Lately I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about anything other than how great coconut water is. People tell me that it’s perfect for hydration, rehydration and recovery from sports, but is it? Is this just another case of really convincing advertising and people wanting to catch on to one of the newest celebrity trends? Obviously to answer this question I did a bit of research, but first let’s explore what Coconut water is being used for, its composition and finally whether or not it works.
So what is Coconut water used for? Just with any beverage targeted towards the athletic community, Coconut water is being praised for its ability to hydrate, prevent dehydration, ensure optimal performance, delay fatigue, increase performance, recovery and the list goes on. One thing I’ve repeatedly heard is the low calorie content of Coconut water; this is obviously being compared to other beverages targeted towards the athletic community, ironically not the 0 calorie sports drinks. Additionally the mentality that “natural is always better” brings a big gold seal to Coconut water.
Coconut water is sounding pretty good right now, that is until we start exploring its composition. Firstly dehydration is an important factor towards elite-level athletes. A 2% loss of body weight is enough to cause dehydration, increase in body temperature and decreased athletic performance, but this is of course in Elite-level athletes not the hobbyist at your weekend Hockey tournament. Coconut water, which is the juice of young coconuts, may have fewer calories than ‘normal’ sports drinks. Coconut water contains 45-60 calories/ 250ml but the top two advertised Sports Beverages contain 55-56 calories/ 250ml. So really can people honestly say that it’s lower calorie? The answer here is obviously ‘no.’ Additionally the sugar composition of Coconut water is approximately 50% glucose, 35% sucrose and 15% fructose. Unfortunately the exact composition of the most advertising Sports Beverage is kept under company secrecy, but the nutrition label lists Sugar and Dextrose. Without going into the Science, Dextrose is more easily absorbed into the body during physical activity to assist with athletic performance, whereas sucrose and fructose have to undergo some chemical reactions before it can be used for energy by the body. This will ultimately slow down recovery and will not be as optimal for athletic performance. Aside from the types of sugars in Coconut water Vs Sports Beverages, coconut water contains sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, similar to Sports Beverages. The biggest issue is that Coconut water contains five times more Potassium than Sodium 1500mg/L and 400mg/L respectively, whereas sports drinks contain 300mg/L of potassium and 600mg/L of Sodium. During physical activity the athlete will lose more Sodium then Potassium and therefore Coconut water falls short again on being sufficient for rehydration. The American Chemical Society even concludes that Coconut water alone cannot replace the sodium lost through extreme exercise, which is critical for elite level athletes.
We’ve talked a lot about Coconut water’s composition so far, but at the end of the day the most important question is whether it works or not. In a 2012 study by Kalman et al. comparing coconut water to sports drinks in male athletes 12 men did 60 minutes of running on a treadmill and received water, coconut water or a sports drink. Hydration status was measured during the recovery period where the subjects lost approximately 2% of body mass and regained it after drinking the fluids. The researchers found no significant different in performance with any of the fluids consumed. Additionally, athletes reported bloating and stomach upsetness after drinking coconut water. In a 2002 study by Saat et al. compared 8 male subjects after they ran on a treadmill for 60 minutes to test the effects of coconut water on recovery. The researchers found that blood sugar levels were higher when subjects drank sports drinks and coconut water when compared to plain water, which is extremely obvious to anyone who just read that sentence. But the researchers found the Sports Drink to be superior in terms of rehydration. Researchers concluded that if Sodium was added to coconut water then it could be sufficient as a Sports Beverage to assist in rehydration of the athlete. To add to this, in 2007 Ismail conducted a study comparing plain water, sports drinks, regular coconut water and sodium-enriched coconut water for their effects on rehydration. Ismail had participants run on a treadmill for 90 minutes to lose 3% of their body weight and were instructed to drink one of the beverages equivalent to 120% of their body weight. The result was that the sodium-enriched coconut water was comparable to the Sports Beverage for rehydration after anthropometric and blood testing, but not regular coconut water.
So let’s go over the perceived superiority of Coconut water over Sports Beverages and water. People tell me that Coconut water is perfect for hydration, rehydration and recovery from sports, but it simply isn’t. Coconut water has approximately the same amount of calories when compared to the most advertised Sports Beverages, and there isn’t a no-calorie option for Coconut water, in which case it can be argued that Coconut water has more calories than the most advertised Sports Beverages. Coconut water also contains five times more Potassium then Sodium, which is not the primary electrolyte that should be replenished during extreme physical activity, in fact only sodium enhanced coconut water is good enough for post workout hydration recovery. The studies examined even reported bloating and stomach upsetness with regular coconut water. Additionally, no studies found coconut water to be effective for rehydration or recovery unless sodium was added to the coconut water.
It’s pretty straightforward that Coconut water simply isn’t superior for hydration, rehydration, to enhance athletic performance or to aid in recovery. This is just another case of another health trend ad celebrity craze with no logic or scientific evidence behind it whatsoever. In all honesty, physical activity under 60 minutes doesn’t even require Sports Beverages or Coconut water for optimal rehydration, just plain water will do. Don’t be caught up in the hype, Coconut water simply just doesn’t add up. Choose water instead if your physical activity is under 60 continuous minutes. If your physical activity lasts longer than 6o continuous minutes and is extreme it would be a much better idea to try a Sports Beverage to prevent dehydration, provide the right sugars to fuel and assist in recovery.
Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
I am a Registered Dietitian and Sports Dietitian. I received my undergraduate degree from Ryerson University’s School of Nutrition and graduated my Dietetic Internship from the Sunnybrook Dietetics Internship Program in 2010. In 2013, I received a Sports Dietitian Certificate from the Sports Dietitians of Australia and am currently pursuing Ryerson’s Physical Activity Assessment and Promotion certificate program, a personal trainer’s certificate and the International Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition Diploma.
I am also an athlete and when I’m not training for my next marathon, bike race, lifting weights or doing cross-fit workouts I’m busy cooking up a storm developing recipes for athletes. I specialize in endurance events and weight lifting but am more than qualified to work with any sport and medical conditions. I also trained as a Chef and a Pastry Chef in a number of Restaurants and Hotels across Toronto before combining the culinary world with dietetics and sport. Using all my combined knowledge I’m currently in the process of writing two cookbooks targeted towards athletes and the general public looking to live a healthier and more flavourful life. One of my biggest passions in life aside from Physical Activity, Nutrition and Food is travel. In fact, I will continue to travel the world, studying different cultures, cuisines and cooking styles in order to best serve my clients.
I believe that comfort is the greatest enemy of growth. My nutritional interventions will only work if you work together with me to defeat the part of you that has become content on your current lifestyle. Personal and emotional growth is what is needed in order for you to meet your own personal goals. After all, you’re driving the car to get to the destination; I give the directions on how to get there quickly, effectively and safely.
I also believe that true health cannot be attained by looking at any one particular aspect of the magnitude of things that affect our health, which is why I’m a proud member of the BBD team. At BBD there is recognition that true health and attaining health related goals involves a multi angle approach to the individual. From personalized nutritional goals to personalized training regimens, BBD’s team will tailor interventions to focus on the individual to not only reach your fitness goals, but to encourage and build a sustainable healthy lifestyle.
American Chemical Society. (2014). Coconut water is an excellent sports drink ― for light exercise. Retrieved August 18, 2014, from American Chemical Society: http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2012/august/coconut-water-is-an-excellent-sports-drink-for-light-exercise.html
Beck, L. (2012, August). How effective are sports drinks and coconut water? Retrieved August 17, 2012, from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/how-effective-are-sports-drinks-and-coconut-water/article4492017/
Ismail, I., & Sirisinge, R. (2007). REHYDRATION WITH SODIUM-ENRICHED COCONUT WATER AFTER EXERCISE-INDUCED DEHYDRATION. Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 38 (4), 769-785.
Kalman, D. S., Feldman, S., Krieger, D. R., & Bloomer, R. J. (2012). Comparison of coconut water and a carbohydrate-electrolyte sport drink on measures of hydration and physical performance in exercise-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9 (1).
Saat, M., Singh, R., Sirisinge, R., & Nawawi, M. (2002, January). Rehydration after Exercise with Fresh Young Coconut Water, Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Beverage and Plain Water. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science , 93-104.