Dates, a symbol of abundance and a rich source of fiber, potassium and calcium, have been the staple food of Ramadan tables ever since Prophet Muhammad advised fellow Muslims to break their fasts with the sacred fruit. Native to the Middle East and tropical and desert climates, dates have many types – from sweet and fleshy Safawis and flaky yet chewy Khudris to juicy Medjools aka the "queen of dates," there is a type for everyone out there.
Besides being delicious, dates are truly a remedial reserve, especially when it comes to fasting. Thanks to their high carbohydrate content that packs a lot of energy in such a small volume, they help to quickly renew empty carbohydrate stores, suppress sugar cravings and thus help you control your appetite throughout the day.
High in body-building amino acids, vitamins A, B and C, as well as many minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, iron, zinc, copper and selenium, dates are truly a powerhouse of nutrients. However, they are also mostly made up of simple carbohydrates, mainly glucose and fructose, therefore like all foods, moderation is key when it comes to eating dates. Nutrition and dietetic specialist Demet Cerit of Acıbadem Atakent Hospital said excessive consumption of the sweet, syrupy fruit can lead to weight gain and imbalances in blood sugar.
Consuming a portion of dates, which is just two to three pieces, 1-1.5 hours after dinner is fine though, she said but cautioned to watch out for added sugars in the form of glucose syrup, which is used to sweeten and brighten dates.
Bar diabetics and those with insulin resistance, the health benefits of dates far outweigh its naturally high sugar content. Here are a few reasons why we should eat dates regularly, according to Cerit.
Helps you feel full
Dates are fruits rich in soluble dietary fibers, especially pectin. So how does this prolong satiety? Well, these fibers, which attract water, increase the fluidity of stomach content, therefore prolonging the time it spends in the stomach and provides a feeling of fullness, Cerit said. By including food high in fiber, such as dates in your iftars and sahurs and overall diet, as well as support this fiber intake by consuming plenty of water, you will have greater control over your appetite and be fuller for longer, she added.
Studies show that dates can have a stimulating effect on the immune system. This effect of dates is associated with their beta-glucan content, which is a polysaccharide, the better and more complex type of carbohydrates doctors advise we should consume. In addition, dates also contain high amounts of phenolic compounds and carotenoids (both which have great cancer-fighting properties) as well as vitamins, all of which are thought to play a role in supporting the immune system thanks to their antimicrobial effects and antioxidant properties.
Sugar cravings no more
After prolonged periods of hunger or fasting, our body directs us toward sources with high carbohydrates, namely sweet foods, so that our blood sugar can rapidly return to its normal levels and replace those empty food stores.
“However, to prevent weight gain and avoid irregularities related to blood sugar, using the natural sugar content of fruits (instead of artificial sweets) to meet our needs for something sweet. With their distinctive flavor and rich sweetness, dates can be a good choice for all your dessert needs,” Cerit said.
Foods such as dates with high dietary fiber should have an important part in a healthy diet. To keep everything running smoothly, dieticians recommend consuming at least 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day. Studies have shown that upping your dietary fiber intake increases stool volume and shortens its intestinal transit time, thereby helping prevent dreaded constipation. In Ramadan, you might as well take advantage of the rich fiber content of dates to aid digestion and prevent consideration, which is a frequent and unfortunate side effect of reduced food and water consumption during this period.
Good for the heart
Dates are known as an excellent source of potassium, an essential mineral responsible for maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Potassium is involved in ensuring neural conduction, regulating our pulse and blood pressure. Research reveals that a diet rich in potassium helps to lower blood pressure, maintain cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of stroke.
Protect against eye diseases
Dates also contain compounds that help stop age-related eye diseases from developing. Studies have shown that dates are a strong source of zeaxanthin and lutein, which are types of carotenoids present in eye tissue and have antioxidant properties. Therefore, these compounds are thought to be useful in preventing the development of cataract and macular degeneration (macula: the central part of the retina) in elderly individuals.
Nervous system and energy
Dates, which contain moderate levels of B1, vitamin B2 and niacin (B3), as well as vitamin B6, help us meet our daily vitamin B needs. The aforementioned B vitamins are involved in metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins and fats, i.e. getting energy from these nutrients. They also play an important role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system. When you are running low on these vitamins, you will most likely complain about fluctuating and decreased energy levels, weakness, fatigue and concentration problems. This is all the more important when you are fasting when brain fog is a real challenge.
Key for strong bones
When it comes to bone health, the first mineral that comes to mind is calcium. Cerit said calcium absorption is just as important as its intake.
Calcium and phosphorus are two minerals that work together to protect bone health and their absorption increases when taken together. Consuming dates, which contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc as well as phosphorus, daily helps us improve our bone health and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis, Cerit said.
Fresh or dried, eat year-round
Though the nutritional value of dates depends on their type, whether they are fresh or dried, their degree of maturity and their growing conditions, dates are nutrition superstars. Thanks to their accessibility and long shelf life, they are mostly consumed when ripe and then dried.
Stating that while fresh dates are richer in protein and phenolic compounds, they do slightly lose some antioxidants and have a higher carbohydrate content when ripe and dried, Cerit said they are still highly beneficial for our overall health and the loss is minuscule. So consume this fruit "not only in Ramadan but also year-round, both fresh and dried," she added.