If you're anything like me, dates may seem like a bit of a mystery fruit. Often nestled in between raisins and prunes (they even look a little similar to prunes) in the grocery store, these small, wrinkly fruits pack a one-two punch of sweetness and nutrition. Coated with a crinkly skin that shimmers from its natural sugars, dates have an oval shape and contain a single seed surrounded by sticky, edible flesh (similar to cherries, mangoes, and peaches). They're grown on date palm trees, Arecaceae (think: coconut trees), and depending on the variety, fresh dates are fairly small in size and range in color from bright red to bright yellow.
The history of this sweet, yet nutritious treat goes way back. According to research, the date palm is one of civilization's oldest cultivated crops and has been eaten for 6,000 years. It's estimated that the native origin of dates is around the Persian Gulf, and that they were cultivated from all the way from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt in as early as 4000 BCE. Fun fact: According to an NPR article, fossils prove that date palm trees thrived 50 million years ago. Sources say that ancient cultures called the date palm "the tree of life" and used all parts of the tree, from the trunk to the leaves.
With more than 200 varieties of dates grown around the world, Medjool and Deglet Noor dates are the most commonly consumed. With a color that ranges from light red to amber, regular Deglet Noor dates have a firm flesh and a sweet, delicate flavor. Medjool dates, by contrast, have a rich, almost caramel-like taste and a soft, chewy texture. Medjool dates and normal Deglet Noor dates are very similar in terms of nutrient content, which means you can expect their health benefits to be similar as well (as if being delicious isn't enough!). Health and wellness strategy manager, Meghan Sedivy, RD, LDN, breaks down all the health benefits of dates, why they're an excellent healthy snack, and her favorite ways to include them in your regular diet.
The Top Health Benefits of Dates
Dates Are High in Nutritive Value
Filling up on fiber is essential not only to gut health, but for overall health. A simple 3.5-ounce serving of dates provides nearly 7 grams of fiber. "Dates are a nutritional powerhouse, packed with fiber to help fill you up and keep you full longer, as well as promote healthy digestion and heart health," Sedivy says. "Dates are an excellent source of potassium, which helps muscles contract, nerves to function, and hearts to beat regularly."
A few of the most potent antioxidants in dates include flavonoids (shown to lessen the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and certain types of cancer), carotenoids (proven to promote heart health), and phenolic acid (may help display anticancer activity).
As an added benefit, Sedivy notes, "dates also contain a variety of antioxidants that may help reduce inflammation in the body and may help prevent the risk of certain diseases."
Dates Promote Brain Power
Studies show that regular consumption of dates is usually associated with lower risk of neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer's disease) and better cognitive performance. Ongoing research also determines that a diet rich in dates may improve memory and learning.
May Ease Natural Labor
Eating this dried fruit to ease the labor experience may seem like an old wives' tale, but according to studies, there could be some truth to this ancient myth. In 2011, a prospective study was carried out on 69 women who consumed six date fruits per day for four weeks prior to their estimated date of delivery, compared with 45 women who consumed none. At the end of the study, researchers found that the women who consistently ate the dates had a shorter first stage of labor, significantly higher mean cervical dilatation, and had a reduced need for labor induction.
How to Eat More Dates
According to Sedivy, the proper portion size for a serving of dates is about one-fourth cup, but "if you're worried about the sugar and calorie amount, I recommend eating two to three large dates to reap all the health benefits associated with them," she says. Here are some tasty ways to nosh on dates more often.
Pop dates for dessert.
"An easy way to incorporate dates into your meal plan is to use them for dessert," Sedivy suggests. "Dates can be used as a natural sweetener because they contain fructose, a natural type of sugar found in fruit. In addition to their sweet flavor you might also recognize a hint of caramel flavor, which makes them perfect as a caramel filling for cookies, cakes, or even brownies. Here's how to make sweet and satisfying chocolate-oat-date bars.
RELATED: How to Make Date Caramel Sauce
Eat them with nuts or nut butter as a protein-packed snack.
Personally, Sedivy loves to eat them as a snack. "I pair two to three Medjool dates with a large scoop of natural peanut butter to help fill me up until my next meal and satisfy my sweet tooth at the same time."
Blend them up in a smoothie.
Add sweetness, butterscotch-y goodness, and thickness to a healthy smoothie by adding dates. Throw a few medjools along with some unsweetened oat or almond milk, hemp seeds, ice, and cinnamon to a blender and prepare to be converted. We swear you'll think you're sipping on your favorite milkshake from the diner around the corner.
Serve them as sweet-and-savory appetizers.
Part healthy, part sinful—but completely satisfying—try stuffing pitted medjool dates with tangy, creamy goat cheese and wrapping each morsel in salty, smoky bacon before your guests arrive. Bake them for about eight minutes to get the best pre-dinner bites your friends have ever tasted (with some secret health benefits they never knew they needed). Here's how to make easy bacon-wrapped goat cheese stuffed dates.