If you’re like a lot of people, you probably don’t give much thought to the humble date. And if you do, you probably think a date’s a date. But there are literally thousands of varieties of dates, though only a few hundred are grown commercially, and just two of those—medjool and deglet noor dates—make up the vast majority of dates sold in the United States. These sweet fruits don’t just taste good; they’re good for you too. So come with us as we explore the many health benefits of dates and uncover why you might want to include more of these sweet treats in your diet.
Dates: The Back Story
Dates come from the tropical date palm tree. Interestingly, like all palm trees, date palms aren’t true trees. They’re actually considered a type of grass—a grass that can reach 75 feet in height! When date palms bear their succulent fruit, they produce what look like hanging baskets of dates in huge bunches that resemble grapes.
The history of dates goes back over 8,000 years, when they’re believed to have originated in present-day Iraq. And since humans first tasted the sweet goodness of dates, they’ve been an integral part of various cultures, from the Middle East to ancient Egypt and Rome. In fact, dates are mentioned dozens of times in both the Christian Bible and the Muslim Quran.
Dates are such an honored part of Islamic culture that they’re traditionally the first food eaten by Muslims after the sun sets during Ramadan. And while you may think choosing a fruit with high sugar content (as much as 70% to 90%, mainly in the form of fructose, glucose, and sucrose) as your first bite of food after a period of fasting may be a recipe for nausea and chaotic blood sugar levels, it turns out that dates are actually quite healthy—so healthy, in fact, that you might even call them a superfood.
The Many Health Benefits of Dates
When it comes to nutritional value, dates pack a powerful punch. Just one date contains significant levels of several vitamins, including vitamin A and vitamin K as well as B vitamins, such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, and folate. They also contain significant levels of several important minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.
And that’s just the beginning. Because dates are also a rich source of a variety of phytonutrients, including important polyphenols like flavonoids and terpenes like carotenoids—substances that have proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties are especially potent in fresh dates, which contain up to 6 times the amount of phytochemicals seen in dried dates.
The phytochemicals in dates have been shown in multiple studies to play a role in reducing damage from free radicals, which can lead to unhealthy levels of oxidative stress and inflammation—known risk factors in the development of many chronic conditions, from high blood pressure and cholesterol levels to heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific ways eating dates can make a positive difference in your health and well-being.
It’s estimated that approximately three out of four people in the United States will experience hemorrhoids at some point in their lives. If you’ve ever dealt with this irritating condition, you know how itchy and painful hemorrhoids can be.
A number of things can predispose someone to developing hemorrhoids, including chronic constipation and diarrhea. However, drinking more water and eating more dietary fiber can reduce the risk of both constipation and diarrhea by regulating bowel movements. And dates are absolutely packed with fiber. In fact, just one date contains 6% of the RDA of dietary fiber!
The high levels of dietary fiber in dates have the added benefit of slowing digestion and decreasing blood sugar spikes. Which means these sweet treats are low on the glycemic index scale and may help reduce the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
As mentioned, the phytochemicals in dates have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that protect the body from oxidative damage and inflammation—two factors associated with the risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease.
A small study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that participants fed 100 grams (about four dates) of dates every day for 4 weeks experienced a significant decrease in levels of triglycerides and oxidative stress, despite the high sugar content of dates. What’s more, eating dates had absolutely no ill effects on either body weight or blood sugar levels.
These findings led researchers to conclude that consumption of dates can help reduce the risk of developing artery-clogging plaque buildup, which is associated with heart attacks and strokes.
However, it’s important to note that the health benefits of dates vary based on variety. For example, this particular study looked at both Halawi and Medjool dates, but the most impressive results were seen in participants who ate Halawi dates.
Along with polyphenols, dates contain high levels of carotenoids—phytochemicals that are proven to protect the retina from the damaging effects of blue light. Numerous studies have also found that by protecting the retina from damage by free radicals, carotenoids may help prevent the onset or progression of macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the United States.
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of antioxidants on brain health. Not only do they help prevent oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, but they’ve also been shown to reduce the formation of amyloid plaques, the accumulation of which is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
In fact, the results of a recent animal study, published in the journal Neural Regeneration Research, were so impressive they led researchers to conclude that dates have “promising therapeutic potential” against Alzheimer’s disease.
Like other systems in the body, the immune system can be negatively affected by oxidative stress, so adding dates to your diet can be a good way to boost immune health. But phytonutrients do more than just prevent damage from free radicals. They also exhibit antimicrobial properties.
A study published in Frontiers in Microbiology found that date syrup and its polyphenols are effective against both Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. This is an important finding and could make date syrup an important player in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Cancer is another chronic condition that’s affected by oxidative stress and inflammation. And the phytochemicals in dates have been shown in multiple studies to aid in the prevention and treatment of a number of different types of cancer, including breast, prostate, colon, lung, and pancreatic cancers.
Interestingly, studies have found that pregnant women who snack on dates throughout the final few weeks of pregnancy are more likely to experience shorter labor and less likely to require oxytocin induction for delivery. While research is ongoing, it’s hypothesized that compounds in dates bind to the body’s oxytocin receptors, mimicking its effects.
How to Add More Dates to Your Diet
While the natural sweetness of dates may tempt you to relegate them to the dessert menu, the truth is that these sweet fruits can be incorporated into everything from your morning smoothie or cereal to lunch and even dinner. So, to get you started, we’ve prepared a short list of some of the many ways you can add more dates to your diet:
- Add dates to cereal, oatmeal, fruit smoothies, or veggie shakes
- Use dates as a flavorful accompaniment to chicken
- Add dates to vegetable and fruit salads
- Stuff dates with cheese (blue, feta, or cream) or nuts
- Add dates to trail mixes and granola
- Bake dates into muffins, cakes, and breads
- Puree dates into paste to create yummy fudge
As you can see, the benefits of eating dates are many, and what you can do with them is limited only by your imagination. So we can’t recommend them enough.
And if you think indulging in these sweet treats will lead to weight gain, think again! Dates may contain a lot of calories and sugar for their size, but they’re also packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which support a healthy gut and healthy weight.
What’s more, studies have found that replacing unhealthy snacks with a handful of dates each day may even lead to weight loss. And they make a great addition to your exercise routine too. Not only do they boost your energy level before working out, but they also help give your muscles the fuel they need for post-workout growth and repair.
So don’t shy away from nature’s little energy balls. Whether you’re looking for a sweet pick-me-up or a new and tasty way to add a little extra nutrition to your life, this ancient fruit is a great way to add a little oomph to your diet.