Back in the summer of 2015, the journal Psychiatry Research published an intriguing study on fermented foods. And the paper, which was compiled following some in-depth research at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, had some rather stunning findings – especially for those who love the taste of pickles. In fact, even if you’re not a pickle fan, it may just be worth you holding your nose and chowing down on the sweet and sour vegetables, as it turns out that they could have startling benefits for your health.
And perhaps you could begin by adding a pickle to a meal or two. After all, just as certain foods are a little bland without some seasoning or sides to liven them up, a pickle’s tartness could provide just the kick you’re looking for to take a dish to the next level.
That said, thanks to their incredibly strong taste, pickles are often a rather love-or-hate food. Yet even if you fall down firmly on the hate side, you may just have to acquire an appreciation. You see, in August 2015, fans of fermented foods received some good news that could just be a game-changer.
That month, the latest issue of Psychiatry Research hit the shelves. And the medical journal contained details of an interesting research project covering fermented foods’ health benefits – of which, it seems, there could be several. Yes, as it turns out, products such as pickles may have a significant effect on our brains.
As a result, then, pickles may be a good option for a handy go-to snack when you’re feeling peckish. But, of course, they’re not the only food said to boost our well-being. And while fruit and vegetables are naturally among the healthiest options out there to nibble on between meals, nuts are pretty beneficial, too.
Yes, certain types of nuts – such as Brazil nuts and almonds – are loaded with vitamins. Brazil nuts, for example, contain zinc and magnesium as well as an important mineral called selenium that aids in the good functioning of the thyroid gland.
Almonds, meanwhile, are a great source of fiber, iron and calcium – but that’s not all. Back in 2011, a research paper published in the journal Nutrition Reviews suggested that the tree nut can also play an important role in keeping cholesterol levels down.
Indeed, the medical study revealed, “Consumption of tree nuts has been shown to reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) – a primary target for coronary disease prevention – by 3 to 19 percent. Almonds have been found to have a consistent LDL-C-lowering effect in healthy individuals and in individuals with high cholesterol and diabetes.”
The research paper suggested, too, that this revelation needed to be shared on a wider scale, adding, “The message that almonds in and of themselves are a heart-healthy snack should be emphasized to consumers. Moreover, when almonds are incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet, the benefits are even greater.”
Foods such as lentils and oatmeal are good for our health, too. Much like almonds, the breakfast favorite can keep high cholesterol at bay thanks to its levels of fiber. And oatmeal contains plenty of potassium and vitamin B to boot.
But when it comes to talking about healthy-eating options, you naturally can’t forget about vegetables. Take broccoli, for example; the cruciferous green is loaded with nutrients that can help us maintain our wellbeing. The phytonutrients within broccoli can even play a vital role in staving off serious medical issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
The vegetable boasts high levels of vitamin C, too, which is handy when we need a boost. In fact, it’s believed that a regular portion of broccoli could cover our daily intake of the important vitamin quite comfortably. And, of course, there are plenty of benefits to be had in fruit as well.
Blueberries, for instance, are not only full of phytonutrients and fiber, but they can also keep our blood pressure down. And that’s certainly not all; researchers at Texas Woman’s University discovered that consumption of the small, round fruit can actually help tackle obesity as well. But don’t entirely write off meat in the bid to become healthier.
Indeed, both fish and chicken are fine choices if you’re looking to improve your diet. White meat contains a lot of protein, for example, while fish such as herring, salmon, sardines and trout boast omega-3 fatty acids that can be very beneficial for the heart.
In amongst the usual suspects, however, there are a whole host of other foods that are similarly good for health. And, yes, fermented items such as sauerkraut, yogurt and pickles are among their number, as nutrition expert Casey Seidenberg explained in a 2012 article for The Washington Post.
Seidenberg explained, “Fermented foods aid in digestion and thus support the immune system. Imagine a fermented food as a partially digested food. For instance, many people have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk. When milk is fermented and becomes yogurt or kefir, [however], the lactose is partially broken down so it becomes more digestible.” But there was more.
Seidenberg added, “Organic or lactic-acid fermented foods – such as dill pickles and sauerkraut – are rich in enzyme activity that aids in the breakdown of our food. [This helps] us absorb the important nutrients we rely on to stay healthy.” And there are apparently long-term benefits of consuming such foods, too.
The nutrition specialist revealed in her Washington Post piece, “When our digestion is functioning properly and we are absorbing and assimilating all the nutrients we need, our immune system tends to be happy and thus better equipped to wage war against disease and illness.” And three years later, a fascinating report appeared to further emphasize fermented foods’ health benefits.
The study in question was headed up by a trio of researchers: the University of Maryland’s Jordan DeVylder and Catherine Forestell and Matthew Hilimire from the College of William & Mary. And their close examination of fermented foods found that they have the potential to bolster more than just people’s physical health.
Yes, crucially DeVylder, Forestell and Hilimire looked to see if mental health – in particular, any experience of neuroticism and social anxiety – could also be improved by eating such foods. And there was already some scientific basis for the study, as similar experiments involving animals had previously taken place – with some incredibly interesting results.
On William & Mary’s official website, Hilimire explained, “These studies with animal models showed that if you give them certain kinds of bacteria, which we call probiotics – the beneficial microorganisms that help our health like lactobacilli – these animals tend to be less depressed or less anxious.”
Now, as probiotics can be found in fermented food, Hilimire, DeVylder and Forestell were curious to see if the same results could be reached with humans. But before their test got under way, Hilimire reflected on the previous figures – particularly the GABA levels on show.
In essence, gamma aminobutyric acid – or GABA – is a neurotransmitter that helps keep our anxieties in check. And while there are medicines out there that replicate its effects, it turned out that levels of GABA may well be able to be boosted naturally – at least, according to the findings of the animal experiments.
Hilimire went on to explain, “Giving these animals these probiotics increased GABA. It’s almost like giving them these drugs, but it’s their own bodies producing GABA. So, your own body is increasing this neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety.” There would be a key difference, however, in the approach that the assistant professor and his colleagues would take for their assessment.
“Given that background, we were interested in doing a naturalistic study,” Hilimire admitted. “So, we didn’t actually give people probiotics; we just asked them in their day-to-day life how much fermented foods they were eating.” And as it turned out, the researchers’ experiment would be pretty extensive.
In fact, DeVylder, Forestell and Hilimire opted to interrogate more than 700 people at the College of William & Mary. Fortuitously, these students were already about to take a “mass testing” survey – which included elements on personality types and anxieties – at the start of their respective degree courses. In addition, then, the trio threw in a questionnaire of their own.
And Forestell later explained how she and her fellow researchers had come to the conclusion to do this, telling the college’s website, “It was an ideal situation to get a good cross-section of the students at William & Mary, because many students take [the] Introduction to Psychology [module]. They were not selected based on their social anxiety or the types of foods that they ate.”
So, the survey from the research trio not only included questions about diet and exercise, but it also queried whether members of the group had eaten any fermented food – such as pickles – in the previous month. Then, once the results had come in, they were subsequently measured against the answers from the mass testing survey.
And after the data had been compiled, Hilimire divulged exactly what it had revealed. He told the William & Mary website, “The main finding was that individuals who had consumed more fermented foods had reduced social anxiety, but that was qualified by an interaction by neuroticism.”
Hilimire went on, “What that means is that that relationship was strongest amongst people that were high in neuroticism [tendency to be anxious or negative]. The people that benefited the most from fermented foods were high in neuroticism. And the secondary finding was that more exercise was related to reduced social anxiety as well.”
Those intriguing results were subsequently included in the August 2015 edition of the Psychiatry Research journal, after which they were covered by a number of media outlets. And in an attempt to sum up his and his colleagues’ work, Hilimire revealed why the findings excited him so much.
As the assistant professor went on to explain, “It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut. And changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety. I think that it is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”
However, the trio’s work didn’t come to an end after the report was submitted. You see, DeVylder, Forestell and Hilimire intended to run yet another experiment in an attempt to clarify the findings from the study – although, on this occasion, their sole focus would be on fermented food and social anxiety.
“If we use a naturally fermented food – we give people yogurt instead of isolated probiotics – it will be among the first experimental studies that use these fermented foods,” Hilimire told the William & Mary college website. “So they’ll get the benefits of the probiotics but also the peptides as well.”
And while the results from the previous study suggested that there was a connection between fermented foods and mental health, a practical experiment was also needed to further determine any links. Yet in Hilimire’s mind, the past tests involving the animals suggested that he and his fellow researchers were already on the right track.
The academic continued, “If we rely on the animal models that have come before us and the human experimental work that has come before us in other anxiety and depression studies, it does seem that there is a causative mechanism.” He also made a bold claim on what this could mean for mental health therapy going forward.
Hilimire explained, “Assuming [there are] similar findings in the experimental follow-up, what it would suggest is that you could augment more traditional therapies (like medications, psychotherapy or a combination of the two) with fermented foods – dietary changes – and exercise as well.”
Traditionally, drugs such as benzodiazepines and tricyclic antidepressants are utilized to help battle anxiety. According to Hilimire, though, introducing fermented foods as part of a mental health treatment plan could potentially do away with a number of the side effects of such medication – including, in some cases, addiction.
Yet while Hilimire and his colleagues were working hard to make the connection between fermented foods and anxiety, there’s apparently still some way to go before such a link is accepted by the scientific community at large. Nevertheless, the associate professor had faith that more people would start to listen in the near future.
Indeed, Hilimire concluded, “I think there is some skepticism that there can be such a profound influence [between fermented foods and anxiety], but the data is quite substantial now. I think people would be accepting if they looked at the data, but the connection between the mind and gut is not something you typically think about as a psychologist.”
And the good news is pickles aren’t the only foods that are underrated when it comes to our health. Take the unassuming date, for example. As well as being delicious, these little fruits are also highly nutritious – and they may help when it comes to battling a bunch of common ailments, too.
Thanks to their wrinkled skin and overall shriveled appearance, dates aren’t the most attractive-looking of foods. But don’t be put off by that exterior, as the fruit is not only delicious but very good for you. Yes, whether you’re looking to improve your skin or your digestion – or just to give yourself a bit of an energy boost – dates could be the powerhouse that your diet is missing.
Certainly, there are many health benefits to eating dates – not least because of the valuable nutrients that the fruit contains. A 100-gram serving of medjool dates contains 20 percent of an individual’s recommended daily amount (RDA) of potassium, for instance, as well as 12 percent of the RDA of vitamin B6 and 5 percent of the same in iron.
What’s more, not only do dates taste great, but the fruit could also provide natural solutions to common ailments. Yes, that’s right: health issues that affect both welfare and confidence may be alleviated simply through adding a handful of dates to your meals or by consuming them as a snack.
But before we investigate just how dates may improve your wellbeing, let’s take a closer look at the fruit itself. As some may know, dates are harvested from specimens of Phoenix dactylifera – or the date palm tree – which can be found across parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
And, in fact, the fresh fruit appears very different to the dried examples that we find in supermarkets. These dates are smooth, and their coloring can range from bright red to a vivid shade of yellow before they are processed in preparation for exportation to other countries.
In addition, dates have been around for a very long time: a minimum of 50 million years, according to fossil records. The date palm’s binominal name, meanwhile, comes from Greek – with “dactylifera” aptly translating into English as “date bearing” – while the tree itself is thought to have originally grown in a part of the Middle East that is now known as the “Fertile Crescent.”
In the western world, however, it is more common to see and consume dates when they have been dried. This process can occur both naturally through the sun or in large industrial ovens. And through that method, dates acquire their distinctly furrowed appearance; they also change color to a deep brown.
But how can dates create a new, healthier you? Well, for one, they can help satisfy a sweet tooth without you feeling the need to turn to the cookie jar. And as medjool dates typically come in at just 66 calories each, they’re a better option for a treat than many desserts – making them an excellent aid for weight loss.
That’s not all, though. You see, dates are also fairly high in fiber, which we need in our diets to keep on top of digestive health. In fact, 100 grams of medjool dates provide an impressive 27 percent of our recommended daily fiber intake.
And if you’re suffering from constipation, it may therefore be a good idea to chow down on some dates. Why? Well, the type of fiber contained in the fruit helps speed up digestion; as a result, then, those lengthy and unsuccessful visits to the bathroom may yet become a thing of the past.
Plus, there’s yet another benefit to dates’ high fiber content. In short, fiber can help you feel fuller for longer, meaning it may assuage the desire to snack on unhealthier foods such as chips or chocolate. And dates’ sweet taste and gooey texture could even fool your taste buds into assuming that you’re eating junk – without the nutritional downside, of course.
Dates are great, too, when it comes to lowering levels of cholesterol – a lipid that is found in everyone’s blood. If there is too much cholesterol in the body, however, this can become harmful. In particular, fat may begin to clog up the arteries, and this in turn could lead to a stroke or a heart attack.
As for how dates may help alleviate high levels of cholesterol? Well, once again, it’s all down to fiber. Specifically, the fruit contains a fair amount of both insoluble and soluble fiber, and this roughage is able to reduce the amounts of unhealthy LDL cholesterol that are present in the blood.
Furthermore, dates themselves contain no cholesterol, which again makes them a considerably healthier option for snacking when compared to fattier treats. If you’re looking to lower your own cholesterol levels by incorporating some of the fruit into your diet, however, then it’s worth considering the variety of date that you intend to consume.
Perhaps the best option, moreover, is the halawi date. This variety of the fruit has a greater amount of catechin than the medjool. And this antioxidant – which can also be found in green tea – may very well have a beneficial effect on the levels of potentially harmful cholesterol in the body.
But there are yet further potential benefits to eating dates. If you’re flagging at work, for example, then it’s worth turning to a date or two before considering that extra cup of coffee. The fruit contains naturally occurring sugar, you see, and this in turn should give you a much-needed boost.
And if you need a quick jump-start prior to going to the gym, then consider chewing on a few dates in the changing room. At the very least, you don’t need to eat them long before you start your workout, as the fruit’s sugar provides a quick energy hit.
But dates may not only be able to power your muscles; they’ll also help to get your brain in gear. Eating the fruit for breakfast should in fact somewhat improve your mental clarity, meaning you’ll be able to get things done at work. Yes, dates may actually make you more productive.
It’s not only the sugar contained in dates that helps, either. As we age, you see, tissue in the brain begins to become inflamed, and this phenomenon in turn may lead to memory loss and confusion. Thanks to the antioxidant properties of dates, however, eating the fruit may reduce this inflammatory influence.
In addition, the antioxidants found within dates can help protect the body. The fruit’s flavonoids are beneficial, for example, in combating the risk of heart disease and cancer. Dates’ carotenoids may lessen the spread of cancer, too, although these particular antioxidants are arguably most key for maintaining healthy vision.
And anaemia sufferers may do well to incorporate some dates into their daily diets, since they possess a high iron content for their size. Remember, a 100-gram serving of medjool dates – so only around four of the wrinkly fruits – contains 5 percent of your recommended daily intake of iron.
If you have some hair loss, moreover, then dates may yet again be able to help you. The iron present in the fruit goes some way towards boosting blood circulation around the body, you see – and this includes extremities such as the scalp. As a consequence, then, the amount of oxygen getting to the head is raised, too, and this can subsequently aid the stimulation of new hair growth.
Then there are dates’ benefits for the skin. That’s partly down to the fruit’s vitamin C, which not only helps to brighten the complexion but may also boost collagen levels. Dates’ levels of vitamin D, meanwhile, are handy for keeping skin both feeling smooth to the touch and looking glowing.
Not only that, but dates may even help you ward off the years – or at least look as though you’re doing so, anyway. Yes, vitamins C and D can both reduce the appearance of unsightly wrinkles. Perhaps it’s best, then, to turn to dates before any anti-ageing creams.
And, of course, vitamin C is great for eye health. Vitamin A keeps us seeing well, too; it’s a good job, then, that dates possess both of these nutrients. Specifically, vitamin A can delay the degeneration of muscles in the eye, thus preserving vision for longer.
That’s not nearly the end of the benefits to dates, however. You see, the fruit may be able to help with high blood pressure, too. And that’s a good thing, especially as it can be easy to lose track of just how much salt – and therefore sodium – we pump through our bodies on a daily basis.
Furthermore, elevated levels of sodium in the blood are the primary cause of high blood pressure, which can put people at risk of heart issues, dementia or stroke. Foods that possess high percentages of potassium, however, can reduce the amount of sodium in the body – and therefore the likelihood of raised blood pressure.
And dates – as you’ve probably already guessed – have plenty of potassium. One medjool date contains 167 milligrams of potassium, in fact, which is a relatively large amount when compared to that contained in bigger fruits such as bananas. Eating a handful of dates, then, may combat high blood pressure and circulatory diseases further down the line.
It’s true, too, that dates can be a great help when pregnant. Women who are expecting, you see, need to up the number of calories they take in by about 200 a day or so during the third trimester. And, of course, dates are an easy way in which to achieve this.
Certainly, owing to their nutrients, dates are a better option for both mom and baby than the more processed alternatives available in stores. And the fiber that the fruit contains can also help to prevent hemorrhoids, which are often an unwanted side effect of pregnancy.
What’s more, a study carried out by researchers at Iran’s Mashhad University of Medical Sciences and published in 2014 in the Journal of Midwifery and Reproductive Health suggests that eating dates may even help labor. Some of the women surveyed began consuming the fruit at around the 37th week of their respective pregnancies.
The Mashhad University researchers found, then, that the date-eating expectant moms were prone to a greater level of cervical dilation than their counterparts in the control group. Not only that, but these women were also more likely to give birth naturally, while their labors were generally more successfully induced, too.
It may be the case, too, that dates help tackle loss of bone mass – something that often occurs as we age. There’s certainly calcium and phosphorus in the fruit, and these minerals act to harden both bones and teeth.
As a result, then, eating dates may be of benefit for those with osteoporosis. And according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, the condition leads to bone fractures in a third of women over 50 and a fifth of similarly aged men across the world.
It seems, then, that dates are not only tasty, but they’re exceptionally beneficial for your health, too. And if you’ve been convinced that eating more of the fruit is the way to go, then here are three delicious recipe ideas to get you started on your journey.
Why not try pairing your dates with peanut butter, for example? Simply slice the fruit in half – removing the stones if necessary – and then fill the middles in with delicious peanutty goodness. Obviously, this is a rather calorific treat, but it would nevertheless be perfect before an intense gym session.
Energy balls, too, are great as a pre-workout snack or just as a little afternoon pick-me-up. To create your own, then, blend medjool dates with cacao powder, coconut oil, desiccated coconut and raisins. After that, roll the resulting mixture into small balls, and then put these spheres into the fridge to firm them up before you enjoy.
And you may also want to consider adding dates to that favorite smoothie you like to make. The fruit adds sweetness without the use of further sugar, after all – and that’s not even to mention the nutritional gains on offer. Blending the dates with other fruits should make them easier to eat as well, given their usual chewiness.
Take inspiration, too, from the myriad of recipes online – all of which show just how versatile dates can be. Blogger Megan Gilmore, who runs website Detoxinista, has even come up with a handy date paste tutorial, and her resulting sweet concoction would make a good substitute for white sugar when baking.
All in all, then, these small brown fruits pack a nutritional punch that belies their size. And if eating dates ultimately means that you don’t have to fork out a fortune on future medications, then can you really afford not to try them? It’s certainly worth a go…