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You know the scene, the one that graces covers of travel magazines: leaning palm trees, a pale blue sea, white sand, maybe an umbrella drink in the corner. That’s where just the word “coconut” can take us.
Part of the palm family, the coconut (cocos nucifera) has been called “nature’s Swiss Army knife” for its versatility — from a calorie-packed food to hair conditioner to fibrous material for rope — but we’d rather think of it as a gentle, up-for-anything friend.
Humble, hairy, and humorous, coconuts can make great cocktail conversation, especially if you’re mingling with the likes of such coconut-loving stars as Madonna and Rihanna. Here are a few reasons why we’re loco about cocos:
If you were stuck on a desert island, a coconut palm tree would make a nice companion. Rich in fiber and fat, one cup of fresh, shredded coconut meat contains:
Plus, coconuts contain other important minerals such as selenium, potassium, and zinc, and trace amounts of six different B vitamins. (You can’t live on coconuts alone, though. One man tried for 17 years and became malnourished and, um, nutty.)
That same one cup of shredded coconut contains 27 grams of mostly saturated fat. More than half of that fat is made with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are readily absorbed and used by our bodies and don’t raise cholesterol as much as long-chain triglycerides do. One four-week study of coconut oil showed that people who used it in place of butter or olive oil had significantly higher HDL (good) cholesterol.
Other studies have shown that high-fiber coconut meat may help with weight-loss, especially with belly fat. And people who live in countries that consume a lot of coconut oil, such as the Philippines and India, have lower rates of heart disease.
But before you say “sayonara” to your butter sticks, you should know that doctors still don’t agree on whether coconuts help your cholesterol and health overall. Afterall, most of the studies have been done with coconut oil with especially high concentrations of MCTs, not the kind you pick up on sale in your supermarket.
Coconut oil is one of the world’s best natural sources of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that works like Mr. Clean in your mouth to bust bacteria. It’s especially effective at knocking out Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus, the not-so-lovely little buggersthat cause gum disease, tooth decay, and bad breath. (By the way, we’ve infused every bit of our floss with coconut oil, putting the “coco” in Cocofloss.)
If you’d also love a fragrant, fruity way to fight yeast infections in your mouth (oral thrush) and elsewhere, coconut oil may be your ally. In a 2015 study, it blasted away Candida albicans, a type of fungus that causes infections.
People in India and southern Asia have been giving their mouths a workout with “oil pulling” for thousands of years. The practice of swishing an edible oil (such as sesame, sunflower, or coconut) through your teeth for 15 to 20 minutes is part of a holistic, Ayuvedic belief that it purifies the mouth and body. Some devoted oil-pullers promise it also delivers a showstopper white smile, fresher breath, and fewer cavities.
Currently no scientific evidence proves that oil-pulling brightens teeth (here are six natural ways that do) or prevents tooth decay — and it shouldn’t replace a regular routine of brushing and flossing. But we do know that the lauric acid in coconut oil reduces bacteria, plaque, and gingivitis. Want to give it a try? Start with just five minutes using about a tablespoon of coconut oil and work up in time. Want to save time? Pause for two minutes a day to floss with Cocofloss.
What softens your hair, skin, nails and leaves you smelling like you stepped out of a tropical spa? Coconut oil, of course. The lauric acid that works as a natural antimicrobial in your mouth also makes a mean moisturizer. The oil also contains linoleic acid, which can reduce acne breakouts.
Just pick up some raw, virgin coconut oil, and apply it to your tresses, try it as a first-step face wash, rub it into your cuticles, make it into a kiss-worthy lip-balm, or use it in place of shaving cream. Devotees of coconut oil, including supermodel Miranda Kerr, even sleep with the stuff (mostly in their hair).
Inside a young, green coconut lies up to four cups of delicious, nutritious water. Thinner than the coconut milk you buy in a can for Thai coconut curry, coconut water is clear, slightly salty, and a little sweet. It has a third of the sugar of apple juice and more potassium than a banana. Drinking coconut water may help treat diabetes, prevent kidney stones, and lower blood pressure, though more studies on humans are needed to solidify those claims.
Whether or not you believe the hype, unsweetened coconut water after a workout can help rehydrate you and restore electrolytes, without downing day-glo yellow sports drinks. Add a twist of lime for extra antioxidants. Better yet, chop open a young green coconut and pop in a straw yourself, if you happen to live in a coconut-palm paradise (lucky you).