There is a common belief that people with Type 2 diabetes must avoid consumption of dates. But a recent review of research findings shows that the intake of dates does not have a significant effect on blood glucose, cholesterol, body weight or blood pressure provided they are had in small amounts and at the right stage of maturation. Some studies, in fact, show that if you take the right variety of dates in controlled portions, they may actually prevent blood sugar from spiking.
Put together by Dr Anoop Misra, Chairman, Fortis CDOC Hospital for Diabetes and Allied Sciences, and Dr Meenakshi Bajaj, dietician, Tamil Nadu Government Multi-Super Speciality Hospital, Chennai, this is a narrative review of randomised control trials and cross-sectional studies related to the consumption of dates and its impact on blood glucose, glycosylated haemoglobin, lipid profile and body weight. “It is like holding a mirror to all that is known about dates in studies conducted between January 2009 and November 2022 in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other nations, using various databases. That’s how we came to know that there cannot be a blanket assumption of all dates being good. For dates to be beneficial for your body, it is essential to know which of the 17 varieties of dates works for you as a diabetic, the stage of maturation that determines its calorie load and the quantity that can be had,” says Dr Bajaj.
The glycemic index (GI) of date varieties ranges from 42.8 to 74.6 (usually low GI foods have to be below 55), and glycemic load (GL) between 8.5-24. “There are four different stages of dates — Kimri, Khalal and the most commonly used and studied Rutab and Tamer. The GI of various stages of dates are as follows: Rutab (semi-ripe), 47.2; Tamer (fully ripe, traditionally sun-dried), 45.3, and Tamer (commercial), 35.5. The Tamer stage is actually the maturation stage where the date fruit is dried, firm and dark in colour. Glucose tolerance-based studies and cross-sectional studies show no significant changes in glycemic indices or association with glycemic worsening with intake of these dates. Few randomised controlled trials also showed no change in glycemia and weight in the intervention groups consuming dates. Some data (including one random controlled trial) show that the consumption of dates lowers total cholesterol and LDL or the bad cholesterol,” she explains.
As for the varieties, the one with the least GI and glycemic load, Shaqra, is available in Saudi Arabia. “The commonly found Medjool in India has a medium glycemic load. The Tamer is widely available in Indian markets these days. Apart from their favourable indices, which do not overload your bloodstream with glucose spikes, some date varieties are rich in proteins and fibre, which build satiety, delay hunger pangs and limit sugar consumption,” says Dr Bajaj.
Diabetics, she feels, should still moderate their consumption of dates and adjust their value with calories that they may draw from other dietary sources of carbohydrates. “The catch is that all these studies have analysed the reaction of the semi ripe Rutab or the ripe and dried Tamer, both of which are easily recognised by residents of UAE but not understood by everybody. A 2022 study in Saudi Arabia, which followed up and assessed the impact of consuming Rutab and Tamer for a year, showed reduction in levels of blood sugar and HbA1c, which measures the amount of blood sugar (glucose) attached to your haemoglobin over a period of time. Another study on date vinegar, conducted in Pakistan in 2018 as a double blind randomised controlled trial for 10 weeks, found an improvement in HbA1c levels. The researchers attributed it to non-starch polysaccharides present in dates. Though many researchers have advised three servings, most likely implying 25 to 75 gms, we do not have the exact measure,” adds Dr Bajaj.
According to the calorie breakup by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), 100 gm of dates yield 311 calories, 9 gm of fibre, 1 to 3 gm of protein and are rich in micronutrients like selenium, magnesium, copper, potassium, calcium phosphate and manganese. So, their health effects are manifold. “In 2018, a paper in India found that dried dark brown dates could be good for anaemia as they are decent sources of iron at 4.70 mg per 100 gm of dates. Fairly recent data shows that the Tamesrit variety of dates, consumed on a daily basis, can bring down LDL cholesterol from as early as 21 days to six months. Of course, this applies to non-diabetics,” says Dr Bajaj.
Apart from the nutritional data available, dates have phytochemicals, a few examples of which are flavonoids, phenolic acids, isoflavones, curcumin, isothiocyanates, and carotenoids. All of them protect cells from damage.
What are the other red flags? “Dates,” advises Dr Bajaj, “should be had in their natural form between the semi-ripe and dried stages. Before they are packed, dates have more fibre, about 7 to 15 gm per 100 gm. Processing reduces the fibre content. Also, do not go for the packed versions as they are soaked in sugar syrup of various concentrations to make them more palatable. Dates should be had before exercise, when the fasting blood sugar levels are less. According to norms, 99 mg/dL or lower is normal, 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates you have prediabetes, and 126 mg/dL or higher indicates you have diabetes. You can even have them after workouts but never in-between meals. In fact, you could mix dates with almonds and walnuts, blend it with healthy fats and healthy protein, to bring down the sugar load,” says Dr Bajaj. However, she feels, with India emerging as the diabetes capital of the world, there is a need for more extensive India-based studies on dates.
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