If you feel sick after eating full-fat coconut milk or snacking on fresh coconut meat, that could be because the high fat content in coconuts is upsetting your stomach. You could also be suffering from fructose intolerance, gallbladder issues or irritable bowel syndrome.
If drinking coconut milk causes gas or diarrhea, check to see if thickeners or sweeteners could be the culprit.
Edible Parts of Coconuts
Coconuts are seeds of the coconut tree, a type of palm that grows in a variety of tropical locations. Different parts of both young and mature coconuts can be extracted and consumed.
Coconut meat: The white flesh found inside the coconut, which can be eaten raw or dried. One cup of raw coconut meat contains 283 calories, 3 grams of protein, 27 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbs, 7 grams of fiber and 5 grams of sugars. Dried coconut meat is sometimes treated with preservatives or added sugar to maintain flavor, which adds to the calorie count.
A cup of sweetened, shredded, dried coconut provides 466 calories, 3 grams of protein, 33 grams of fat, 44 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fiber and over 40 grams of sugars. Shredded coconut meat makes a good topping on coconut shrimp, instead of breadcrumbs.
Coconut water: The clear fluid inside the coconut. A half-cup serving of plain coconut water contains 23 calories, 1 gram of protein and less than 1 gram of fat, though flavored versions are typically higher in calories and sugars. Coconut water contains electrolytes like potassium and sodium.
Coconut milk: A liquid made from the flesh of coconuts. Half a cup of canned coconut milk contains 223 calories, 2 grams of protein, 24 grams of fat and over 3 grams of carbs. You can use coconut milk as a base for Thai coconut soup.
Coconut oil: An edible oil extracted from coconut meat. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 121 calories and 13 grams of fat, with no protein or carbs. Coconut oil contains saturated fats, which the American Heart Association recommends limiting. But coconut oil also contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which has reduced the levels of "bad" cholesterol in mice and may also have human applications.
Read more: Health Benefits of Raw Coconut Meat
Does Coconut Milk Cause Gas?
Coconut milk is typically available in two different forms. There's canned coconut milk, intended for cooking, and refrigerated coconut milk, used as a beverage. Coconut beverages are increasingly popular as a tree-nut-free vegan alternative to dairy milk. You can use whipped coconut cream as a vegan dessert topping.
Additives in refrigerated coconut milk may affect your digestive system due to thickening and gelling agents that can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt and maltitol, used for sweetening, can cause bloating and diarrhea. If drinking coconut milk causes gas, check the ingredients label for various types of gums used for thickening:
- Silk Original Coconutmilk contains locust bean gum and gellan gum.
- So Delicious Organic Unsweetened Coconut Milk includes organic guar gum and xanthan gum.
- Pacific Foods Original Unsweetened Coconut Non-Dairy Beverage contains xanthan gum, gellan gum and guar gum.
- Califia Farms Go Coconuts Coconutmilk contains locust bean gum and gellan gum.
Canned coconut milk typically doesn't contain thickening agents or sugar alcohols, but check the label before purchasing to be sure. Avoid coconut milks with added sugars or synthetic flavors if you're worried about digestive issues.
Read more: The Health Benefits of Coconut Milk
Coconut Milk and Diarrhea
The high fat content in full-fat coconut milk, coconut meat and coconut oil can cause digestive symptoms like diarrhea or abdominal cramps, particularly if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, there are two major causes of fatty (sometimes called malabsorptive) diarrhea: "impaired digestion of fats due to low pancreatic enzyme levels and impaired absorption of fats due to small bowel disease." Both of these issues make it difficult for your body to process dietary fats, and coconut digestion involves breaking down plenty of fat.
High-fat foods can also contribute to gallstones or cause diarrhea if you've had your gallbladder removed. The Cleveland Clinic says that nearly half of all patients who've had their gallbladder removed will have issues digesting fat and recommends that people without gallbladders consume not more than 30 percent of their daily calories from fat, focusing on foods with less than 3 grams of fat per serving. If you're on a low-fat diet, switch full-fat coconut milk for one of the "light" options available.
Coconut and Digestion
Stomachaches after eating coconut could be a sign of fructose intolerance, a condition where your body doesn't properly break down fructose (the naturally-occurring sugar in fruits, some vegetables and honey).
Symptoms of fructose intolerance include diarrhea, gas and abdominal pain. There's no known cure for fructose intolerance, but doctors typically recommend a fructose-restricted diet to manage your symptoms. If you're on a fructose-restricted diet, St. Luke's Hospital says to avoid coconut, coconut milk and coconut cream.
If you do have fructose intolerance, you can try eating small amounts of easily-tolerated fruits with under 2 grams of fructose per serving, such as apricots, nectarines, peaches, raspberries, pineapple and grapefruit.
Try to avoid eating fruit as a stand-alone snack, adding it instead to meals like salads. Find a list of fruits that are harder to tolerate with 5 or more grams of fructose per serving, like dried figs, apples, pears, persimmons and dates, so you know what not to eat.
Coconut Water to Treat Vomiting
After any bouts of vomiting or diarrhea, prevent yourself from becoming dehydrated due to lost fluids by slowly sipping water or an electrolyte drink. Columbia University Medical Center suggests drinking a serving of coconut water within an hour of having diarrhea to replace any lost calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese and phosphorus in your blood. But if you typically have coconut digestion problems, coconut water may make the problem worse.
- USDA: "Nuts, Coconut Milk, Canned (Liquid Expressed From Grated Meat and Water)"
- American Council on Exercise: "Gums: Is There Danger Lurking in Your Food?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fructose Intolerance: Which Foods to Avoid?"
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "Diet and IBS"
- USDA: "Nuts, Coconut Water (Liquid From Coconuts)"
- Mayo Clinic: "What Is Coconut Water and What's Behind the Hype?"
- USDA: "Nuts, Coconut Meat, Raw"
- USDA: "Oil, Coconut"
- Yale New Haven Health: "Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately?"
- American College of Gastroenterology: "Diarrheal Diseases – Acute and Chronic"
- Cleveland Clinic: "5 Ways to Avoid Discomfort After Your Gallbladder Removal"
- American Heart Association: "Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association"
- Nutrition & Metabolism: "Medium-Chain Fatty Acids Decrease Serum Cholesterol via Reduction of Intestinal Bile Acid Reabsorption in C57BL/6J Mice"
- Columbia University Medical Center: "Diarrhea"
- USDA: "Nuts, Coconut Meat, Dried (Desiccated), Sweetened, Shredded"
- So Delicious Dairy Free Coconut Milk Beverage: Organic Unsweetened: "Ingredients"
- Silk: Silk Original Coconutmilk: "Ingredients"
- Pacific Foods: Organic Unsweetened Coconut Original: "Ingredients"
- Califia Farms: Go Coconuts Coconutmilk: "Ingredients"
- UnityPoint Health: St. Luke's Hospital: "Fructose Restricted Diet"
- The Healthy Skeptic; 3 Reasons Why Coconut Milk May Not Be Your Friend; June 2011