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Why are coconuts considered Paleo?

by (2485)
Updated about 3 hours ago
Created March 06, 2010 at 1:49 AM

As an American of European descent, I have a hard time envisioning how my paleolithic ancestors would have ever had access to coconuts given that coconut trees are native to Pacific coastal areas. However, coconuts seem to be hugely popular with modern Paleo proponents, despite the fact that many of these proponents seem likewise not descended from Pacific coastal populations.

I'm a practical guy -- I eat the meat of domesticated cattle that my ancestors wouldn't have had access to but domesticated grassfed ruminants are nutritionally the closest thing that I can reasonably get to the wild grassfed ruminants that my paleolithic ancestors would have hunted. Coconuts, on the other hand, are rather unique in the plant and animal world given their high concentration of medium chain fatty acids. Likewise, the metabolism of MCFA in humans seems to be rather unique compared to the metabolism of other forms of fatty acids. Some fans of coconuts give this as the reason for the alleged health benefits of coconut oil but, to me, it raises huge red flags.

I can find no evidence of MCFA content in large amounts in any other food source that might've been around in the paleolithic era. Milk does have some non-trivial MCFA but it's a relatively small proportion in the grand scheme of things and, of course, milk isn't paleolithic.

I'm aware of the island of Kitava where the people subsist on coconuts and cigarettes until the ripe old age of 45, free from heart disease and acne. However, it isn't unreasonable to speculate that the Kitavans may have experienced a unique evolutionary adaption that isn't relevant for the rest of us (followup studies seem to point to this as a factor) or that there may be some confounding mitigating factor involved or that there is bad stuff going on besides heart disease and acne. It seems like wild conjecture at this point to say that coconuts are good for all of us because the Kitavans eat a lot of them.

What are your thoughts on this? Why is a seemingly not very Paleo food so popular with the Paleo crowd? I do cook with coconut oil but increasingly have an uneasy feeling about it. Can you convince me that coconuts are a truly Paleo compatible food?

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17103 · December 25, 2013 at 2:07 PM

If you look at a Hawaiian diet, it's mostly fish and poi, not coconut, the poi is quite heavy in carbs. Plus, there's all the modern junk food and lifestyle changes - take the junkfood out and return the lifestyle to an ancestral one, and the obesity goes away. Same with most any indigenous cultures anywhere in the world.

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17103 · December 25, 2013 at 2:05 PM

Um, yeah, about that, most of us consume either coconut milk, or coconut oil, read the label, you'll find they are high in fats, but low in carbs - the label on my coconut milk says 2g carbs, 9g fats - even so, a lot of those carbs aren't digestable. Coconut oil has zero carbs... So, you're being alarmist. Few of us shy away from butter - those that do, do so because of allergies to the proteins.

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1032 · December 25, 2013 at 1:21 PM

I'm not sure that I buy that. I know that refined flour, sugar, and vegetable oil like you find in cakes is a terrible combo. But a lot of the carbs in coconut are from fiber, which is metabolized totally differently from starch and sugar carbs.

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78417 · March 13, 2010 at 2:44 PM

Possibly Grok was a snowbird like me and he ate them seasonally!

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6082 · March 13, 2010 at 2:13 PM

Heretic! heheh j/k

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2485 · March 07, 2010 at 9:25 PM

I'm not sure what part of my question implied that I favor reenactment. I'm not particularly concerned with the coconut as an abstract entity but rather with the concrete metabolic effects of the MCFA contained within the coconut. I can be more specific with my concerns. MCFAs seem to bypass the normal pathway for fatty acid digestion. Given that this pathway is vital for vitamin absorption, what is the effect of a high MCFA diet on vitamin absorption? Also, MCFA reputedly increases thyroid activity by 20%. If this is true, what are the longterm effects of an overactive thyroid?

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56606 · March 06, 2010 at 4:16 PM

True true. But until someone discovers an adaptation to coconut...I'm not so sure. Milk needs an obvious adaptation because it is indigestible to those without the lactase persistence mutation, but coconut seems to metabolize perfectly in all humans.

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1972 · March 06, 2010 at 5:05 AM

Good to have you here, doctor! I think there is a tug of war between your confidence in modern metabolic knowledge that "looks for clues" in the past and an alternative view that defines itself in the past (or at least in healthy populations) and is refined by modern metabolic knowledge. The latter seems more paleo, although not necessarily better.

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10502 · March 06, 2010 at 4:37 AM

"Metabolism first, history second." @Kurt, I think you missed a great career as a copy-writer.

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10502 · March 06, 2010 at 3:40 AM

@Melissa --- I think Paleo Dave brings up an interesting point about potential disparate recent (!) evolutionary histories between different peoples - consider milk and northern Europeans. Or incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome amongst different ethnicities, even after being normalized for consumption. I imagine you have read the 10,000 year explosion. These are the basic themes of the book.

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10502 · March 06, 2010 at 3:36 AM

Great, probing question that challenges the Paleo orthodoxy - I love it!

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3268 · March 06, 2010 at 3:16 AM

Paleo Dave... whose questions are more informative than a lot of people's answers!

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6 Answers

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1205 · March 06, 2010 at 4:15 AM

Coconut and Honey are the two best examples that argue against paleo food re-enactment. We really are not interested in what was available. We are interested in in being healthy and we only look at the past for clues about what might be unhealthy in our current food environment. Emphasizing our knowledge of metabolism first, we find coconut acceptable regardless of its hisory of use, and conversely we are skeptical of eating lots of honey, even though we know it has been available for millions of years.

Metabolism first, history second.

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2485 · March 07, 2010 at 9:25 PM

I'm not sure what part of my question implied that I favor reenactment. I'm not particularly concerned with the coconut as an abstract entity but rather with the concrete metabolic effects of the MCFA contained within the coconut. I can be more specific with my concerns. MCFAs seem to bypass the normal pathway for fatty acid digestion. Given that this pathway is vital for vitamin absorption, what is the effect of a high MCFA diet on vitamin absorption? Also, MCFA reputedly increases thyroid activity by 20%. If this is true, what are the longterm effects of an overactive thyroid?

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1972 · March 06, 2010 at 5:05 AM

Good to have you here, doctor! I think there is a tug of war between your confidence in modern metabolic knowledge that "looks for clues" in the past and an alternative view that defines itself in the past (or at least in healthy populations) and is refined by modern metabolic knowledge. The latter seems more paleo, although not necessarily better.

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10502 · March 06, 2010 at 4:37 AM

"Metabolism first, history second." @Kurt, I think you missed a great career as a copy-writer.

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1205 · March 13, 2010 at 6:59 AM

Probably the many sentences concerned with the issue of whether coconut is "really paleo"..

The concrete metabolic effects are that there are more ketones like BHB produced with MCT consumption than LCTs due to the first pass metabolism. These are exported readily to the general circulation and many of us consider ketone bodies to be just fine. My brain burns them every day even if I eat no coconut at all.

As fat soluble vitamins are just as miscible in MCTs as in any other lipids when you eat them, I can't see why MCTs would have any negative effect on vitamin absorption at all. Do you have some evidence that they do? The fact that MCTs go directly via the portal circulation and LCTs go via chylomicrons should have nothing to do with vitamin absorption - both MCT and LCT can "deliver" vit D etc. to the villus and that is where the vitamin absorption occurs.

Knowing what I know about how MCTs are metabolized, how coconut has about the lowest fraction of oxidizable linoleic acid and how Lauric acid has beneficial properties, and how The Kitavans and Tokelauans eat them and do very well, I am not too afraid of coconut fat.

But every one must make their own decision. Some "Paleo" authors claim milk is a major cause of cancer.

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1972 · March 06, 2010 at 5:13 AM

I view paleo as looking to healthy populations for what to eat. Our paleo ancestors seemed healthy. But there are plenty of more recently studied populations that seem to enjoy great health. Among them are pacific populations that eat a great deal of coconut including at least the Kitavans (as studied by Lindeberg) and other Pacific islanders (as examined in Nutrition And Physical Degeneration). There is little reason to believe they have specific genetic adaptations to coconut and that a European can't enjoy the same benefits.

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56606 · March 06, 2010 at 2:22 AM

There is definitely evidence of early humans utilizing coconuts and it's thought human consumption influenced its evolution. This coconut timeline is interesting.

However, I know of people who have had negative experiences with coconut. It was a big part of my diet when I started, but is less now because it does have some fructose, which I think upset my stomach.

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56606 · March 06, 2010 at 4:16 PM

True true. But until someone discovers an adaptation to coconut...I'm not so sure. Milk needs an obvious adaptation because it is indigestible to those without the lactase persistence mutation, but coconut seems to metabolize perfectly in all humans.

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10502 · March 06, 2010 at 3:40 AM

@Melissa --- I think Paleo Dave brings up an interesting point about potential disparate recent (!) evolutionary histories between different peoples - consider milk and northern Europeans. Or incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome amongst different ethnicities, even after being normalized for consumption. I imagine you have read the 10,000 year explosion. These are the basic themes of the book.

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38 · March 06, 2010 at 2:35 AM

This doesn't answer your question, but Kurt Harris's take on the Kitavans seem supportive of your general attitude. http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2009/11/2/im-so-bored-with-the-kitavans.html

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30 · December 25, 2013 at 1:03 PM

HEY, PALEO COCONUT ENTHUSIAST: COCONUT MEAT CONTAIN THE MOST DANGEROUSCOMBINATIONS OF MACRONUTRIENTS

The products of the coconut, especially coconut oil, are often greatly enjoyed by Paleo diet folks and often end up being the main source of calories for many people starting on a paleo diet. After all, most will find it easier to simply buy a big jar of coconut oil than source grass-fed tallow that they then have to render themselves. Some will also shy away from butter fat because of the negative association with dairy. Then again, lard and poultry fat is known to often be a little high in omega-6 fats, even when the animal was well-treated.

Read more: http://paleodietlifestyle.com/is-coconut-an-optimal-source-of-fat/

N.B. I´d like to add that 100 g of coconut meat containsabout 30 % carbohydratesand 33 % fat, so the ratio of fat:carbohydrates is about 1:1. This is the most dangerouscombination of macronutrientsregarding the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. This may explain the fact thatfull-blooded Native Hawaiians have the highest prevalence of obesity and highest mortality rates from heart disease in the nation.

Read more: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/53/6/1556S.long

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17103 · December 25, 2013 at 2:07 PM

If you look at a Hawaiian diet, it's mostly fish and poi, not coconut, the poi is quite heavy in carbs. Plus, there's all the modern junk food and lifestyle changes - take the junkfood out and return the lifestyle to an ancestral one, and the obesity goes away. Same with most any indigenous cultures anywhere in the world.

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17103 · December 25, 2013 at 2:05 PM

Um, yeah, about that, most of us consume either coconut milk, or coconut oil, read the label, you'll find they are high in fats, but low in carbs - the label on my coconut milk says 2g carbs, 9g fats - even so, a lot of those carbs aren't digestable. Coconut oil has zero carbs... So, you're being alarmist. Few of us shy away from butter - those that do, do so because of allergies to the proteins.

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1032 · December 25, 2013 at 1:21 PM

I'm not sure that I buy that. I know that refined flour, sugar, and vegetable oil like you find in cakes is a terrible combo. But a lot of the carbs in coconut are from fiber, which is metabolized totally differently from starch and sugar carbs.

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