Why are coconuts good for you and how do they help your sports performance?

Heard about the health benefits of coconuts and wondering whether including them in your diet will help your triathlon performance? Lucy-Ann Prideaux explains all

We explain the health benefits of coconuts. Credit: Robert Wetzlmayr  [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Fresh coconut is composed of coconut ‘meat’, milk/cream and coconut water, and each part has a positive impact on sports performance. Coconut water contains natural sugars for energy, the meat has protein and about 34% oil, while the milk is about 24% oil. Numerous studies also describe the unique fatty acid profile of coconut.

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Although accurately labelled as a saturated fat, coconut and coconut fat/oil isn’t quite like the saturated fats contained within butter, lard or cream. However, this hasn’t prevented the erroneous widespread belief that coconut fats are bad for health, particularly in relation to heart disease. Coconut oil is in fact largely composed of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs for short. These don’t require bile salts for digestion so pass rapidly through the gastrointestinal tract and into the portal system, and are ready as an immediate source of energy. I know many athletes who use coconut oil including elite Holly Lawrence.

Several studies have shown that MCTs appear to increase calorie expenditure, promote fat oxidation and suppress the accumulation of body fat. However, a paper the ‘Int’l Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition’ concluded that MCT feeding was ineffective at improving performance. But further health benefits are emerging. The ‘Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease’ showed promising effects of coconut oil on halting brain cell degeneration.

Coconut water has fast become the go-to ‘natural’ rehydration/energy drink for athletes. It contains carbs for energy (although less than sports drinks) and has a natural electrolyte balance. Note that it is lower in sodium than sports drinks but higher in potassium.

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That said, unless you’re exercising in extreme heat or very high humidity, coconut water’s probably as good as any sports drink. Beware, however, of sugar-loaded varieties, and choose a reputable brand like Dr Martin’s organic coconut water, Zico or Vita Coco.