Is coconut milk fattening?
August 11, 2009 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Is coconut milk fattening?

Lately I've been getting really into Trader Joe's Thai Green Curry simmer sauce, which I had assumed was relatively healthy until I happened to look at the label: 13 grams of saturated fat per serving, equaling 63 percent of the recommended daily value.

I assume most of this is coming from the coconut milk and shredded coconut in the sauce (there's no eggs/dairy/meat in it). I tried googling around for some info, but this was the best I could find, and I get a creepy SEO vibe from it. I get the same vibe from many of the other articles I found too -- though they all seem to offer some not-100%-convincing good news (that coconut milk can be healthy when combined with an active lifestyle, that Pacific islanders have low instances of obesity and heart disease, yada yada).

Has anyone read anything on this topic that can enlighten me?
posted by hifiparasol to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Healthy and unfattening are not synonyms. Nuts are good for you, but they're high in fat and calorie dense. So is coconut.
posted by redfoxtail at 11:48 AM on August 11, 2009

Calories in coconut milk
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:48 AM on August 11, 2009

Extremely high fat content. Ridiculously so.
posted by rokusan at 11:49 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Very high in saturated fat. If your diet is limited as to other sources of saturated fats, a small amount of coconut milk is OK. I tend to make my own sauces using Trader Joe's Lite coconut milk with green or red curry paste, and it's acceptable, but I am not fooling myself that it is good for me.
posted by Danf at 11:53 AM on August 11, 2009

Yes, as you've discovered, it's loaded with fat. That's why it's so creamy and filling.

The good news is that you're reading food labels. That's a very healthy habit to get into.
posted by gimonca at 11:53 AM on August 11, 2009

It's a bit worse for you than straight cream. About 3 times as many calories per cup as whole milk.
posted by smackfu at 12:02 PM on August 11, 2009

The short answer is, no, coconut milk is not fattening. Eating fat does not make you fat.

If you're eating a normal diet (i.e., no specific requirements or types of food that you leave out on a regular basis), then just consider the calories as normal. It honestly doesn't matter i this case if it's a saturated fat or not.

The notion that eating saturated fat clogs your arteries is a myth.
posted by scrutiny at 12:04 PM on August 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

As others have said, very high fat content. However, a Thai curry is one thing I would not go without at least now and again. I would much rather have a TGC or TRC every few months than eat some of the other sat fat shit that comes nowhere near the culinary experience of a great Thai curry.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 12:04 PM on August 11, 2009

As you may have noted from your online research, you are walking right into a fierce debate about whether or not fat actually makes you fat. It's a really weird thing - the common wisdom is that saturated fat is the devil, but the research is fairly inconclusive (as I understand it, I'm not a doctor or a scientist). OTOH, there are all these folks who think coconut oil is the Elixir of Life, which is also probably not the case.

Anyway, if you prepare your green curry with lots and lots of veggies, and eat it with brown rice (or minimal white rice), it will probably be ok. And delicious - green curry with spinach, bell peppers and eggplant is awesome.
posted by lunasol at 12:16 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you really enjoy it, just eat it and consume less of something else.
posted by aquafortis at 12:51 PM on August 11, 2009

How are you using the sauce? Toss the sauce on a heap of streamed veggies and some lean protein you've got a decent meal. Some protein, some fat, lots of healthy veggies.

If you are consuming it as part of a balanced diet that doesn't exceed your calorie needs, it's fine. Of course, you can say that about any food. Moderation, calorie and portion control are what the cool kids are doing nutritionally.
posted by 26.2 at 12:58 PM on August 11, 2009

Eating fat will make you fat, so will eating carbs and proteins, all if you eat too much. The bad part about fat is that it is far more calorie dense so it is easy to ingest huge amounts of calories even with seemingly small servings. Light coconut milk is a godsend for making healthy curries. If you really want to chase fat you can use a mixture of chicken broth and light coconut milk.
posted by caddis at 12:59 PM on August 11, 2009

You can also purchase a can of low-fat coconut milk and mix it with green thai curry paste for the same result (and cheaper) as the higher-fat Trader Joe's premixed jar.
posted by modernnomad at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2009

For those suggesting veggies, that's exactly how I eat my curries, if only because it's a lot simpler to wash and cut up some carrots and broccoli and onions and open up a can of peas than it is to deal with raw meat (I'm not a vegetarian, just lazy). I also eat it with brown rice, or more often (again because of the laziness factor) no rice.

I think I worded this question poorly -- the fat debate is exactly what I'm talking about. Coconut milk has plenty of saturated fat, I know, but it's still a fruit, right? Nobody ever got fat and diabetic from eating too much coconut milk and walnuts, right?
posted by hifiparasol at 1:10 PM on August 11, 2009

Fat=/= diabetic. You can definitely get fat from eating too much coconut milk.
posted by pintapicasso at 1:18 PM on August 11, 2009

Nobody ever got fat and diabetic from eating too much coconut milk and walnuts, right?

If you eat more calories than you burn, you get fat. This is pretty basic. Just because something is a fruit doesn't make it low calorie. Look at avocados. Delicious and good for you, but pretty high in calories.
1 cup of walnuts = about 800 calories = almost a half day's worth of calories
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:25 PM on August 11, 2009

It's like when people say not too eat carrots because they're full of sugar. While that's true, it's not the same as say, taking a handful of sugar and eating it. There are other things in it that are worthwhile to eat, and I believe the same holds true for coconuts in general and coconut milk specifically. People get diabetic from jacking around their insulin response with an overabundance of simple carbs and sugars. You have nothing to worry about from coconut milk on that front.
posted by scrutiny at 1:47 PM on August 11, 2009

Well, many vegetarians claim that plant fats are healthier, and there seems to be some research indicating this is true.

In general, eating whole foods seems to be an obvious choice to staying healthy. I am sure someone got fat and diabetic from eating too many nuts and vegetable fats, but that is a pretty weird viewpoint to have about nutrition. Its not an all or nothing battle. If you are really worried about becoming fat and diabetic maybe you should try an extreme diet, such as raw foods, macrobiotic, etc?
posted by shownomercy at 1:48 PM on August 11, 2009

To add more variables to the problem, calories counts on labels are an approximation, an approximation which may not be particularly accurate in some cases. 800 calories of walnuts does not necessarily equal 800 calories of chocolate cake. The fat in coconut milk might be less caloric than the fat in dairy cream despite the nutrition labels.
posted by paulg at 2:18 PM on August 11, 2009

Another point of confusion you might run into is that tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil are now being used to replace the newly-demonized trans fats in processed foods, so there's a lot of information being thrown about by marketing people who might being thinking more about sales numbers than health.

The basics of fat: saturated ones are typically solid at room temperature (think butter, that white blob on the side of your steak, etc.) while unsaturated ones are liquid at room temperature (think canola, peanut oil, etc.). You can turn an unsaturated fat from a liquid to a solid by adding hydrogen: partial or complete hydrogenation.

When science figured out that saturated fats are bad for the ol' arteries, the food companies started using unsaturated vegetable oils in their processed foods. But to get the textures right, they needed solid fat, not liquid, so they had to hydrogenate the oils. That's where you get shortening, traditional margarine, etc. The thing is, the hydrogenation process creates trans-fats.

Once we all switched to partially hydrogenated soybean oil in our twinkies and oreos and margarine and whatnot, scientists then discovered that these trans fats are pretty much just as terrible for your arteries as the saturated fats were, and they may even be worse. So now we have this "trans-fat free!!!" craze going on.

Except we all still need our twinkies and oreos, so the food manufacturers still need a solid fat to put in them. Luckily for food companies, tropical oils like palm and coconut oil are naturally solid at room temperature (because they're chock full of saturated fat), but they come from plants and don't have scary chemistry words like "hydrogenated" or "trans" in their names. Hooray for marketable fat!

The point of all this long explanation is to explain why some people (e.g. food manufacturers) are suddenly touting the goodness of tropical oils, while others (e.g. people who understand that saturated fat is saturated fat) are trying to remind us that we still need to eat them in moderation.

All that said, curry over vegetables is obviously a lot healthier than a box of mini-donuts. Yeah, it has lots of calories, and yeah, a lot of them are from saturated fat. If you eat too much of it, you've got a strong chance of ending up with obesity and/or heart disease. But if you can practice moderation, the way we all should, hopefully you'll be fine.

Also, please beware of the "reduced fat" coconut milk. "Reduced" is not the same as "low," and even the reduced fat stuff still has a lot of fat in it.
posted by vytae at 3:00 PM on August 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

Nobody ever got fat and diabetic from eating too much coconut milk and walnuts, right?

Eating too many calories will make you fat and diabetic, and it doesn't matter if they are vegetable or animal based calories. Even if it matters a little whether they are, too many calories is still too many calories. Keep your calories and saturated fats within reason and everything should be fine. You seem to want to be told that because these are vegetables they are "healthy" despite containing a lot of calories and saturated fats. It isn't health food, but as a lot of people have been saying its the overall diet that matters. There is room for a calorie and saturated fat laden meal in most diets. If it becomes every meal then you increase your risks of gaining weight, getting heart disease etc.
posted by caddis at 3:09 PM on August 11, 2009

Nobody ever got fat and diabetic from eating too much coconut milk and walnuts, right?

I suppose it's possible that trying to subsist only on coconut milk and walnuts would give you such a massive case of the screaming Mach 2 shits that you couldn't actually get fat.

But apart from that, if you eat enough of anything with more calories than it takes to digest it (ie not sawdust or celery), you can gain weight.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:09 PM on August 11, 2009

Thanks, vytae.
posted by hifiparasol at 3:25 PM on August 11, 2009

You seem to want to be told that because these are vegetables they are "healthy" despite containing a lot of calories and saturated fats.

posted by hifiparasol at 5:09 PM on August 11, 2009

When science figured out that saturated fats are bad for the ol' arteries

Even that is not a given these days.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:17 PM on August 11, 2009

Use canned evaporated milk, coconut essence / extract to taste and a spoon of four favourite Thai curry sauce.

(And affluent Pacific Islanders are suffering a morbid obesity crisis from an endlessly abundant supply of fatty pork, coconut cream, starches and sugary drinks.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:38 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmmm....look at people who eat tons of fat from coconuts like the Kitavans. I hope you will do more research on this. You will find that there are plenty of reputable studies and scientists supporting the idea of coconut as a health food and that the idea that fat is fat and calories are all that really matters is hotly contended. It's not just food manufacturers vs.'s scientist on scientist action. I only wish I had gotten to this thread sooner. It makes me very sad to see posts like vytae's.

This issue is very complex. Coconut has many interesting's definitely not just about the saturated fat here. It's an incredibly satisfying food and people who consume lots of it generally don't eat lots of calories. Maybe that's why culture's that survive on it are so healthy. For me, it was learning about these cultures and others that eat high saturated fat diets like the Masai and Himba and DO NOT have any of the diseases of civilization like obesity, acne, heart disease. I would suggest checking out Cordain's Paleo Diet and Taube's Good Calories Bad Calories.

I studied agricultural science and now work in agriculture supporting small farmers. I am definitely not a shill for the food industry. I have eaten a diet very very high in coconut for years now and my stats are great...low cholesterol, low body fat, acne I had is gone.
posted by melissam at 8:55 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here are some good posts on the subject
The most important finding of this study was that lowering total saturated fat in the form of coconut oil, from 22.7 to 10.5 E% without change in the P/S ratio [polyunsaturated to saturated ratio], did not lower total or LDL cholesterol, but significantly reduced HDL cholesterol.

Weight gain occurred even at 4.4% of calories from linoleic acid. We don't know what they would have looked like on less linoleic acid under the same conditions. However, rats fed a high-fat diet rich in coconut oil or butter (low n-6) do not gain weight, despite a greatly increased caloric intake (although they do gain some fat mass). It's also worth mentioning that rats in the tallow group had higher tissue concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, though they had an identical intake to the other two groups. This suggests that linoleic acid somehow drives omega-3 out of the tissues, and is consistent with studies showing a precipitous drop in muscle concentration of omega-3 in cows fed grains and soybeans in a feedlot.

posted by melissam at 8:58 PM on August 11, 2009

I found that calories from fat are much more filling and keep me sated longer than any other calories. The key is to watch the calories. The problem people have with fat is that it's delicious so they tend to eat more than they should. Just keep an eye on the calorie content and eat what you want. That's always worked for me but I've always found it easier to control my calorie intake when I ate healthier food that was high in fat i.e. peanut butter/avocados. It just burns slower than anything else.
posted by any major dude at 7:52 AM on August 12, 2009

Don't worry, coconut milk will give you a heart attack long before it makes you fat.
posted by chunking express at 8:05 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

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