Dates Nutrition And Its Impact On Heart Health

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Dates are more than just a traditional snack; they are a nutritional powerhouse in a world where cardiovascular diseases stand as the most prevalent cause of death. The question arises, how can incorporating dates into your daily diet contribute to promoting a heart-healthy lifestyle? This article aims to provide insight into the date fruit and its connection to heart health.

About dates

Dates, also known as Phoenix dactyloferia or date palm fruit, are a species of Arecaceae that contains a large abundance of essential polyphenols and nutrients.1 In the Middle East and northern Africa, dates are highly valued for their health-promoting qualities and nutritional benefits.2 Additionally, their esteemed social status is signified in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, where they play a pivotal role in auspicious events, including religious ceremonies, weddings, and births.3 Furthermore, owing to their medicinal and nutritional properties, dates hold significant mention in the Qur’an (the holy book), underscoring their utmost importance to Muslims.4 

Nutritional composition of dates

Dates are composed of mostly carbohydrates, for instance glucose (approximately 90%), sucrose, and fructose. 5,6  This fruit also has a substantial quantity of dietary fibers, for example pectin, soluble fiber and resistant starch.7 Additionally, they contain a range of micronutrients, for instance, phosphorus,  iron, selenium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium, copper, fluorine, vitamins A, B-complex and C.8 Interestingly, dates are composed of approximately 3% of proteins and 23 amino acids which cannot be frequently found in other fruits.6 Furthermore, the levels of polyphenols, a group of naturally occurring compounds in plants, can differ depending on the environmental conditions, ripeness, variety and geographical location.9,10 

Dates and heart health

Cardiovascular disease

The leading cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term for disorders that affect the blood vessels and heart. There are various risk factors that have been linked to the development and progression of cardiovascular disease. This includes non-modifiable risk factors such as, sex, age, and family history.12 In addition to these, there are also some factors that can be modified which are also known as behavioural factors. The most important behavioural factors are as follows:

  • Unhealthy diet 
  • Harmful use of alcohol 
  • Physical inactivity 
  • Tobacco use 

The effects of these risk factors on a person can manifest as obesity, increased lipids in the blood, increased blood glucose, and increased blood pressure. Research has shown that the risk of cardiovascular disease can be diminished by reducing salt intake, stopping the use of tobacco, preventing the harmful use of alcohol, regular physical activity, and incorporating more fruits, such as dates and vegetables into one’s diet.11

The impact of diet

A key strategy for reducing the risk of and preventing cardiovascular disease includes dietary intake. Guidelines emphasise avoiding certain foods while stressing the importance of consuming health-promoting foods.13 Dietary guidelines currently recommend consuming plenty of fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, yoghurt, seafood, and vegetable oils.14,15 Importantly, increased intake of polyphenols (e.g., phenolic acids and flavonoids) has been linked with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.16,17 

The effects of dates

Many studies examining heart health benefits associated with dates have focused on their effects on regulating fat and cholesterol levels, managing inflammation, and enhancing oxidant defences. In all four types of dates (Khalase, Reziz, Khenizi, and Berhi), researchers discovered that high levels of flavonoids and phenolics have beneficial effects on repairing and protecting heart tissue after injury in rodent models.19 Additionally, in ten healthy people, it was found that consuming around 7 Hallawi dates a day led to a reduction of triglyceride levels in the blood compared to Medjool dates. Triglycerides are a type of fat and high levels are linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. These dates were also found to reduce oxidative stress markers and increase the activity of the enzyme, serum paraoxonase 1 aryl esterase which helps protect the cardiovascular system from oxidation.22 However, it is important to take into account that this was a small-scale study, and further research should be undertaken regarding this. 

In another study, researchers looked at the impact of eating three Khudary dates every day for sixteen weeks in 100 Bahraini adults with diabetes, comparing it to not eating any dates. The group of people who ate dates were found to have a significant improvement in cholesterol levels in the blood as well as reduced LDL-C.23 LDL-C stands for Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol. High levels of LDL-C is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, this study had a few limitations, particularly the lack of statistical significance when comparing both groups (the group that consumed dates vs the group that did not). This suggests that the results seen could be due to participating in the study itself and not due to the consumption of dates. Taken together, the consumption of dates may promote heart health due to the improvement of cardiovascular health markers. 

Dates also contain an abundance of cardiovascular-protective nutrients, for example, Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, selenium, folate and fibre. Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin, has been shown to improve heart function,26,27 and protect from oxidative stress28,29. Low levels of Vitamin C in the blood have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.30,31 When comparing different varieties of dates, most of them have high levels of magnesium and low levels of sodium. This contributes to maintaining blood pressure levels within a normal range.32,33 The cardioprotective effects of dates have also been linked to the dietary fibres present in the fruit. Dietary fibres are components of plant-based foods that are known to have fat-lowering effects.34,35 In dates, most of the fibres are insoluble. These fibres bind to triglycerides and cholesterol in the intestines, helping them to be excreted from the body. This process can lower circulating cholesterol levels in the blood. 36,37

FAQs

What are some of the different varieties of dates?

There are many varieties, some popular types include Medjool, Deglet Noor, Ajwa, Halawi, Barhi, Khalase, Thoory and Dayri. Each of these varieties has its own characteristics for example, Medjool dates are very fudgy and sweet, perfect for baking. 

How can I incorporate dates into my diet?

Dates offer versatile options for adding sweetness and nutrition to a heart-healthy diet. They can be enjoyed as a snack on their own, blended into smoothies for natural sweetness, or chopped into porridge for added texture and sweetness. In baking, dates make a nutritious substitute for refined sugars in cookies, muffins, and energy bars. For a satisfying snack, dates can be stuffed with nuts or nut butter, or topped with melted chocolate for a treat reminiscent of a Snickers bar. Blending dates with spices, seeds, and nuts creates nutrient-dense energy bars or balls ideal for on-the-go snacks. However, it's important to be mindful of portion sizes, as dates are calorie-dense due to their natural sugars.

How do I get rid of the pits inside the dates?

Cut the date lengthwise with a knife, then use your fingers or the knife to remove and discard the pit.

Summary 

Cardiovascular disease is a medical condition that affects a significant number of people globally. The risk of this disease can be due to many factors, but lifestyle factors such as diet play a crucial role in the risk of developing the disease. Dates are an accessible fruit that is rich in nutrients and dietary fibres and has been shown to have favourable cardioprotective effects. Therefore, incorporating dates into your diet can promote a heart-healthy lifestyle. Before making major dietary changes, consult your healthcare practitioner.

References

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  40. Tonje. Hint of Healthy [Internet]. 2021. Date Energy Balls (+ Easy Variations!); [cited 2024 Jan 26]. Available from: https://www.hintofhealthy.com/date-walnut-balls/.

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