A delicious treat dating back to antiquity, dates are high in fiber and contain a number of vitamins and minerals and even a trace of protein. But for some, they may cause trouble like gas, bloating or stomach pain due to added preservatives and their high fiber content.
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Isn’t Fiber Good for You?
High-fiber diets are associated with a number of benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, controlling weight, relieving constipation and possibly reducing the risk for gastrointestinal cancers, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Fiber comes from vegetables, grains and plants, and it cannot be digested, or broken down, by your body.
Fiber is also good for gut health, says Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a gastroenterologist in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, associated with East Cooper Medical Center and Roper Mount Pleasant Hospital and author of the upcoming book Fiber Fueled__. "Being high in fiber, dates feed the microbiome," he says.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed, which comes out to about 25 to 38 grams, depending on your individual energy needs. To this end, dates can make a meaningful contribution. One 24-gram Medjool date provides 1.6 grams of fiber, roughly 6 percent of the recommended daily intake, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"They are a very healthy sweetener, particularly when used in a whole-food form, like a paste," says Dr. Bulsiewicz. "They're actually beneficial for people with diabetes because of the fiber content."
Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says that fruit is an ideal way for people with diabetes to satisfy a sweet tooth and meet nutritional needs, but it also notes that dried fruits are very high in carbohydrates. Dates are no exception. A single Medjool date contains 66 calories in the form of 18 grams of carbohydrate, 16 grams of which are naturally occurring sugar. The ADA recommends limiting servings of dried fruits to no more than two tablespoons at a time.
Dates As a Prebiotic
Beyond their nutritional content and high fiber, dates may have another benefit for your gut. They fall into a category of foods high in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, otherwise known as FODMAPs, explains Dr. Bulsiewicz. "Specifically, dates are high in fructans, a prebiotic beneficial to the gut microbiome."
But FODMAPs may be problematic for people with gastrointestinal health problems, specifically irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a relatively common bowel dysfunction that causes abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation. High FODMAP foods, which also include certain fruits aside from dates, some vegetables, beverages and dairy products, can trigger symptoms in people with IBS, according to an analysis published in Nutrients in August 2017.
Problems can also rise when people who don't usually consume dates add too much to their diet all at once. "If you start with a small amount, like a third of a date, your body has a chance to adapt to it," he says. "But many people who don't eat dates will one day eat four in one sitting. That's a massive dose of FODMAPs — more than the body is used to digesting."
Also, sulfites, commonly used as a preservative for dried fruits, can trigger symptoms such as gas, cramping and bloating in people who have a food intolerance to them, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
But if you don't have trouble with FODMAPs or a sensitivity to sulfites and you add dates gradually, they can be a beneficial and delicious addition to your diet. "Dates are like so many other things in nature," Dr. Bulsiewicz says. "If you go overboard, you can hurt yourself, but in the right amount, in moderation, they are perfectly healthy and may advance your health."
- MyFoodData: “Medjool Dates”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Improving Your Health with Fiber”
- Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, associated with East Cooper Medical Center and Roper Mount Pleasant Hospital
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Fiber”
- American Diabetes Association: “Healthy Food Choices Made Easy: Fruit”
- Nutrients: “Low FODMAP Diet Improves Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms: A Meta-analysis”
- Cleveland Clinic. “Food Problems: Is it an Allergy or an Intolerance.”