Okra, also known as lady’s fingers, bamia, bhindi or gumbo, is a plant of the tropical and warm climates that produces edible green pods. The slightly immature pods are handpicked and prepared in different ways to compliment the traditional diets of many cultures. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is believed to possess an abundance of health benefits, and there is ongoing research into its potential to help manage diabetes.
Get to know this popular vegetable and learn how to choose and use its seedy pods to preserve their rich nutritional value.
10 Health Benefits of Eating Okra
- It’s low on calories – bamia pods contain only 30 calories per 100 grams and are often recommended as a part of a weight-loss program.
- It contains no saturated fats or cholesterol.
- It can help stabilize blood sugar levels by slowing its absorption from the intestines – see below for more details on okra consumption and diabetes.
- It contains lots of dietary fiber and acts as a natural laxative which can help you to naturally get rid of constipation. The pods are rich in mucilage substance, which is a thick, gluey substance that lubricates the large intestine and helps with elimination. Okra’s fiber also feeds the gut’s beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and helps maintain the pH balance of your digestive tract.
- It’s rich in vitamin A and other antioxidants – the green pods contain beta-carotene, lutein and xanthine, which together with vitamin A help preserve good vision and keep your skin fresh and healthy. Okra has been connected to cataract prevention and is praised for preventing spots and pimples.
- Due to the abundance of antioxidants and fiber, some also connect okra with cancer prevention, especially the prevention of colorectal cancer.
- It’s a rich source of vitamin C, which helps with the body’s immunity – okra has been linked to cough and cold prevention. Since vitamin C also act as an anti-inflammatory, okra might be good for reducing the symptoms of asthma.
- It contains folates – 100 grams of okra provides about 22% of the recommended daily amount. Folates (folic acid) are particularly important in the pre-conception period and during early gestation and help prevent birth defects. Foods with folate can also help to cleanse your lungs.
- It’s a good source of minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium and manganese.
- It contains vitamin K, which is important for bone health and plays a major role in blood clotting.
What Does Science Say About Okra and Diabetes
Particularly interesting is the research into the potential of okra in the treatment of diabetes. The studies have only been done on animal models so far and it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but the preliminary findings are promising.
- In 2011, researchers tested okra on rats with diabetes (published in ISRN Pharmaceutics). The pods were soaked in water and one group of rats was given the solution, while the control group received a solution of Na-carboxymethylcellulose (CMC – cellulose gum; a cellulose derivative often used as a thickener). The results showed that lady’s fingers helped reduce the absorption of glucose and lowered blood sugar levels in rats.
- Another study on rats was conducted in 2011 and provided similar results (published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences). This time rats were fed powdered okra seeds and peel extracts for 28 days. A significant reduction in blood sugar levels was observed compared to rats that did not receive the powder. The seed extract provided higher reduction in blood sugar than the peels, and it was established that even high doses were safe for rats (a dose of 2,000 milligrams per kilogram was used). In addition, scientists noted that okra helped reduce elevated lipids (fats) and that the lipid profile returned to near normal.
Some Safety Concerns for People with Diabetes
Scientists observed one important factor when testing okra on diabetic rats. Okra might improve glycemic control, but it should not be taken together with metformin hydrochloride as it reduces the drug’s absorption. Metformin is taken by many people with diabetes to keep their sugar levels under control, so it’s important not to interfere with its function until more conclusive studies are performed.
Moreover, if you have diabetes and are taking metformin, eating high amounts of okra might increase your sugar levels, so you need to keep an eye on that and discuss it with your medical team.
How to Use Okra
The fibrous, 5 to 15 centimeters long fruits are best when eaten fresh and slightly immature. If you buy pods that have been left on the plant for too long, they become woody and don’t taste nice. Avoid those that look sunken or dry and have discolored spots or cuts.
If you can, eat them on the day of purchase. They can also be stored in the refrigerator for one to two days.
Wash the pods well before you use them, as they might have been exposed to pesticides and chemicals. Wash them well with water and fruit and vegetable soap. Or you can remove pesticides from your produce by washing them in a natural mixture.
Some prefer to trim the top stem end and the tip, while others use the whole pod. You may slice it as you desire and include it in your favorite African, Middle-Eastern, Caribbean or Asian dish.
- The pods are great for thickening dishes, as they become gooey when cooked. They are delicious cooked in soups with some fish, which is a Caribbean take on okra.
- For a bit of an Egyptian touch, prepare okra in a thick stew of lamb or beef. This delicacy is actually known as bamia or bamiya.
- If you want to reduce the vegetable’s mucilage and use it in drier dishes, add some lemon juice (which can be used as a natural medicine).
- Chopped or sliced pods can be fried as fritters and then mixed with other vegetables or meat.
- For a healthy version, simply steam the pods (whole or cut) and enjoy them as a side dish with rice and vegetables or meat. Steaming is one of the best cooking methods to keep the vitamins in food.
- The pods can also be pickled and preserved in the same way you pickle your other vegetables.
- If you happen to come across okra’s leaves, you can eat those as well. They can be consumed raw in salads or cooked in soups and stews.