Dates, the sweet little jewels that grow on date palms in many desert and tropical areas, are packed full of important nutrients and make a great natural sweetener in recipes.

Dates have long been used in traditional and alternative medicines, as well as in religious traditions, and have a special significance for Muslims. Date palms are mentioned more than any other fruit-bearing plant in the Qur'an, and eating dates in the morning is believed in Islam to provide protection against poison and magic.

Eating dates during Ramadan, the religious month (which started on April 12th and ends on May 12th in the US this year) has become a worldwide tradition, especially at the time of breaking the daily fast after sundown, since dates are quick to raise blood sugar and restore energy levels. Dates are also a healthy source of nutrients, according to the latest research, which indicates that they provide healthy fiber and antioxidants and may even help protect against certain cancers.

7 Surprising Health Benefits of Dates

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1. High in vitamins and minerals

Dates are high in minerals such as Magnesium (64.2 mg/100g), zinc (0.5 mg/100g), Iron (0.3–6.03 mg/100g) which are responsible for a number of body functions like immunity, digestion, and metabolism. They are also high in vitamins like B1 and B6, and when fresh, high in vitamin C. These are all essential nutrients that your body needs daily. “This is particularly useful for those fasting as fasting may limit the potential to consume these vital micronutrients, in part due to the reduced hours of eating and also culturally, more indulgent meals enjoyed during this time,” says Mariam Metwally, Accredited Practicing Dietician (APD).

2. Dates Are High in fiber

Dates have just under 7g of fiber per 100g, making them great for digestion and maintaining regular bowel movements, which prevents constipation. Metwally adds that “this is an added bonus for the month of Ramadan where constipation is a common concern.” Eating fiber also prevents blood sugar from spiking by slowing digestion- making them fruits with a low glycemic index. “This may be helpful for people living with diabetes when consuming dates in moderation as part of a balanced diet.”

3. Dates Are Anti-inflammatory and Rich in Antioxidants

Dates are full of cell-protecting antioxidants, higher than other dried fruits. These antioxidants such as carotenoids, selenium, and flavonoids, are useful in preventing a number of diseases, cancers, chronic illness and may even improve fertility. For example, Phenolic Acid is known to be an anti-inflammatory compound. Phenolic acid is suggested to be useful in cancer prevention and heart disease. 

4. Dates Can Aid in Natural Labor

Dates have been eaten for easing childbirth for centuries, as mentioned above. A 2017 study found that eating dates in late-term pregnancy aided cervical dilation reducing the need for induced labor and decreasing the duration of labor. They are also a convenient energy source for women to consume during labor to replenish energy stores.

5. Dates Help Your Brain Function

Eating dates regularly has been found to reduce inflammatory compounds like IL-6 (in rodent studies) which causes degenerative function in the brain. This means that eating dates has the potential to prevent things like Alzheimer's disease, although more research is needed.

6. Dates Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer

Eating dates have long been believed to be helpful in cancer treatment in traditional Egyptian medicine. While research is still developing, a 2019 study using Ajwa dates, conducted tests on prostate cancer cells. They were treated with a date extract (ethyl acetate fractions) and cell activity was monitored. The extract showed strong inhibitory signs on the cancer cells, a promising result for prostate cancer treatment. The study concluded that the ethyl acetate fractions from Ajwa dates may have therapeutic properties for prostate cancer.

7. Dates Are Versatile as a Healthy Sweetener

One of the best things about dates is how many ways you can use them. They have the convenience of being ready to eat whole and easy to carry and store. Their caramel-like flavor is also a compatible flavor with so many foods. Many eat them stuffed with nuts - adding to their health benefits, while others use them in smoothies, or as a refined-sugar alternative in baked goods, sauces, and oatmeal.

Mariam Metwally is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist (BSc, Master NutrDiet) based in Sydney, Australia. Her areas of focus are women’s health, fertility, preconception to postnatal nutrition, and eating disorders. You can find her on @tayyibnutrition on Instagram.