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Depending on where you live, okra may be a staple or a walk on the wild side, when it comes to veggies.
Okra is a flowering plant in the Malvaceae (aka mallow) family — a family of plants that are generally edible, yet known for their viscous fluid that makes some people prefer to stay away. Technically a type of hibiscus, okra shares this family with hollyhocks, cotton, and cheeseweed (mmm…).
Although you could safely go all brontosaurus on an okra plant and devour the thing right down to its roots, the bits you’ll find for sale in the produce aisle are the long, slender seed pods.
These seed pods are also known as “lady fingers” — so named for their striking resemblance to the pointy, green digits of the female hand (they were thinking of the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps?). Others simply call it “gumbo.”
If you’re not bothered by its slimy interior, you’ll find that okra is quite a healthy snack. In a one cup (100g) serving of raw okra, you’ll find:
- 1.93 g protein
- 299 mg potassium (rivaling the mighty banana, which has 358 mg per 100g)
- 82 mg calcium
- 57 mg magnesium
- 23 mg vitamin C (about half of what you’d find in the same amount of raw orange)
- 31.3 mcg vitamin K
- 3.2 g fiber
- 3.2 g dietary fiber
- Only 33 calories and about 4 grams of carbohydrate
Such a nutritional profile on its own would make okra a suitable food for those with diabetes. But studies have shown that okra may also have the power to reduce blood sugar (aka glucose), cholesterol, and insulin resistance, among other benefits.
Read on to find out more about how this vegetable relates to diabetes.
Roasted okra seeds have been used for generations in Turkey as a traditional treatment for diabetes. But is this use supported by modern science? Okra’s ability to help treat diabetes has been supported by various studies, but research is still in the early phases.
One study, which referenced Turkey’s tradition, concluded that okra seeds have an alpha-glucosidase-inhibiting effect in rats.
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors are a class of diabetes medications that slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, preventing blood sugar spikes.
Another study performed on rats with gestational diabetes concluded that okra’s antioxidant content may help to reduce insulin resistance, which in turn reduces blood sugar. Insulin is, of course, a hormone that allows cells to convert glucose to energy, or to store it for future use.
A further study, also performed on rats, found that okra supplements helped to regulate blood sugar and blood lipids (e.g. cholesterol) for the better.
That’s a lot of exciting news for rats! But further research is needed to determine just how applicable this information is for humans.
Dietary fiber and insulin resistance
Most of us have been told that we should be eating more fiber. But most of us aren’t terribly interested in doing so. A recent study found that 95 percent of us aren’t meeting the recommendations.
Okra to the rescue! It’s a good source of dietary fiber, which it turns out, has numerous benefits. A 2012 study of 264 women found a significant correlation between increased intake of soluble fiber and reduced insulin resistance.
One contributing factor may be that dietary fiber helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, which studies suggest promotes insulin sensitivity (the opposite of insulin resistance).
A Japanese study on participants with type 2 diabetes found that an increased intake of dietary fiber can also reduce the risk of heart and kidney disease.
Some additional benefits of dietary fiber include:
- Regulates blood sugar. Soluble fiber, such as that found in okra, helps to reduce blood sugar spikes by slowing the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.
- Reduces cholesterol. Soluble fiber reduces LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) in the blood.
- Helps to curb overeating. Dietary fiber makes you feel full quicker and for longer, preventing overeating and cravings between meals.
- Keeps you regular. Fiber softens and bulks up your stool, alleviating constipation. Fiber is also good for general colon health, as a high-fiber diet reduces risk of internal hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer. Your colon will thank you.
Having diabetes can be stressful, and mental stress can make diabetes worse. This is because stress hormones are believed to raise blood sugar in those with type 2 diabetes.
Those with type 1 diabetes respond more unpredictably to stress, with some experiencing a rise in blood sugar and some experiencing a drop.
What does this have to do with Okra? A 2014 study performed on mice found that okra seed extract was effective at reducing stress, although more investigation is needed to determine exactly why this is the case or if it has any relevance for humans.
Cholesterol can be a struggle for those with diabetes. A common condition called diabetic dyslipidemia causes “good” cholesterol (HDL-C) levels in the blood to fall while causing “bad” cholesterol (LDL-C) to rise. Those with this condition are at a higher risk of clogged arteries and heart disease.
Eating foods containing soluble fiber, including okra, can help reduce LDL-C levels in the blood. Fiber prevents the gut from reabsorbing bile, allowing bile to climb aboard the “fecal express” and hitch a ride out of the body. The body then produces more bile, pulling cholesterol from the blood to do so. Eating 5–10 grams of soluble fiber per day is recommended.
Other methods for reducing LDL-C include:
- eating at least 4 servings of fruit and vegetables per day
- eating healthy unsaturated fats, such as nuts, fish, olive oil, and avocados
- avoiding added sugar and trans fats
- getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise, 5 days per week
- maintaining your healthy weight
- quitting smoking
According to a recent study on mice, it’s been shown that okra pods have anti-fatigue properties, and this power seems to mainly come from consuming the seeds.
This effect may boost your endurance, allowing you to work out for longer and feel less fatigued afterward. An aside to the Olympic athletes among us: as of now, the World Anti-Doping Agency hasn’t banned okra as a performance enhancing drug, so take advantage before they get hip to it!
Okra contains polyphenols, which act as beneficial antioxidants. And if you haven’t heard, the body is the arena for a never-ending struggle between antioxidants and free radicals.
Free radicals may have a cool name, but they’re anything but. They’re oxygen-containing molecules that have an uneven number of electrons, making them highly reactive with other molecules in the body. These reactions are unpredictable and sometimes harmful.
Antioxidants are molecules with extra electrons to lend to free radicals, which neutralizes them before they can cause harmful reactions.
Oxidative stress is the condition of having an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, and it’s been linked to all sorts of conditions like:
- clogged arteries
- heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
Not exactly. Even as the soluble dietary fiber found in okra may help to stabilize blood sugar and fight bad cholesterol, a study performed on rats found that it can also hamper the absorption of metformin, a diabetes medication that works to control blood sugar.
Even though the study was not performed on humans, it concluded that people should be cautious not to take metformin along with a meal containing okra.
Okra also contains calcium oxalate, which can accumulate in the kidney to form kidney stones. Those with type 2 diabetes may have highly acidic urine, which makes kidney stones more likely to develop. Okra isn’t by any means unique in this though; other high-oxalate foods include:
- potato chips/fries
There are many ways to enjoy okra aside from preparing it in a dish — or if not to actually enjoy it, to at least reap its benefits.
- Okra water: Cut several okra pods into roughly 1-inch segments and soak them overnight in drinking water. The next day, you’ll be rewarded with a bitter beverage infused with nutrients from the okra’s skin and seeds. How much okra and water to use is a matter of personal taste — some find that the drink gets too bitter with too much okra.
- Pickled okra: Okra makes excellent pickling material. The pickling process even masks okra’s natural sliminess and makes for a satisfying crunch. Check out this recipe for instructions.
- Dried okra: If you want some extreme crunch, try Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Okra. Dried okra should contain most of the nutrients found in fresh okra, but some may be reduced. For example, the drying process significantly lowers vitamin C content.
As discussed above, okra offers a wide range of health benefits, particularly for those with diabetes. No matter what your condition though, it’s generally good to add more healthy vegetables like okra to your diet.
But as with any natural remedy, it’s a good idea to discuss adding okra to your diet with your healthcare provider or dietitian who can help you with an overall healthy meal plan.