut irritant that inhibits absorption of minerals like iron and zinc and digestive enzymes like pepsin, amylase and trypsin. Furthermore, it is also high in salicylates, an organic acid that plants use for protection against infection or disease, which can cause symptoms like nausea, GI distress, fatigue, itching, hyperactivity, burning eyes, nasal congestion and others for many people as well. Last, but not least, coconut is very high in fiber, which can be problematic as well for some people with gut or bowel issues like irritable bowel. This is particularly true of coconut flakes; they are very high in fiber and can cause significant inflammation. Coconut is also considered a FODMAPS food, which can cause gastrointestinal distress for some people as well.
Therefore, some people are not adapted very well genetically for its consumption and it may cause a variety of problems like gut irritation and inflammation, nausea, gallbladder issues, and digestive disturbances in certain individuals. Additionally, many people develop a food sensitivity to coconut, which can result in a wide array of symptoms affecting the gut, skin, brain, nervous system, etc.
I happen to be one of those people. I can, and do, eat a little coconut butter, an occasional coconut smoothie or other miscellaneous coconut products, once in a while as a treat, because it is delicious, but I can’t eat it regularly or it irritates my gut and just makes me feel yucky all over. Additionally, coconut oil gives me extreme nausea and it will give me a severe gallbladder attack if very much is consumed. As a matter of fact, there is no other food that impacts my gallbladder (I have a temperamental gallbladder) as negatively as coconut oil. I’m not sure why this is, but I have heard this story from some of my clients as well. I love coconut flakes, but they tear up my both my small and large intestine, and result in excruciating pain if too much is eaten.
However, on the other hand, I have found coconut butter to be very helpful for my migraines. If I eat a little coconut butter with fruit and nuts as soon as I feel a migraine beginning to form, I can often turn it off, or minimize the severity significantly enough that I can still function.
Furthermore, coconut is a very concentrated source of fat; so like all “concentrated” sources of fat, it can overstimulate the neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphins in the brain and result in compulsive overeating or food addiction for some people. Since it also contains a bit of sugar, which also stimulates endorphins and dopamine, this combination may be too stimulating for the food addicted. If you crave coconut products, then you may be dealing with this issue. However, on the other hand, you may also crave it because it is a quick source of energy or you need more fat in your diet, so it may be giving you something you’re missing.
So, my goal in this discussion is not to discourage you from eating coconut products, but to simply make you aware that coconut is not the perfect “miracle” food for everyone that many claim it to be and you should be mindful of how it impacts your body and adjust your diet accordingly. This is especially true for people who have leaky gut, irritable bowel, Crohn’s, colitis, inflammatory bowel, or any other bowel, gastrointestinal disorder or autoimmune disorder, arthritis, hyperactivity, attention deficit, food addiction or compulsive overeating.
You may be someone who has no issues with coconut products and can eat it freely, or you may be an individual who needs to avoid it completely, or perhaps you’re someone who can eat it in moderation, or maybe you can eat one form but not another. For example, in my own life, I reserve my coconut consumption to desserts I make on the holidays or a special treat here and there, and the days when I have a migraine. When I do indulge, I stick mostly with coconut butter or milk; since I must be very careful with the oil and flakes. Find what works for your body.