Once thought to be unhealthy, this waxy, sweet-flavored oil can be used in a variety of beneficial ways in food and on the body.

What do you think of when you hear the word coconut? Palm trees and baked goods might be some of the first things that come to mind, but they don’t tell the whole story; the coconut palm produces fruit with benefits beyond tropical scenery and tasty desserts.

Coconut oil, in particular, can help keep your body healthy. The waxy, sweet-flavored oil can be used both in food and on the body, giving it a variety of uses that support wellness. From fighting bacteria and viruses to moisturizing skin and hair, this incredible oil is a natural, inexpensive way to support the health of your body both inside and out. To take advantage of all coconut oil has to offer, here’s what you need to know.

Healthy saturated fats?

For years, coconut oil was considered unhealthy because it contains saturated fat. Furthermore, its bad reputation was based on a highly processed version of the oil called partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which goes through chemical processes that kill essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other key nutritional components. Yet today, scientists are beginning to recognize that not all saturated fats are unhealthy, and additional studies are discovering the benefits of the less processed, virgin form of the oil.

Virgin coconut oils main benefits come from the saturated fat lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that supports total wellness; other beneficial medium-chain fatty acids in the oil are capric acid and caprylic acid. Coconut oil also contains vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals, which can damage cells and lead to a number of diseases.

Some of the key health benefits of coconut oil include:

Antibacterial properties.

Coconut oil has natural antibacterial properties that help boost immune function and fight off illness-causing viruses and bacteria; it also helps protect the body from ringworm, yeast, fungus, candida and intestinal parasites, among other issues. Whats great about the oil is that its texture allows for easy external application, and it can be used for skin issues like diaper rash, eczema and acne. Of course, be sure you’re storing the oil you use on your body in a separate container from the one containing the oil you eat.

Weight and cholesterol maintenance.

Research published in the journal Lipids showed that, in women who had abdominal obesity (excess belly fat), adding coconut oil to their diets reduced body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and bad LDL cholesterol, while raising good HDL cholesterol. Replacing cholesterol-raising fats like butter with a healthier fat like coconut oil is a great way to support weight loss and help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. And healthy weight and cholesterol levels are also good for your heart.

Skin and hair health.

Coconut oil is naturally moisturizing, making it good to use externally on dry skin and hair. It also contains the antioxidant vitamin E, which has a protective effect on the skin and supports healthy aging by reducing free radical damage. I recommend using organic coconut oil to limit exposure to toxins and chemicals.

Diabetes support.

Emerging studies show evidence that coconut oil supports the health of those with or at risk for Type 2 diabetes. Research published in the American Heart Associations journal Diabetes found that dietary supplementation with MCFA [medium chain fatty acids found in sources like coconut oil] may be beneficial for preventing obesity and peripheral insulin resistance conditions that can lead to diabetes.

Replace and enjoy

If you’d like to start eating this delicious oil, remember: Replace unhealthy fats with coconut oil; don’t add it on top of the fats you’re already eating. Eating one to two tablespoons daily is a good amount, but because its high in calories and fat, I don’t recommend eating much more than that. Limiting your intake of unhealthy saturated fats, as well as trans fats, is also recommended.

Working coconut oil into your existing culinary routine is easy. Instead of using butter in baking, substitute coconut oil using a simple 1:1 ratio. Coconut oil is great to cook with, too. Unlike olive oil, which is a medium-temperature oil, coconut oil can be cooked at high heat, making it ideal for dishes like stir-fry. It adds flavor when cooking or roasting any vegetables, and makes a delicious complement to bitter greens like kale. You can also find other ways to substitute coconut oil, such as using it on your morning toast in place of butter.

Choosing to supplement

If you don’t like coconut oil or aren’t having success working it into your diet, you might consider taking a dietary supplement. To support the health of your entire body, I recommend 2,000 to 4,000 milligrams daily, although you should check with your health care provider to determine the right dosage for you. An organic extra virgin supplement is a good choice.

As you can see, the coconut palm is not only picturesque but also offers significant health benefits. Oil from its fruit boosts immunity, metabolism, heart health and a number of other processes in the body. So, use the oil to add flavor to your meals and replace unhealthy fats. In moderation, coconut oil is a great way to complement your healthy diet.

Dr. Andrew Myers is an expert in nutrition and preventive medicine and the co-author of Health Is Wealth: 10 Power Nutrients That Increase Your Odds of Living to 100 and Health Is Wealth: Performance Nutrition. Visit healthiswealth.net for more information.