Naturally sweet and super versatile, this fruit is just so good for you.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
September 09, 2020
Advertisement

Dates are often associated with dessert; their natural sweetness and rich flavor are indeed decadent. But this nutritious fruit can actually offer some pretty impressive health benefits. Here are seven ways dates can protect your health, and simple ways to incorporate this super fruit into meals, snacks, drinks, and treats.

Dates are nutrient-rich

Three dates provide about 200 calories, 54 grams of carbohydrates with about 5 grams as fiber, a gram of protein, and no fat. This size portion also supplies smaller amounts of a wide range of nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin K, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and manganese. In other words, dates aren’t simply sugar bombs or empty calories.

Dates have a variety of antioxidants

In addition to their vitamin and mineral content, dates are rich in health protective antioxidants. One recent paper, published in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, states that dates are a good source of natural antioxidants, which can be used for the management of oxidative stress–related illnesses. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the production of cell-damaging free radicals and the body's ability to counter their harmful effects. It’s a precursor to aging and cell damage that can lead to disease. Dates also contain anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds, which means they may also play a role in combating infectious diseases.

Other research has shown that dates contain many antioxidants, including carotenoids, polyphenols (e.g., phenolic acids, isoflavons, lignans, and flavonoids), tannins, and sterols. They also possess anti-fungal properties.

Dates are naturally sweet and provide no added sugar 

Many people think of dates as dried fruit—but they’re actually fresh fruit, since no water is removed. And because dates are whole, unprocessed fruit, their sugar content is naturally occurring. In other words, if an energy bar is sweetened only with dates, the label can list 0 grams of added sugar. That’s key, because added sugar is the type we should limit, due to its association with an increased risk of heart disease and obesity.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, which equates to 25 grams or 100 calories. The advised cap for men is nine teaspoons of added sugar, which is 36 grams or 150 calories. If you use dates to sweeten a meal or recipe, you haven’t used up any of your daily added sugar budget, unlike sweeteners such as cane sugar.

Dates support digestive health

Three dates provide about 18% of the daily goal for fiber, which supports good digestive function. One study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, looked specifically at the impact of date consumption on the gut. Healthy men were randomly assigned to eat either seven dates per day, or a control addition of a carbohydrate and sugar mixture for 21 days. After a 14-day washout period, the groups switched. Researchers found that while eating dates, the study subjects experienced improvements in their bowel movement frequency and a reduced level of stool chemicals known to damage cells and trigger mutations that may lead to cancer.

If you’ve ever experienced constipation, you know how it can wreak havoc with your energy level and overall comfort. Dates can be a simple way to get things moving.

Dates protect heart health and blood sugar regulation

Older research has examined the effects of date intake in healthy adults over a four-week period. In one study, volunteers ate about three and a half ounces a day of two different types of dates. At the end of the month, researchers found that the date addition did not significantly affect the body mass index (BMI), total cholesterol, LDL, or HDL levels of the study subjects. Most important, fasting blood glucose and blood fat levels did not increased after consuming either date variety. In fact, blood fats decreased, as did measures of oxidative stress.

Another more recent study tested date consumption on both blood fats and glycemic control. One hundred men and women with type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to eat either no dates at all or to add three dates daily for 16 weeks. The date eaters experienced a statistically significant decrease in both total cholesterol and ”bad” LDL. And HbA1c (a measure of blood sugar control over the previous two- to three-month period) did not change in the date eaters. The group that consumed dates also experienced improvements in mental health and measures of overall quality of life.

These studies are significant because blood sugar regulation and heart health are closely connected. People with type 2 diabetes have a twofold increased risk of heart disease, including heart attack; cardiovascular disease is the top cause of death among people with type 2 diabetes.

Dates may offer brain protection

Protective compounds in dates are also thought to help guard the brain. A paper published in the journal Neural Regeneration Research states that dates have promising therapeutic potential against Alzheimer’s disease, due to their ability to combat inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain.

Date may help ease natural labor

One additional potential benefit of dates applies specifically to pregnant women. A 2020 paper, published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, looked at the impact of dates on labor and delivery. Researchers reviewed previously published studies and concluded that eating dates may reduce the duration of the active phase of labor, the stage during which the cervix dilates. It may also improve bishop score, a measure that rates the readiness of the cervix for vaginal labor. However, date consumption had no effect on the length of the first, second, and third stages of labor, or the frequency of cesarean section. 

How to enjoy dates and add them to meals and snacks

Dates are my go-to sweetener in a wide variety of recipes, including smoothies, energy balls, oatmeal and overnight oats, chia or avocado pudding, and baked goods. I also use pureed dates to make homemade plant-based “ice cream” mixed with ingredients like plant milk, cinnamon, and add-ins, such as chopped dark chocolate and pitted cherries. You can also incorporate dates into savory dishes. They add natural sweetness and balance to garden salads, cooked veggies like sautéed kale or roasted cauliflower, and veggie stir fries.

One of my favorite year-round fast snacks is stuffed dates. I stuff them with nut and seed butters, herbed nut-based, plant-based “cheeses,” and even savory fillings, like olive tapenade and dairy-free pesto. Of course, they’re also perfect as is!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

To get more nutrition and diet tips delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Balanced Bites newsletter