Coconut Benefits for Diabetes: Too Good to Be True?

You can eat unsweetened coconut meat, milk and water if you have diabetes, but watch the portion size.
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Coconut meat, milk, oil and water are all the rage today, but some coconut-based foods may not be as healthy as you may think — especially if you have diabetes. You need answers to questions like: Does coconut increase blood sugar? What's desiccated coconut meat? Is coconut water safe for diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when your body no longer produces the hormone insulin or becomes resistant to its effects. Insulin modulates your blood sugar (glucose) levels. When blood sugar levels are too high over time, your risk for diabetes complications, including heart disease, nerve damage and blindness, can increase, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

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"Coconut oil, meat, water and milk are all blood-sugar friendly, but many people with or at risk for diabetes may have other health concerns," says Dana Greene, RD, LDN, a dietitian in Brookline, Massachusetts. "These foods tend to be high in fat and calories, so portion control is important as diabetes and obesity tend to go hand in hand."

Read more:Raw Coconut Is the Vegan-Friendly 'Meat' That's Good for Everyone

Coconut Oil and Diabetes

Coconut oil, in particular, is extremely high in artery-clogging saturated fat. That's why the American Heart Association advises against the use of saturated fats like coconut oil for people with or at risk for heart disease.

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"Coconut oil has been shown to increase low density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, so it's not recommended if you have diabetes," says Maria E. Pena, MD, an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine and director of endocrine services at Mount Sinai Doctors Forest Hills in New York, New York.

This matters because if people with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease and have a heart attack than are people who don't have this condition, notes the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). High cholesterol is also a risk factor for heart disease, and people with diabetes should keep their cholesterol in the healthy range, Dr. Pena cautions.

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What to do? Try swapping coconut oil for heart-healthy olive oil or canola oil if you are at risk for heart disease, Greene suggests.

Is Coconut Meat Good for Diabetes?

Desiccated coconut meat — which often refers to the fresh dried and unsweetened version — and diabetes is another story because "it's a good source of fiber," Dr. Pena says. One cup contains about 54 percent of the daily fiber recommendation, she says.

Fiber slows the absorption of sugar and helps improve blood sugar levels, notes the Mayo Clinic. The ADA points out that adults should consume 25 to 38 grams of fiber each day, but most people fall significantly short of that goal.

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Greene adds that desiccated unsweetened coconut meat is also low on the glycemic index, which uses a 1 to 100 scale, ranking how quickly or slowly carbs affect your blood-sugar levels. "Coconut meat is a 10 on this scale, which is low, making it very diabetes friendly," she says.

Still, Greene says portion size matters because coconut meat is high in saturated fat and calories, too. "If you are watching your waistline, this is an important consideration," she says. One cup of dried, shredded and unsweetened coconut meat has about 24 grams of saturated fat and about 300 calories, Greene notes. Steering clear of sweetened coconut products like the flakes used in baking is a good idea if you have diabetes or are at risk for it, she adds.

So, yes, while coconut is fairly low carb and low glycemic, it contains other fatty components too, which you may need to watch out for.

Coconut Waters and Milks

Dr. Pena says that coconut water can be a healthy choice if you have diabetes. "Natural and pure coconut water is a great alternative to sugary drinks, but it still contains some carbs," she cautions. Noting that a one-cup serving of coconut water has 9 grams of carbohydrates, "make sure to read the label," she says. Carbs affect blood sugar more than other nutrients, notes the NIDDK.

As for coconut milk, like other coconut-based products, it's high in saturated fat, Greene explains. And, unless it's been enriched, it's also lacking in calcium, which is needed to build healthy bones. But it's low in carbs, so it won't affect your blood sugar. "If you enjoy the taste and mind your serving sizes, it can be used in place of regular milk," she says.

Read more:5 Health Benefits of Coconut Milk and How to Use It

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