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Okra Nutrition: Improve Heart Health, Eyesight & Cholesterol Levels

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Okra benefits - Dr. Axe

Okra, both a common pod vegetable and nightshade vegetable eaten in the Deep South, is also called “gumbo” in the U.S. Although when we think of gumbo we usually think of soups, cajun and creole cuisine, okra has numerous health benefits.

An edible ornamental flowering hibiscus, okra is an annual, erect herb with stems that contain stiff hairs. The whole plant has an aromatic smell resembling that of cloves and somewhat resembles the cotton plant, but okra has much larger and rougher leaves and a thicker stem.

The International Knowledge Sharing Platform states that there are many okra uses, as it’s an economically important vegetable crop because its fresh leaves, buds, flowers, pods, stems and seeds have value. (1)

What is okra used for? As a vegetable (but it’s actually truly a fruit), it can be used in salads, soups and stews, fresh or dried, and fried or boiled. Some people are turned off by okra’s somewhat slimy inner consistency, but I’m happy to say that there are ways to decrease that characteristic — or don’t because as I’m about to share it actually holds some really desirable health properties! 


What Is Okra?

Let’s start off with the most basic question: What is okra? An okra definition: Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a hairy plant that belongs to the mallow family (Malvaceae). The okra plant is native native to the tropics of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The only part of the plant that is eaten is the unripe pods or fruit. The inside of okra pods contains oval dark-colored seeds and a good amount of mucilage, which is a gelatinous substance that makes okra a great addition to recipes that you want to thicken such as soups and stews. So is okra fruit or vegetable? Technically, it’s a fruit because it contains seeds, but it’s most commonly considered a vegetable, especially when it comes to culinary uses. (2, 3)

The okra plant is an annual, requiring warm, humid climates preferably where temperatures go above 85 degrees F, and is easily injured by frost as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (4) The fruit is a long pod, generally ribbed and spineless in cultivated varieties; however, pods vary in length, color and smoothness depending on the variety and grow best in well-drained and manure-rich soil. It’s best to gather the pods while they are green, tender and at an immature stage.

Many people wonder: Why is okra slimy? That mucilage or “slime” inside of the pods consists of exopolysacharrides and glycoproteins. This gooey aspect of the pods actually provides some really incredible okra health benefits (more on that later). (5)


7 Health Benefits of Okra

A powerhouse of valuable nutrients, okra provides numerous health benefits. Known as a high-antioxidant food, okra may support improvement in cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive diseases, and even some cancers. Okra is also abundant in several vitamins and minerals, including thiamin, vitamin B6, folic acid, riboflavin/vitamin B2, zinc and dietary fiber.

What are the benefits of eating okra? Here are just some of the top okra nutrition benefits:

1. Source of Calcium

Okra provides ample calcium and magnesium, helping prevent both calcium deficiency and magnesium deficiency. In addition to healthy bones, calcium is needed to regulate heart rhythms, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (6) It also helps with muscle function and nerve-signaling functions.

For those who suffer from the symptoms of lactose intolerance or are vegans or vegetarians, okra can help provide enough calcium to make up the lack of dairy. It provides nearly 51 milligrams of calcium per serving, and while that is not enough for the day with the recommendation daily value at around 1,000 milligrams for most adults, it can be integrated as part of the diet on regular basis.

2. Improves Heart Health

The soluble fiber within okra helps naturally reduce cholesterol and, therefore, decreases the chance of cardiovascular disease, according to the Journal of Food Processing & Technology, making the consumption of okra is an efficient method to manage the body’s cholesterol levels. (7Okra additionally is loaded with pectin that can help reduce high blood cholesterol simply by modifying the creation of bile within the intestines.

3. Improves Eyesight

Okra is also used to improve eyesight! Okra pods are fantastic source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, which are both important nourishment for sustaining excellent eyesight (along with healthy skin). (8) Additionally, this nourishment may help inhibit eye-associated illnesses. 

4. Good Source of Protein

Okra nutrition benefits are so plentiful that it’s been called the “perfect villager’s vegetable,” with its robust nature, dietary fiber and distinct seed protein balance of both lysine and tryptophan amino acids. The amino acid composition of okra seed protein is actually comparable to that of soybean — the protein efficiency ratio is higher than that of soybean, and the amino acid pattern of the protein renders it an adequate supplement to legume- or cereal-based diets. (7, 9)

Indeed, the okra seed is known to be rich in high-quality protein, especially with regard to its content of essential amino acids relative to other plant protein sources, making okra one of the top vegetable protein foods out there.

5. Helps Lower Cholesterol

You can add okra to the list of cholesterol-lowering foodsA scientific review published in 2018 in the International Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences points out that nearly half of the contents of the okra pod is soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins, which help lower serum cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart diseases.

In addition, the mucilage of okra binds excess cholesterol and toxins found in the bile acids, making it easier for the liver to eliminate them. The mucilage in okra has medicinal applications when used as a plasma replacement or blood volume expander. (10)  

So is okra slime healthy? That mucilage or “slime” clearly has some impressive health benefits.

6. Helps Stabilize Blood Sugar

Okra helps stabilize blood sugar by regulating the rate at which sugar is absorbed from the intestinal tract. The okra seed contains blood glucose normalization qualities and lipid profiles that may help naturally treat diabetes.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, researchers in India found that when subjects were fed dried and ground okra peels and seeds, they experienced a reduction in their blood glucose levels, while others showed a gradual decrease in blood glucose following regular feeding of okra extract for about 10 days. (11)

In addition to scientific research, many diabetics have reported lowered blood sugar levels after soaking cut-up okra pieces in water overnight and then drinking the juice in the morning. In countries like Turkey, roasted okra seeds have been used for generations as a traditional diabetes medicine. (12

7. Good for Digestion

Okra contains insoluble fiber, which helps keep the intestinal tract healthy by decreasing the risk of some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. The book “Health Benefits: From Foods and Spices” by John P. Hunter III explains that okra helps to lubricate the large intestines and adds bulk to stools; therefore, it helps prevent constipation and works as a natural laxative. Unlike harsh laxatives which can irritate the intestinal tract, okra’s mucilage is soothing and helps to encourage easier elimination. (13)


Okra Nutrition

Okra is packed with valuable nutrients. It’s a high-fiber food, for starters: Nearly half of its nutrition is a soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins. Nearly 10 percent of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid are also present in a half cup of cooked okra.

A half cup of cooked and slice okra contains about (14, 15)

  • 25 calories
  • 2 grams fiber
  • 1.5 grams protein
  • 5.8 grams carbohydrates
  • 13 milligrams vitamin C (22 percent DV)
  • 46 milligrams magnesium (11.5 percent DV)
  • 37 micrograms folate (9.3 percent DV)
  • 460 IU vitamin A (9.2 percent DV)
  • 2 grams dietary fiber (8 percent DV)
  • 257 milligrams potassium (7.3 percent DV)
  • 50 milligrams calcium (5 percent DV)
  • 0.4 milligrams iron (2.3 percent DV)

 

Okra nutrition facts - Dr. Axe

Okra Uses in Ayurveda, TCM & Traditional Medicine

In both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), okra is considered a cooling food. (16) “Hot” and “cold” foods don’t refer to temperature, but rather whether or not a food item has a cooling or a heating effect within our bodies after it’s consumed.

In Ayurvedic Medicine, okra is also considered to have a moistening effect on the body, which makes it a good choice for balancing the dryness often experienced by someone with a Vata dosha. (17) In the East, the unripened fruit and leaves have a lengthy history of use in traditional medicine as an ingredient in pain-relieving poultices. (3)


Okra vs. Acorn Squash vs. Asparagus

Okra and acorn squash are both thought of as vegetables, but since they contain seeds they are technically types of fruit. If you’re following a keto diet or another low carb diet, it’s helpful to know that okra, acorn squash and asparagus are all acceptable choices.

Asparagus is the lowest in carbohydrates followed by okra followed by acorn squash. (18) All three “vegetables” are rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and key vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium.

You can find all three of these healthy options in your grocery stores year-round, but if you’re looking to buy them seasonally at your local farmers market, okra is usually available in late summer/early fall while acorn squash is definitely a fall crop and asparagus is a spring veggie.


Where to Find & How to Use Okra

Have you ever tried okra? For those growing up in the South, okra is a staple and most often served fried with a generous cornmeal coating. 

You can likely find fresh okra at your local grocery store or farmers market. Look for okra pods that are brightly colored and firm. There are many uses for okra. Okra can be boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, battered or eaten raw. The fruits of the okra plant are preserved by pickling or drying and grinding into powder. They’re used to make soups, sauces, stews, curries and even salads.

The principal use of okra is in soups and various culinary preparations in which meats form an important factor, as in the well-known gumbo soups, to which young pods provide excellent flavor and a pleasant mucilaginous consistency. Okra is also sometimes cooked similarly to the way green peas are cooked; the very young and tender pods are boiled and served as a salad with French dressing. 

For some, it is an acquired taste. Due to its stringy mucous within the pod, it often is unappealing to consumers. However, the slimy texture can be reduced by cooking in salted water and one of benefits of okra water is how it can naturally thicken recipes. 

Is it safe to eat raw okra? Yes, you can okra raw too. Just make sure you have washed the okra thoroughly first. If you’re wondering, how do I clean okra? Wash okra pods in warm water and make sure they are completely dry before using them if you are looking to reduce their slime. Can you eat the whole okra? Before eating okra raw or cooking it, trim off a thin slice of the stem end or top of the pod.

How do you cook okra without it being slimy? One method is to cook it whole or if you’re going to slice it, aim for bigger chunks.To reduce slime, some cooks soak whole okra in a mixture of vinegar and water for 30 to 60 minutes before using it in recipes. According to experts, adding lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or chopped tomatoes can also lower the slime that remains in your final product. Plus, those are some really healthy and flavorful additions to any meal! (19)

How do you store cut okra? It’s best to store fresh okra in the refrigerator whole rather than cut. How long does okra keep in the fridge? Whole okra will usually last two to three days in the fridge and two to three months in the freezer. Can you freeze okra without cooking it? Yes, you can freeze them fresh for later use. How do you know when okra goes bad? If your pods are soft, squishy and/or brown, it’s time to throw them away.


Okra Recipes

One of the main reasons that okra is not eaten enough in the average American’s diet? We don’t know what to do with it! If you’re wondering how to cook okra, there are so many great okra recipes, especially from the Deep South, that are comforting, delicious and nutritious when the right, healthy fats are used. For starters, if you like classic fried okra, try this healthy version of a fried okra recipe: Oil-Free Gluten-Free Oven-Fried Okra

Here a few other okra recipes and recipes that include okra that you may want to try:

Another delicious okra recipe:

Honey and Sesame Roasted Vegetables

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups okra
  • 2 orange carrots
  • 2 purple carrots
  • 1 small zucchini
  • 1 small yellow squash
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons cold-pressed sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon local honey
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Wash and chop all veggies.
  3. Grease a large baking sheet with a small amount of sesame oil. Place chopped veggies onto the greased baking sheet.
  4. Blend the honey, cinnamon and sesame oil and drizzle the over top, massaging and spreading evenly into veggies.
  5. Sprinkle on sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven and flip veggies, and bake for another 35–40 minutes until golden brown and slightly crisp.
  8. Serve.

Okra History & Interesting Facts

Okra is sometimes misspelled “ocra.” In various parts of the world, it’s known as okra, lady’s fingers or lady finger, gumbo, okro (English); gombo, bendakai, bhindi (India), Kacang bendi (Malay) and quimgombó (Spanish). Some of the world’s most powerful women, Cleopatra of Egypt and Yang Guifei of China, loved to eat okra, according to the historical record.

Whether using the word okra or gumbo, both of these names are of African origin. (20Gumbo is believed to be of a Portuguese corruption, quingombo, of the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola area of Africa. So what is gumbo? It can be another name for okra, but it’s also a a stew popular in Louisiana that typically contains okra. 

Okra was apparently discovered in the Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea, and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

Since the Spanish Moors and the Egyptians of the 12th and 13th centuries used an Arab word for okra, it probably was taken into Egypt by the Muslims from the East who conquered Egypt in the seventh century. It’s also believed that the plant was taken from Ethiopia to Arabia across the narrow Red Sea or the narrower strait at its southern end. Then it was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward, reaching India after the beginning of the Christian Era.

Modern travelers have found okra growing wild along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country, as well as in Ethiopia. One of the earliest accounts of okra is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216, describing the plant in detail stating that the pods were eaten when young and tender.

It makes sense that it was likely introduced to this country by the French colonists of Louisiana in the early 1700s. It had been introduced to the New World, however, before 1658, reaching Brazil supposedly from Africa and known in Surinam in 1686.

People have been growing okra in the U.S. for centuries. While records of okra during early American colonial times are lacking, it must have been common among French colonists. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia in 1748, and Thomas Jefferson said it was known in Virginia before 1781. From about 1800, it has been written about by numerous gardeners with several distinct varieties known as early as 1806. 

 

Okra history - Dr. Axe

Okra Risks and Precautions

In general, check with your doctor before adding okra to your diet if you have an ongoing medical condition or are currently taking medication.

Okra contains solanine like some other fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Some people with joint conditions like arthritis try to avoid solanine. In addition, okra is high in vitamin K and people on blood thinners are often advised to avoid high vitamin K foods.

Okra contains a good amount of fructans, a type of carbohydrate that can lead to gas, cramping, diarrhea, and bloating for some people with bowel/gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Check with your doctor before consuming okra if you have a condition like IBS. Okra is also high in oxalates so check with your doctor before making okra a part of your diet if are prone to kidney stones. (21)

During harvesting, okra has been known to cause an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) in some people. (22, 23)


Final Thoughts

  • What is okra? It’s a delicious fruit that is commonly thought of as a vegetable that has been eaten and used medicinally for centuries.
  • Benefits of okra include:
    • Great vegan approved source of vital nutrients like calcium to boost bone health
    • Heart and eye health booster
    • Can help to lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels
    • Improves digestion and prevents constipation
  • Okra benefits can be gained by consuming the pods of the okra plant and even that slimy internal consistency holds impressive health boosting properties.
  • There’s so many healthy okra recipes that are easy to make including soups, stews, gumbos, and main courses. It can also be eaten by itself raw or cooked.

Read Next: What Are Nightshade Vegetables?


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