Move over raisins and prunes! There’s a trendier dried fruit in town. Dates come from date palm trees, which grow in tropical climates. While dates can be eaten fresh off the tree, they’re easier to find in their dehydrated (dried) form.
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“Dates are loaded with natural sugars, so drying them only intensifies their sweet, caramel-like flavor,” says registered dietitian Gillian Culbertson, RD, LD. “But just because they’re sugary doesn’t mean they’re bad for you. Dates have a lot of benefits and are packed with nutrients your body needs.”
The short answer is yes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one serving of dates (about 100 grams or four dates) contains a high percentage of your recommended daily amount of:
“Dates are also high in fiber with about 7 grams per serving,” says Culbertson. “That’s the same amount of fiber as a cup of cooked whole wheat pasta or just under a half cup of lentils. Another benefit of eating dates is helping you reach your body’s daily iron quota.”
One variety of dates, the Medjool date, is actually a fresh fruit — not dried — and an easy way to help you eat more produce! Plus, each serving provides 3.6 g of protein as well.
These small fruits pack a big nutritional punch. Culbertson explains six health benefits of dates:
Research shows that fiber’s health benefits go beyond keeping your inner plumbing from clogging. Getting plenty of fiber from vegetables and fruits like dates can also help:
Dates are ripe with plant compounds that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are cellular bandits in your body that steal electrons from healthy cells to stabilize themselves. This thievery comes with costs that include cell damage and a higher risk for chronic diseases.
Studies show that free radicals play a role in the development of:
“Because antioxidants fight free radicals, they help prevent this domino effect of disease development,” explains Culbertson. Dates contain several kinds of antioxidants, including:
Several studies have connected dates with improved brain function, thanks to their antioxidant content. Antioxidants prevent inflammation throughout your body, including in your brain. Brain inflammation has been linked to the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
“One study in models in the lab concluded that better memory, improved learning and less anxiety-related behaviors were benefits of eating dates,” notes Culbertson. “Dates were also linked to fewer amyloid beta proteins in the brain. Plaques formed by these proteins have been connected to the development of Alzheimer’s.” Culbertson cautions that while these results are promising, they would need to be tested in humans before we’re sure of these benefits.
Your little one was due a week ago, and now the doctors are talking forcible eviction — unless you can figure out how to get things going on your own. “There’s some research to support that eating dates could encourage labor,” says Culbertson. “How long you should eat them still remains to be determined, but one study showed a difference when people ate them daily around the last month of pregnancy. And dates may also help shorten how long people are in labor.”
How could dates have an impact on this complicated biological process? Compounds in dates seem to stimulate oxytocin receptors, which is normally the hormone oxytocin’s job. The presence of oxytocin is the key to productive labor contractions. And because dates are an excellent source of healthy carbohydrates and high in natural sugars, eating them helps your body store enough energy for the labor itself.
Like human hormones, plant hormones (phytohormones) help plants grow and reproduce. And they may also have anti-aging benefits for your skin. For that reason, phytohormones are sometimes used in skin care products. Dates just happen to be chock full of phytohormones.
In one small study, researchers made a skin cream with 5% date palm kernel extract. Middle-aged women used the cream around their eyes twice daily for five weeks. “The date palm kernel cream reduced the size and depth of their wrinkles,” shares Culbertson. “While the study only involved 10 women, the results were clinically significant and showed a lot of promise.”
Looking to eat less sugar? Make a sweet date paste by mixing dates with water in a blender. To use it as a sugar substitute, swap it at a 1:1 ratio — so if your recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, use 1 cup of date paste instead. “You’ll miss none of the sweetness while gaining antioxidants and fiber,” says Culbertson.And dates are considered a low glycemic index food with a glycemic index around 42, which can keep blood sugars steady.
You can also use chopped dates as a more nutritious substitute for candies and chocolate chips in dessert recipes. Or add them to balance out savory dishes like roasted Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts and dates.
When you have a sweet tooth, dates can healthfully satisfy that craving. But don’t go overboard — dates are as rich in calories as they are in nutrients. Whether you’re new to dates or you’ve been on the bandwagon for a while, your body will thank you for including this versatile fruit in your diet.