Magic Potion?

May 8, 2011

Standing still onstage for long periods during Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony used to cause Miami City Ballet apprentice Suzette Logue’s calves to cramp. Soon, however, she found a solution. “It doesn’t happen now that I drink coconut water,” says Logue. “A few swigs backstage and I’m good for an entire performance.”


Logue is not alone in her passion for the beverage. Texas Ballet Theater’s Leticia Oliveira, a Brazilian, says coconut water keeps her energy up and reminds her of home. The entire crew of Hope Stone Dance in Houston swears by it. Many nutritionists say it gives dancers a better way to hydrate than sugary sports drinks, since it has about 600 mg of potassium, 60 mg of magnesium, zero fat, and only 46 calories in an 8-oz. serving. A 12-oz. serving of Gatorade, in contrast, has 310 calories but only 105 mg of potassium.


But by now coconut water has been touted as far more than an all-natural sports drink. Some even claim it strengthens the immune system and speeds up the metabolism. “There are claims it’s a cure for diabetes, cancer, and hypertension,” says Ally Wagner, a nutritionist with Cincinnati Ballet. “Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Coconut water is high in vitamins and minerals, some with antioxidant properties that are shown to fight cancer in a lab setting, but many fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C and selenium do just the same.” And the claim that it boosts your energy? Wagner says there is little evidence for that either.


So what can it do for thirsty dancers?


Like sports drinks, coconut water replenishes essential electrolytes (potassium, sodium, magnesium) that the body needs in order to function. Technically a juice—the fluid contained in young green fruit—coconut water should not be confused with coconut milk or oil, both far higher in fat content. Coconut water long has been a popular beverage in South America, the Pacific Rim, and other tropical regions. You can enjoy the slightly tangy drink plain (ugh!), and flavored (much tastier) in popular off-the-shelf versions packaged with brand names like Zico, and au naturel right out of the fruit. In packaged form, however, you’ll be paying $3 for an 11-oz. bottle. Coconut water does contain more potassium than a banana, which makes it ideal for avoiding cramps, as Logue can attest. “I used to eat a banana before going onstage,” she says, “but I really don’t like to eat before dancing.”


It’s not unusual to find Ingrid Graham, artistic director of Collaboration Movement in Los Angeles, drinking right from the coconut through a straw. “I like the real deal,” she says. “I can hydrate with way less fluid, which just works better before a show.” Graham discovered coconut water while vacationing in Bali. “You don’t need very much to feel great,” she says. “And I am less bloated than when drinking water.”


Roberta Anding, a clinical dietitian and director of sports nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, says coconut water has real benefits. “It has been used for rehydration in other countries for years,” says Anding, who works with Houston Ballet’s dancers. She has found some research to back a few of the product’s claims. “Studies suggest that coconut water may lower cholesterol in animals,” she says, “but I have not seen one with humans to confirm this. And there are dancers who not only enjoy the taste, but find it refreshing. Is it a miracle drink? Of course not.”


Wagner goes a step further and cautions dancers against throwing away all their sports drinks and substituting coconut water. “After strenuous exercise, protein and carbohydrates must be replaced due to the utilization of glucose for energy and the breakdown of muscle tissue from exertion,” she says. “Coconut water does not contain enough protein or carbohydrates to do that.” She recommends supplementing the beverage with a small meal that contains both a lean protein and complex carbohydrate.


Yet while coconut water may not be a magical elixir, in moderation it can be a healthy alternative to plain old agua. “It’s important to hydrate with water throughout the day,” says Wagner. “The occasional glass of coconut water will do no harm.”


Nancy Wozny, an arts and health writer in Houston, prefers the peach and mango coconut water flavors.