PSA: Your favorite plant-based ice cream alternative is packed with anti-inflammatory benefits.

By Betty Gold
February 12, 2021
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It's no secret that coconut has been incredibly popular for the last several years, and for good reason. This versatile ingredient has endless functionality—you can use coconut oil for everything from cooking and cleaning to taming frizz, taking off makeup, and curtailing chronic inflammation. Coconut water is packed with health benefits, thanks to electrolytes, antioxidants, and vitamin C. But the fruit of a coconut is something extra special: It serves as a so-creamy vegan swap for plant-based desserts and dairy products like ice cream and yogurt, adds crunch to granola, and shines in simmer sauces (if you haven't tried coconut curry shrimp, you're seriously missing out). Wellness-wise, we're just getting started. Here are the top five healthy reasons you should start eating coconut today, according to nutrition experts Susan Hewlings, PhD, RD, and Kelly Springer, MS, RD, CDN.

“As a part of a healthy diet, coconut shows antioxidant activity due to its polyphenol content,” explains Hewlings. “Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) is a rich source of phenolic compounds, such as caffeic acid, ferulic acid, and more. Because these polyphenols have antioxidant properties, they can help offset oxidative free radicals which can lead to inflammation.” Hewlings recommends looking for fresh, unprocessed raw coconut and/or coconut oil to reap the most antioxidant, anti-inflammatory benefits.

According to Springer, eating coconut is great for gut health because it contains a substantial amount of fiber, which helps your microbiome thrive by providing sustenance for your good gut bacteria. “Coconut is also relatively high in fat, which helps your body absorb the fat soluble vitamins D, E, A, and K,” she explains. “This is important because vitamins D and K may be associated with a more diverse, and therefore more resilient, gut microbiome.” A stronger gut microbiome means better digestion, immunity, and overall health. Try adding a few spoonfuls of shredded coconut to your oatmeal or yogurt in the morning to reap these benefits.

“Coconut can be very beneficial for the skin, especially in the form of coconut oil. I love using Nutiva’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil on my skin to help calm inflammation and redness, replenish moisture levels, and even promote faster wound healing,” says Springer. Since coconut oil has a significant amount of fat, Springer adds that it will also help your body to absorb vitamins E and A, which are both antioxidants known to protect and restore the skin. (Note that coconut oil is comedogenic, which means it can clog pores, so you should avoid using it on acne-prone areas.)

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“One of the primary features of Alzheimer’s disease is a decreased ability for the brain to use glucose as a fuel, which can begin about 10-15 years before the diagnosis,” explains Hewlings. “When the brain can’t use glucose (its primary fuel source), it can use ketone bodies as an alternative fuel source. Coconut oil is rich in precursors for ketone bodies. Therefore, coconut oil as part of an overall healthy diet is thought to benefit cognitive health by providing an alternative energy source to the brain.”

It’s important to note that coconut does contain saturated fat, but recent research has shown that coconut contains primarily medium-chain fatty acids. Hewlings explains that these are absorbed differently and have a more favorite lipid profile compared to longer chain fatty acids, such as those found in animal fats like meat and butter. “Oils contain more than just the fatty acids that comprise them, including other nutrients and vitamins, which may also have an impact on cardiovascular risk,” she says. “Additionally, dietary fats provide energy, are key to the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, provide cell structure, are the base for many hormones, serve as carriers throughout the body, provide ‘padding’ and protection for organs, and so much more. Coconuts contain essential nutrients found in these dietary fats and provide a healthful source of saturated fats while also providing antioxidants.”