With its super rich and velvety texture, coconut milk is often considered as a fattening, ‘artery clogging’ villain that should be avoided at all costs. But the truth is that real coconut milk is (amazingly delicious) and jam-packed with health benefits. If you’re not convinced, check out this article to learn about how coconut milk can benefit your health and the best ways to use it. You’ll also discover how to save money by making it at home and instances when this delightful liquid may be more of a foe.
What exactly is coconut milk?
Naturally dairy free, coconuts do not contain any milk in the sense that we normally think of it. In fact, coconut milk is traditionally made by prying the coconut meat from the husk, grating and pressing the coconut flesh before mixing it with water.
There are various grades of coconut milk:
- Thick coconut milk also referred to as ‘full-fat coconut milk’ and usually simply labeled ‘coconut milk’ on cans and cartons. This type of coconut milk is the first liquid obtained from the squeezed grated coconut milk. It typically contains between 20 to 22% of fat.
- Thin coconut milk is labeled ‘light coconut milk’ or ‘low fat’ since it contains only 5 to 7% of fat. Thin coconut milk is produced by soaking the grated coconut that remains after thick coconut milk is produced.
Note: To reap all the health benefits of coconut milk, never use thin coconut milk (which is tasteless anyway).
Coconut milk nutrition
According to the USDA National Nutrient database, a quarter cup (60g) of raw, unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk expressed from grated milk and water contains:
- 138 calories
- 37g of protein
- 3g of fat which includes 12.7g of saturated fats, 0.61g of monounsaturated fats, 0.16g of polyunsaturated fats and 0mg of cholesterol
- 32g of carbohydrate which includes 1.3g of dietary fiber and 2.0g of sugar
- 158mg of potassium
- 60mg of phosphorus
- 22mg of magnesium
- 10mg of calcium
- 9mg of iron
- 55mg of manganese
- 15mg of copper
Proven health benefits of coconut milk
About 60% of coconut fat is made up of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and most of the impressive health attributes of coconut milk can be traced back to these MCTs. That’s why you want the full-fat version of coconut milk.
You see, MCTs are very different from other types of fats. Unlike longer chain fatty acids, MCTs can be passively absorbed by the body without the need for bile salts. When you consume a food that contains MCTs, these MCTs travel directly from the digestive tract to the liver. Once there, the body either immediately uses the MCTs for energy or converts them into ketone bodies instead of storing them as fat.
1. Helps tone down inflammation
Did you know that chronic inflammation is often (if not always) the root cause of most chronic diseases?
Sure, you could pop anti-inflammatory pills. But these come with loads of nasty side effects. So, wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate dietary factors that cause the inflammation in the first place? And, in parallel, increase your intake of foods that naturally tone down inflammation?
Well, researchers suggest that the various antioxidants present in the fats of the coconut may help lower inflammation. In a lab study, arthritis was induced in rats. These rats were then given some virgin coconut oil. The researchers reported that the antioxidants in the oil helped decrease the production of inflammatory molecules and facilitated healing.
2. Promotes muscle growth and facilitates fat loss
You’re probably thinking ‘What? A high-fat food can help the body burn fat?’
Yes. In fact, in a 12-week study, researchers gave women 30ml of either soybean oil or coconut oil. Both groups were instructed to eat less and walk for 50 minutes per day. At the end of the study, both groups had lost weight. However, the participants given coconut milk had lost visceral fat (fat around their organs). That’s the type of fat that increases the risk of chronic diseases. On the other hand, those who consumed soybean oil gained visceral fat!
You see, the fat in coconut milk is not just any type of fat. Research suggests that the MCTs in coconuts can help:
- Rev up your metabolism (the amount of energy the body uses when it is at rest). In one clinical study, MCTs were found to increase energy expenditure by 5% or around 120 calories per day. Put simply, MCTs can help your body use more energy even when you’re resting. (Now, I’m not saying that you should pour yourself a tall glass of coconut milk and then sleep the whole day. Coconut milk is not a magic food but it can facilitate body fat loss if your overall lifestyle and diet are healthy.)
- Nourish muscles and speed up muscle recovery after exercise. As part of a healthy lifestyle, coconut milk can make it easier for you to increase your muscle mass. This will, in turn, increase your metabolism and facilitate loss of excess body fat.
- Make you feel full faster and longer. As mentioned earlier, the liver can produce ketone bodies using the MCTs from coconuts. And guess what? Researchers speculate that these ketone bodies can considerably reduce the appetite. Plus, MCTs help balance hormones that control the appetite.
3. Protects the heart & improves insulin resistance
Despite what many people say, coconut milk and oil will not clog your arteries. Nor will it cause you to die from a heart attack. In fact, did you know that countries with the highest intake of coconut oil have the lowest rates of heart disease?
It is true that the saturated fats in the coconut will increase your cholesterol levels. But, that’s not the whole story. As a dietitian, I always tell my patients that high cholesterol levels only become an issue when the following occur together:
- The LDL particles are small and dense – this type of particles can triple the risk of heart disease.
- Triglyceride levels are high. These fats increase when the diet is high in carbohydrates but low in healthy fats.
- Inflammation levels are high.
And guess what?
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