Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Coconut milk and oil are common ingredients in the cuisines of Thailand and surrounding Asian countries. Coconut products are not as popular in North America, sometimes viewed as unhealthy because of high saturated fat content. The saturated fatty acids in coconut milk are much different and likely healthier than those found in cow’s milk. Dietary advice for some cancer patients sometimes includes abstaining from dairy products such as cow's milk, although coconut milk is recommended as an acceptable alternative. Furthermore, some research indicates that compounds in coconut milk may inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Consult with an oncologist about dietary recommendations for cancer.
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Coconut milk is made by grating and squeezing the flesh of mature coconuts from palm trees. Thick coconut milk is filtered only once, whereas thinner varieties are filtered more and diluted with water. Consequently, thick coconut milk is richer and contains more nutrients. Coconut milk is high in a type of saturated fat called medium-chain fatty acids, which are processed differently than saturated fat from animal products. Unlike saturated fat from dairy products and meat, medium-chain fatty acids are absorbed quickly by your body and used for energy instead of being stored in adipose tissue for later use.
In addition to stimulating metabolism, coconut milk helps balance blood sugar levels by preventing insulin spikes. It is also considered a good laxative, according to “Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews.” Some of the fatty acids in coconut milk, such as lauric, capric and caprylic acids, display antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties, which can enhance immune function. Furthermore, coconut milk contains kinetin riboside, a compound shown to inhibit the growth of multiple myeloma and many other cancers in animal studies, including prostate, colon and breast cancer and lymphomas.
Patients with cancer are usually given dietary guidelines meant to help deter cancer growth. The guidelines typically recommend eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer processed foods and abstaining from certain dairy products, especially those that contain hormones, according to the "American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Nutrition for Cancer Survivors." Cow’s milk, for example, contain proteins that can provoke inflammatory reactions and hormones that stimulate growth factors, which are conditions not beneficial for treating cancer. However, coconut milk is often recommended as a dairy substitute because it is easily digested and converted into energy. It also contains compounds that stimulate immunity.
Coconut milk is not regarded as an effective remedy against cancer by current medical authorities. Animal studies conducted on some of the compounds in coconut milk are encouraging, but much more human research is needed before any recommendations can be made. However, coconut milk may be a safer and more appropriate beverage than cow’s milk for some cancer patients, especially those with prostate or breast cancer. Consult with a dietician specializing in cancer about how dietary choices may impact the progression of cancer.