Dates are the fruit of date palms that originate in the Middle East but are now cultivated all over the world in tropical and subtropical climates. They are incredibly versatile and their popularity is largely thanks to their natural sweetness.
Dates come in many varieties, shapes and sizes; they differ in sweetness, colour, consistency and taste but they have similar nutritional values. In the UK, you often get to choose between Medjool dates – the big, fleshy, caramel ones – and Deglet Nour dates – smaller, chewier, less sugary ones. Both give you a good energy boost but if you want to use them for sweet treats, Medjool dates produce the best results. On the other hand, Deglet Nour make for a good snack on the go and tend to be considerably cheaper.
Even though nutritionally similar, the quantity of nutrients per date varies, depending on the size and variety. As Medjool dates are big, just one date contains 16g of sugar, 1.6g of fibre, 0.4g of protein, 15mg of calcium (recommended daily intake is 700mg) and 0.2mg of iron (recommended intake is 7mg for men and 14mg for women). To get a similar quantity of nutrients, you’d have to eat four Deglet Nour dates and you’d get slightly more fibre from them. And there’s more! Dates are also a source of vitamin K, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.
However, there’s no way round it – dates are very sugary so unless you’re doing a lot of physical work, you should watch your intake. It’s good to satisfy your sweet tooth with dates because they also provide a wealth of essential nutrients but they can add a lot to your total sugar intake. So on one hand, they are a healthier alternative to sugar but on the other, don’t overdo it!
Dates are a great fast energy snack for sportspeople and you can blend them with nuts and other dried fruit to make your own energy bars – or stuff them with nuts or nut butters and cover them in chocolate for a decadent treat. Dates are also used as a natural sweetener in baking – chopped dates and raisins can entirely substitute sugar or syrups. And they can sweeten a smoothie or a blended coffee drink.
It’s a good idea to avoid dates with added sugar but if there’s a little bit of added oil that’s fine because it’s usually only a miniscule amount and serves to stop the dates from sticking together.
Extra tip: For a natural energy drink, chop and blend pitted dates with water and you’ll get a delicious sweet drink to fuel your workout.