Look up ‘coconut oil’ or ‘coconut water’ online and you will be greeted by a plethora of sites extolling its virtues. Many of these mention the popularity of coconut with athletes. But what are the health and performance benefits of coconut, and how relevant are these for endurance athletes?
Coconut contains a form of saturated fat called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These differ from long chain fatty acids found in other oils, in that they are relatively soluble in water and are therefore rapidly absorbed by the body. MCTs are transported in the blood through the hepatic portal system; as a result they bypass the fat storage cells, known as adipose tissue. This makes them less susceptible to being deposited in those cells and consequently stored as fat. Instead, they tend to be metabolised by a process called beta-oxidation – or fat burning – and utilised for energy. This makes coconut interesting from both a body composition and an endurance sports perspective.
So, is swallowing a tablespoon of coconut oil or chewing on a few pieces of raw coconut before exercise a good fuelling strategy for athletes, particularly those looking to reduce body fat? Back in 1998, a study on seven well trained cyclists found that ingestion of a 5% MCT solution had a negative effect on time trial performance, producing a lower work rate than placebo. This was explained by increased intestinal cramping. Nor did the solution have an positive effect on total rates of fat or carbohydrate oxidation, or affect carbohydrate utilisation.1 On the other hand, a 2010 study, which looked at the comparative effect of MCTs and long chain fatty acids (LCT) on cycling performance, found that blood lactate levels and perceived exertion rates were significantly lower after ingestion of MCT-containing food compared with LCT-containing food. Time to exhaustion at 80% peak VO2 was also significantly longer.2 A 2010 review paper concluded that while MCTs did increase fat oxidation and energy expenditure, as well as reducing food intake and beneficially altering body composition, MCT feeding is ineffective in improving exercise performance.3
So, from this research, my conclusion would be that if you are looking to lose body fat and are able to tolerate it, taking coconut oil prior to training may have some benefits. But, as a purely ergogenic aid, coconut would not be my first choice. There is more evidence, for example, for the benefits of caffeine on performance (see my May 2012 blog post).
There has also been some interesting research on the use of coconut water to help restore hydration and electrolyte levels after exercise. For example, a 2012 paper found that a branded coconut water (VitaCoco®) was just as effective as a carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink at rehydrating a group of exercise-trained men after 60 minutes run on a treadmill.4 It is worth noting that while coconut water is a good source of calcium, magnesium and potassium, it is relatively low in sodium, so might not suit those with a heavy sweat rate.
Even if you are not looking to lose body fat, and choose other means of fuelling and rehydrating, coconut still offers other benefits for endurance athletes, and I recommend including it regularly in your diet.
- It is energy dense, so provides a good source of easily digested extra calories. Try the chunks of raw coconut available from supermarkets as a quick snack between meals.
- It contains a wide range of metabolically important micronutrients, including zinc and vitamin C, as well as the electrolytes already mentioned.
- It is a safe fat to use when cooking at high temperatures as it does not break down as quickly
- as unsaturated fats such as olive oil and vegetable oils. Perfect for stir-fries! And you can’t taste the coconut flavour.
- If you are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins, coconut milk and yogurts make great alternatives. Try Kara milk (www.karadairyfree.com)
- and CoYo yogurts (www.coyo.co.uk) – both delicious.
- Finally, the caprylic acids found in coconut oil have been shown to have anti-microbial actions, so may help to fight against infection, while lauric acid in coconut converts to monolaurin, which is thought to play a role in the immune system. Try adding a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil to recovery drinks and smoothies.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
1 Jeukendrup AE et al. Effect of medium chain triacylglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion during exercise on substrate utilization and subsequent cycling performance. Am J Clin Nut. 1998. 67(3): 397-404
2 Nosaka N et al. Effect of ingestion of medium-chain triacylglycerols on moderate- and high-intensity exercise in recreational athletes. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009. 55(2): 120-5
3 Clegg ME. Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2010. 61(7):653-79.
4 Kalman DS et al. Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise trained men. J Int Soc Sports Nut. 2012.9:1