If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to what’s going on in the health and nutrition community for the past several years, you have probably encountered the high-carb, low-fat crowd’s favorite fruit: the humble date. Though pitted dates have wormed their way into countless low-fat or raw recipes in recent years, these fruits have a history—they earned their place in our diets long before high-carb vegan moms were looking for snacks to pack for their kids.
According to fossil records, wild dates first arrived on the scene about fifty million years ago, which makes them the most ancient cultivated fruit in the world. Like other fruits, they were a sweet bribe devised by natural selection for the sole purpose of convincing animals to spread the seeds inside. Date palms, the plants that produce this fruit, were probably indigenous to the areas around Iraq and Iran. It is estimated that people living in northern Africa and western Asia began farming dates by the year 6000 BCE. Back in those days, farmers had to climb up the trees to pollinate their female flowers by hand, but this did not stop them from becoming a staple in the Middle East. Their sticky sweetness made them popular for use in desserts, which is what earned them such a key spot in Ramadan celebrations. Even now, date sales spike in the time leading up to Ramadan.
Many ancient cultures, particularly those with nomadic tendencies, relied heavily on dates to meet their nutritional needs—so much so that they referred to the date palm as the ‘tree of life’. The fruit’s resilience, portability and high natural sugar content made it a perfect source of energy for ancient traveling peoples.
Two types of dates made their way to the United States for the very first time around 1900, the deglet noor, which we often use for baking, and the medjool, which is famous for its juicy texture and often considered to be the king of dates. Both types of dates were brought into the country by agricultural explorer Walter Swingle in his USDA-given quest to scour the world for exotic, varied crops.
Early attempts at cultivating dates in the US failed, largely because planting date seeds offers mixed results even in the best of times. But the miracle did not happen until 1927, when Swingle was able to obtain a few medjool offshoots in Morocco. These offshoots were sent to the U.S.—and every single U.S.-grown medjool date today can be traced back to those first Moroccan offshoots, which produced the first six American date palms known as the “Big Six”. Thanks a ton, Morocco!
In modern times, growers in the United States harvest over 33,000 tons of dates every single year. 95% of these dates are grown in Coachella Valley, which is about two hours away from San Diego, California. Though date palms pollinate on their own, most growers still pollinate by hand to make sure they produce enough fruit to meet the growing demand.
So, why are dates so popular today? Largely for the same reasons for their popularity in ancient times: they are portable, they are healthy, and they are sinfully delicious. Twenty-first century Americans have spent the last fifty years or so hooked on sweet-tasting convenience foods—we are addicted to foods that give us nauseating sweetness with little or no preparation. Of course, the rise of corn syrup and artificial sweetener-laden foods have led to an increase in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. This has led to the rise of the whole-food movement in both its plant-based and its ‘paleo’ incarnations.
But no matter how much health-conscious individuals claim to love whole, ‘real’ foods, we’re still Americans, and we still want sweet, easy-to-prepare foods. For many people, dates meet that need. They are sweet, portable, and require no cooking. And, unlike the convenience foods we’ve grown to fear, they have a whole host of health benefits!
Still not convinced? Here are seven health benefits of dates:
Health Benefits of Dates
1. Dates relieve constipation.
Today, a lot of Americans struggle with constipation on a daily basis. This is why the market has been flooded with fiber-laden gummy bears, yogurt sworn to help you void your bowels, and even prescription-strength drugs for those who think they have tried everything. Dates are nature’s answer to our plugged-up colons: each one contains a lot of soluble fiber, which helps sweep your colon clean.
If you’re in need of a powerful natural laxative, soak a serving or two of dates in a bowl of cold water overnight. In the morning, eat the sticky, syrupy soaked dates with a glass of water—and, of course, make sure you have access to a toilet for the next few hours!
If you’re going to make dates part of your daily routine, start off with a small amount and slowly work your way up. If you rapidly increase your fiber intake, you may deal with a little bit of bloating and discomfort before your body has a chance to adapt.
2. Dates are heart-healthy.
Fiber is good for more than just your digestive system! The high fiber content of most fruits, dates included, has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Incorporating dates into your diet can lower your cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Considering heart disease is the biggest killer in the U.S., this is huge!
3. Dates are a perfect pre-workout, energizing food.
There’s a reason why dates have become a favorite among whole-food, plant-based endurance athletes. Runners are known for eating possibly-radioactive ‘energy gels’ or ‘energy blocks’ to sustain long periods of activities, but some of them have discovered nature’s alternative: dates.
Dates are little more than chewy, gooey packets of vitamins and natural sugars—and sugar is, of course, pure energy. This high amount of simple sugars makes them quick and easy to digest—two excellent qualities for anyone wanting to ‘top off’ their tank before a workout. Complex or starchy carbohydrates can leave you feeling bloated and fatigued, but the simple sugars in dates will give you the immediate burst of energy you need to power through your workout. And because they’re completely natural, you don’t have to worry about artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners found in popular energy gummies and gels.
4. Dates are high in potassium.
This is another reason why dates are such a perfect food for runners: it’s chock full of the electrolyte potassium. While most Americans get plenty of sodium, our potassium levels are pitifully low. Potassium is vital for regulating your blood pressure and nerve function. Dates also contain some magnesium, which is another electrolyte that can help prevent muscle cramps, fatigue, and dizziness.
5. Dates reduce inflammation.
It seems that there is one property that all of the world’s healthiest foods have in common: they fight inflammation. Chronic inflammation is all too common among the modern western population, and many medical professionals think that it plays a large role in many of the chronic illnesses we struggle with today. Diabetes, heart disease, many types of cancer, depression, arthritis, and even Alzheimer’s have been linked to chronic inflammation in the body.
As previously mentioned, dates contain high levels of magnesium. Magnesium has been noted for its inflammation-fighting powers; one study revealed that, as dietary magnesium increased, the presence of key inflammatory markers in the blood decreased. Magnesium may also fight cardiovascular disease.
6. Dates can ease the symptoms of seasonal allergies.
This is probably the weirdest of dates’ mystical powers: they are one of the few natural, whole foods that contain sulfur. One study published back in 2002 found that increased organic sulfur intake correlated with a reduction in symptoms of people dealing with seasonal allergies.
7. Dates can improve pregnancy and labor.
In 2011, researchers decided to see what would happen to pregnant women if they started munching on dates late in their pregnancies. Islamic culture has long considered dates to be a great food for expecting mothers, so they decided to put it to the test—and the effects are definitely worth noting.
In this study, women who ate six dates every day during the last four weeks of their pregnancy experienced a whole host of benefits. They exhibited vastly improved cervical dilation when they came into the hospital, they experienced natural (also called “spontaneous”) labor at higher rates than the ladies who didn’t eat dates, and they found that they needed significantly lower levels of painkillers than their dateless counterparts.
Still not sold? How about this: the women in this study who ate dates experienced shorter labor than those who didn’t.
Overall, scientists concluded that eating dates in the later stages of pregnancy could lead to an easier, more natural labor—one that doesn’t require medical intervention for either induction or “augmentation”.
With so much going for them, it’s no wonder the health food crowd has fallen in love with dates. Not a big fan of the taste? Try using them as a replacement for sugar when baking! Or pour a bit of honey on them. You don’t have to eat dates by themselves in order to experience the benefits.