If the idea of coconut instantly brings up pictures of cream pies, pina coladas and Almond Joys, maybe it’s time to expand your vision of coconut. That flaky, buttery fruit, often used for topping ice cream sundaes, might be just what the nutritionist ordered. Incorporating the various health benefits of coconut into your diet isn’t as difficult — or boring — as you might think. With a fruit this diverse, there’s no end to options.

Replace butter and vegetable oils

With a 92-percent saturated fat content, coconut oil doesn’t sound much like a health food. But according to many doctors and nutritionists, that’s exactly what it is. The saturated fat in coconut oil actually raises HDL (or “good”) cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease. Other studies, like this one published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, have shown that consumption actually increases energy expenditure, causing you to burn more calories. While you can cook with coconut oil as you would any other type of oil, it’s mild, slightly sweet flavor is perfect for replacing oils or butters in baked goods, like whole wheat muffins or bread.

Thicken soups, sauces and shakes

Gluten-free readers, rejoice: Cooking with coconut just got a little more floury. Coconut flour, made from dried, finely ground coconut pulp, is high in fiber, low in carbohydrates and totally gluten free. Coconut flour can be used to make all kinds of baked goods, but keep in mind that, because of its unique texture, it requires a larger ratio of wet to dry ingredients. This dry texture happens to make coconut flour a great thickener for soups, sauces and even protein shakes — and a little goes a long way. With its mild, nutty flavor, a coconut flour thickener will never taste chalky or floury.

Indulge in coconut butter

It’s hard to meet any kind of butter and not fall in love, but coconut butter offers a unique kind of decadence. Made from ground coconut meat, coconut butter is rich in lauric acid, which can help boost immunity as well as fight harmful bacteria and viruses. The butter is also high in coconut oil, which a 2009 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine found to reduce abdominal fat in women. Slather some goodness on a piece of whole grain toast for a breakfast high in healthy fats or combine with honey and cocoa for a decadent, heart-healthy fudge.

Get (coconut) milk

No wonder they call it a superfood, a term associated with foods scientifically proven to provide health benefits (see CNN's "Eat more 'superfoods' to lose weight"); coconut can do just about anything. And if you happen to be lactose intolerant or following a dairy-restricted diet, coconut might just be your new best friend. Rich in calcium and magnesium, coconut milk can help lower blood pressure, calm nerves, strengthen bones and even regulate blood sugar. While it has long been used in Asian dishes like curries and soups, coconut milk can be a great substitute for dairy cream or milk in recipes for creamed vegetables, marinades, puddings and even ice cream.

Get to the meat of it

While coconut takes many forms, there’s still a place in the pantry (and your belly) for your basic shredded or flaked coconut. But instead of buying the baking-aisle sugary stuff, opt for the raw, unsweetened variety. Toast shaved, unsweetened coconut with a little honey and a sprinkle of sea salt for a simple, delicious and healthy snack or use as a topping for yogurt, oatmeal or granola.

A journalism graduate from Brigham Young University, Kristen Price has experience writing in a variety of fields, including art, culture, health, fitness and financial and real estate services. She has written for USA Today, SFGate and the Knot.