Coconut – oil, sugar, yoghurt, milk, water…wherever you look, it seems to make an appearance.

For several years now coconut has been lining our supermarket and store cupboard shelves and being hailed as some super powered health food. But what is the truth about coconut and it’s products? And how do they impact on your running performance?

As a performance dietitian I am not against coconut; in fact, in its neat form it is indeed a very nutrient dense food containing, B vitamins Folate and choline; n-6 essential fatty acids; magnesium, phosphorous and selenium all important for necessary chemical reactions in the body.

Are the sub-products that have emerged equally as nutritious and useful to the body?

Coconut water has made a big surge into the sports nutrition world, hailed as a more natural energy drink choice to help maintain hydration, particularly during endurance events.

Indeed on the surface it looks ideal, slightly lower in carbohydrate than most branded sports drinks with a refreshing taste.

The main problem with coconut water is the electrolyte content; although it benefits by having high potassium content, it is low in sodium. In order for coconut water to be truly useful as sports drink during exercise, it would need to provide a minimum of 10-15mmol of sodium per 500ml and coconut water only provides around 5mmol of sodium per 500ml.

It also has quite a hefty price tag attached to it, making it a non-essential luxury sports nutrition product. That said it does make a refreshing choice and so if an individual were really keen to use it my advice would be to drink it post exercise combined with a meal such as eggs on toast to ensure that you meet your nutritional and hydration requirements.

Probably the product we have heard most about is coconut oil

I have had to correct many athletes and explain that just because you fry in coconut oil, it doesn’t automatically make it a better choice.

So what is the deal with coconut oil? Why is every fitness blogger getting on the bandwagon?

Coconut oil is predominantly made up of short and medium chain fatty acids whereas most other oils are long chain fatty acids; the theory is that these MCT’s are easier for the body to utilise as fuel. However, if you eat any food to excess, whether it is easy to absorb or not, it will still get stored within the body is some way. Coconut oil is no exception to the rule. Coconut oil is still a high-fat food with a high-energy yield and saturated fat content.

In addition, in the clinical world, it is a well-known fact that our bodies can only absorb up to 30g of MCT fat a day. Beyond this and the individual develops steatorrhea, which is fatty stool due to the malabsorption of fat.

Thus, until further studies and evidence is available, my advice is to vary your oils so that you get the benefits of all essential fatty acids, necessary for different functions within the body.

Coconut flour

Accompanying the Gluten-free and Paleo craze has come the introduction of coconut flour, which is a grain free alternative for recipes requiring flour.

There are numerous studies now concluding that going GF has no performance or weight loss benefits; contrary to what we are seeing there is only a small percentage of the population that will truly benefit from following a GF diet.

Coeliac disease is the most common; it is usually confirmed by taking blood tests and biopsies. The individual will then be put on a strict Gluten Free diet, which they will need to comply with for life, as consuming gluten will cause severe damage to their small intestine.

Similarly are a small number of individuals who will suffer from Gluten sensitivity. They tend to suffer from the same symptoms as Coeliac but there is no long-term damage to the intestinal mucosa; biopsy and blood test results provide a negative result but removing gluten from the diet will make a huge improvement to symptoms.

Ultimately if an individual wants to follow a gluten-free diet even when it is not necessary, it is their choice. They may indeed feel more energised and less bloated but this is more related to the fact that they are more mindful of nutritional choices. As a nation, we should all be reducing foods such as white bread, biscuits, cakes, white pasta etc.; by following a gluten-free diet these foods will automatically be removed.

However, do not be fooled into thinking that a gluten-free diet is healthier; an issue Coeliac sufferers have had to deal with for years is the lack of wholegrain products. Gluten-free products available also tend to be higher in fat and sugar in order to make them more palatable.

Coconut flour is just one GF choice; other suggestions include rice flour, gram flour and soya flour.

Coconut sugar

It seems no part of the humble coconut has been unexploited. Indeed the latest kid to join the family is coconut sugar.

With the rise of the new sugar guidelines, stating that they should not make up more than 5% of our total energy for the day; around 100Kcals a day for the average woman consuming 2000Kcals a day and 125Kcals for Men.

Food bloggers and celebrity recipe writers are all trying to find an alternative. However, these guidelines are once again, really related to being more mindful of what we eat. They are not dictating that we should be eating “refined” sugar-free cakes; the message that needs to get across is that we should generally be reducing our overall intake of these types of foods.

My general mantra on cakes, biscuits and chocolates is, by all means, include them in your diet but don’t make it a regular habit; an occasional treat is not going to harm you. The other thing is sugar is sugar – coconut, maple syrup, honey or white table sugar, the body cannot tell the difference and they all yield the same amount of energy per 100g. Additionally, the process used to make coconut sugar is no different to removing sugar from sugar cane, so its not quite as “refine free” as often touted.

The key message is not to get hung up on the latest fad –no food or food ingredient is going to be beneficial if eaten in excess.

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