Most people don’t get enough potassium in their diets because they don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy, so coconut water can help fill in the nutritional gaps. Beyond that, the scientific literature does not support the hype that it will help with a laundry list of diseases…
Low in calories, naturally fat- and cholesterol free, more potassium than four bananas, and super hydrating – these are just a few of the many benefits ascribed to the latest health craze: coconut water. Dubbed “Mother Nature’s sports drink” by marketers, the demand is skyrocketing, propelled by celebrity and athlete endorsements and promises to hydrate the body and help with a whole host of conditions, from hangovers to cancer and kidney stones. But is coconut water capable of delivering on all the promises or is it hype?
What Is Coconut Water?
Naturally refreshing, coconut water has a sweet, nutty taste. It contains easily digested carbohydrate in the form of sugar and electrolytes. Not to be confused with high-fat coconut milk or oil, coconut water is a clear liquid in the fruit’s center that is tapped from young, green coconuts. It has fewer calories, less sodium, and more potassium than a sports drink. Ounce per ounce, most unflavored coconut water contains 5.45 calories, 1.3 grams sugar, 61 milligrams (mg) of potassium, and 5.45 mg of sodium compared to Gatorade, which has 6.25 calories, 1.75 grams of sugar, 3.75 mg of potassium, and 13.75 mg of sodium.
Better Than Some Sugary Drinks
Coconut water has less sugar than many sports drinks and much less sugar than sodas and some fruit juices. Plain coconut water could be a better choice for adults and kids looking for a beverage that is less sweet. But don’t overdo it, says Lillian Cheung, DSc, RD, of Harvard School of Public Health. “One 11-ounce container has 60 calories and if you drink several in one day, the calories can add up quickly,” Cheung says. Cheung, co-author of ‘Savor Mindful Eating, Mindful Life’, suggests being mindful about beverage choices and reading labels to choose plain coconut water and avoid those with added sugar or juices, which are no different from other sugary beverages.
Some Athletes Swear By It
Coconut water may be better at replacing lost fluids than a sports drink or water — as long as you enjoy the taste. A study recently published in ‘Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise’ shows that coconut water replenishes body fluids as well as a sports drink and better than water but the athletes preferred the taste of the sports drinks. Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD and author of ‘Nancy Clarks Sports Nutrition Guidebook’ says coconut water won’t rehydrate the body unless you can drink plenty of it. If you enjoy the taste and can tolerate large amounts, it could help keep you hydrated.
A 2007 study shows coconut water enhanced with sodium was as good as drinking a commercial sports drink for post-exercise rehydration with better fluid tolerance. Another study reported that coconut water caused less nausea, fullness, and stomach upset and was easier to consume in large amounts during rehydration.
What Experts Say
Staying hydrated is one of the most important things for recreational and professional athletes. And if the taste of coconut water helps you drink plenty of fluids, it is a fine choice for most people but may not be for those in prolonged physical activity. Coconut water is low in carbohydrates and sodium and rich in potassium, which is not exactly what athletes need when exercising rigorously, says Clark. “Whether you choose a sports drink, coconut water, or plain water, they all work to keep your body hydrated,” Clark says. Neither coconut water nor sports drinks contain enough sodium or carbs for the heavy perspirer. If you exercise for prolonged periods, she suggests eating salty pretzels and raisins or other portable sources of energy.
There are some health benefits to consuming coconut water. It’s an all-natural way to hydrate, reduce sodium, and add potassium to diets. Most people don’t get enough potassium in their diets because they don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, or dairy, so coconut water can help fill in the nutritional gaps. Beyond that, the scientific literature does not support the hype that it will help with a laundry list of diseases. “There is a lot of hype about coconut water, yet the research is just not there to support many of the claims and much more research is needed,” says Cheung.
Coconut water is fine for recreational athletes — but so are plain water or sports drinks. In general, most adults don’t exercise strenuously enough to need sports drinks or coconut water because good, old-fashioned water works just fine. If you enjoy the taste and your budget allows it, coconut water is a nutritious and relatively low-calorie way to add potassium to your diet and keep you well-hydrated.
(Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.)
YOUR TOP 10 HEALTH QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Is a nightly glass of wine healthy or unhealthy? Can you be fat and fit? What about cell phones — do they really pose a cancer risk? Get the answers…
Many people ask, ‘Should I Go Gluten-Free’? Don’t ditch whole grains unless your doctor says to. They fill you up and are full of healthy nutrients. Here are more questions and answers.
Is a Daily Glass of Wine Healthy?
Not for everyone. Small amounts of alcohol may stave off heart disease, and lower the odds of stroke and diabetes, too. But heavy drinking ups your chances for liver and heart damage, plus breast, colon, and other cancers. If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do, limit yourself to one drink a day if you’re a woman, or two if you’re a man.
Are Short Workouts Worth It?
Yes. Longer is better, but you can get by with quick bouts of activity when that’s all you have time for. The CDC suggests 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week (like walking or biking at a medium-fast pace), plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercise. Several 10- minute bursts of exercise each day can get you to this goal and help keep you fit.
Does Cholesterol in Food Count?
Obesity, inactivity, and a poor diet can do more to raise your cholesterol than an egg. The real bad guys are the unhealthy trans fats and saturated fats found in meats, dairy, and processed foods. Opt for low-fat dairy and lean meats, read labels, and watch your carbs and portions. If your numbers are high, ask your doctor what foods you should avoid
Is Microwaved Food Unsafe?
Reheat those leftovers. Microwaves don’t make food “radioactive.” All your microwave does is make the water molecules in food move, which creates friction that heats it up. Microwaves do create a small magnetic field but a lot of work goes into making sure there’s not enough to cause problems. Just don’t use one with a damaged door.
Do Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer?
It’s unlikely. Most research — including a study of more than 420,000 people over 20 years — says there’s no connection between brain tumors and cell phone use. A more recent study, though, found a link between a specific type of brain tumor called a glioma and heavy cell phone use. If you’re worried, wear a headset, use the speaker, and limit your phone time.
Can I Be Fat and Healthy?
Experts aren’t sure. One study said heavier people may outlive lighter folks, but most research shows that those who carry extra pounds are more likely to get heart disease, cancer or die before thinner folks. Your best bet: Do what you can to get healthy. Stay active every day and eat a balanced diet. Lose some weight if you need to.
(Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS)