Why Snacking on Dates Is the Smarter, Healthier Way to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

Here's why butterscotch-sweet dates deserve a spot on your grocery list.

If you're anything like me, dates are rather mysterious. Often nestled in between raisins and prunes in the grocery store (they even look like prunes); these small, wrinkly fruits pack a one-two punch of sweetness and nutrition. Coated with crinkly skin that shimmers from natural sugars, these oval-shaped fruits consist of 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 from bright red to bright yellow.

The history of this sweet, yet nutritious treat goes way back. One of civilization's oldest cultivated crops, the date palm has been eaten for around 6000 years. They're estimated to have originated around the Persian Gulf, and were cultivated from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt as early as 4000 BCE. 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 grown around the world, Medjool and Deglet Noor dates are the most commonly consumed. Ranging in color from light red to amber, Deglet Noor dates have firm flesh and a sweet, delicate flavor. Medjool dates, by contrast, have a rich, almost caramel-like taste and a soft, chewy texture. Both types share a similar nutrient content, so their health benefits are similar as well. (As if being sweet and delicious isn't enough!) Health and wellness strategy manager at Fresh Thyme Markets, Meghan Sedivy, RD, LDN; breaks down the health benefits of dates, why they're an excellent healthy snack, and her favorite suggestions for including them in your diet.

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Dates are high in nutritive value.

Filling up on fiber is essential to gut health as well as overall health, and 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."

RELATED: 7 Foods Higher in Potassium Than Bananas —and Why Nutrition Experts Want You to Eat More

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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. Research also determined that a diet rich in dates may improve memory and learning.

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They may ease natural labor.

Eating this dried fruit to ease the labor experience may sound like an old wives' tale, but according to studies, there could be some truth to this ancient myth. A prospective study was conducted "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 dates had a shorter first stage of labor, significantly higher mean cervical dilatation, and reduced need for labor induction.

How to Eat More Dates

According to Sedivy, 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—as highlighted in our Chocolate-oat-date bars recipe—making them a perfect filling for cookies, cakes, and even brownies."

Eat them with nuts or nut butter as a protein-packed snack.

Sedivy loves to eat dates 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. Try a Creamy date shake—throw a few Medjools into a blender along with unsweetened oat or almond milk, hemp seeds, ice, and cinnamon—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. Before your guests arrive, try stuffing pitted Medjool dates with tangy, creamy goat cheese and then wrapping each morsel in salty, smoky bacon. Bake for about 8 minutes and you have the best apps your friends have ever tasted (with some secret health benefits they never knew they needed). Here's how to make bite-sized bacon-wrapped goat cheese stuffed dates.

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  1. Ciccone MM, Cortese F, Gesualdo M, et al. Dietary intake of carotenoids and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular careMediators Inflamm. 2013;2013:782137. doi:10.1155/2013/782137

  2. Rahmani AH, Aly SM, Ali H, et al. Therapeutic effects of date fruits (Phoenix dactylifera) in the prevention of diseases via modulation of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-tumour activityInt J Clin Exp Med. 2014;7(3):483-491.

  3. Roleira FM, Tavares-da-Silva EJ, Varela CL, et al. Plant derived and dietary phenolic antioxidants: anticancer propertiesFood Chem. 2015;183:235-258. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.03.039

  4. Essa MM, Akbar M, Khan MA. Beneficial effects of date palm fruits on neurodegenerative diseasesNeural Regen Res. 2016;11(7):1071-1072. doi:10.4103/1673-5374.187032

  5. Subash S, Essa MM, Braidy N, et al. Diet rich in date palm fruits improves memory, learning and reduces beta amyloid in transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's diseaseJ Ayurveda Integr Med. 2015;6(2):111-120. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.159073

  6. Al-Kuran O, Al-Mehaisen L, Bawadi H, et al. The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and deliveryJ Obstet Gynaecol. 2011;31(1):29-31. doi:10.3109/01443615.2010.522267

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