Senior Health

4/4/2022 | By Lori Zanteson, Environmental Nutrition

A cherished ancient fruit, dates serve an important role in Muslim traditions during Ramadan. Recent studies now confirm long-held wisdom around the benefits of dates.

Date fruit is one of the oldest cultivated tree crops, believed to have originated around the Persian Gulf. Domesticated more than 5,000 years ago, this Mediterranean staple was known as the “bread of the desert” for its abundance, stability, and quick source of energy among early hunter-gatherers and later, desert travelers. Dates are traditionally known as the food Muhammad ate when he broke his fast, and today are the food typically eaten after Ramadan’s sunrise to sunset fasts. It is said in Saudi Arabia that a house without dates is a hungry household.

Date fruit, Phoenix dactylifera, gets its species name, dactylifera, from the Greek word for finger due to its finger-like shape. There are more than a hundred varieties, including Noor, Medjool, and Deglet, which are categorized as soft, semi-dry, and dry. The smooth flesh ranges from bright red to yellow and turns dark brown as it ripens and sun-dries; it surrounds a long hard pit. Fresh dates are commonly mistaken as dried because they are less than 30 percent moisture (most fruits are 75-95 percent). Dates are a good source of dietary fiber and antioxidants, as well as at least 15 minerals, 23 types of amino acids, and at least six vitamins, according to the July 2003 International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition.

Ancient civilizations have intuitively known the benefits of dates, though modern research is just uncovering their potential. In a review of the science published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition this year, researchers concluded that dates are highly nutritious and may have several potential health benefits. For example, some studies have reported the positive effects of dates during labor and delivery. One 2011 study in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that women who ate six dates a day for four weeks prior to expected delivery date had a significantly reduced need for labor induction and a more favorable delivery outcome than women who did not consume dates. Another study in a 2007 Shiraz E-Medical Journal reported that women who consumed dates after delivery decreased bleeding more than women who were given oxytocin to reduce bleeding, offering a more natural alternative.

Fresh dates are available September through May, though their peak is in November. Choose plump fruits with smooth, shiny skin and even color. Because dates are naturally low in moisture, they have a longer shelf life than other fruits – up to 12 months refrigerated in an airtight container. Enjoy dates stuffed with soft cheeses and nuts, chopped and added to savory pilafs and quick breads, and sprinkled into oatmeal or granola.

Related: Cranberries, another healthy fruit

The benefits of dates: Notable nutrients

  • Dates, 40 grams (5-6 dates)
  • Calories: 113
  • Dietary fiber: 3.2 g (13 percent DV)
  • Potassium: 262 mg (8 percent DV)
  • Magnesium: 18 mg (5 percent DV)
  • Manganese: 0.1 mg (6 percent DV)
  • Copper: 0.1 mg (4 percent DV)

DV=Daily Value, g=grams, mg=milligrams

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Related: Read more about date fruit and Ramadan

Lori Zanteson, Environmental Nutrition