It’s not uncommon to hear about eating dates while you’re pregnant, especially as you get later into pregnancy. There’s a theory that dates can help induce labor and make labor easier. We’ll dig into the research and see what the evidence says about that.
What are dates?
I have to admit it wasn’t until about a year ago that I ate my first ever date! They’re delicious and very sweet! They have gotten more popular the last few years because companies like LÄRABAR and RXBAR have been using them in protein/energy bars as a natural sweetener and binder. It’s also a popular ingredient in homemade energy balls like these Chocolate Coconut Energy balls.
Dates are a stone fruit meaning they have a seed or pit in the middle similar to peaches or olives. They look sort of shriveled and dried but a fun fact about dates is they aren’t actually dried like a grape is to make raisins. Dates are naturally drier so even though it may seem like the dates you buy at the store are shriveled, most are sold fresh! Dates contain the lowest moisture of any whole fruit which means they last a lot longer than other fresh fruit.
Date Nutrition Facts
Dates actually contain a decent amount of micronutrients needed for fertility and pregnancy.
Sometimes you’ll hear about dates being a source of iron but that’s not really the case. Dates contain minimal amounts of iron and the iron they do contain is very challenging for our bodies to absorb. If you’re looking for well-absobed iron source, look towards red meat, eggs, and organ meats.
Dates are a good source of antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acid. Antioxidants are important during fertility and pregnancy because whenever a lot of energy is being used (like to grow a new human!) oxidative stress is a result.
Sugar content of dates
Because the calories in dates are almost entirely from carbohydrates, it’s helpful to look at the glycemic load. This is a measure of how much 1 portion of a particular food will impact your blood sugar. The higher the glycemic load, the greater the expected elevation in blood sugar is after consumption. A glycemic load of 20 or greater is considered high. 2 dates (~50g) has a glycemic load of 18. That would be considered a moderate level but if you ate more than 2 dates, it would be categorized as high glycemic.
Dates do have a decent amount of folate, potassium, magnesium, and fiber which can be nutrients that are harder to get but critical during pregnancy. However, it is important to be mindful that they do contain a lot of sugar and can have a significant impact on blood sugar.
Blood sugar control during pregnancy is important because uncontrolled blood sugar can increase risk for that child to have chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity later in life. Consistently high blood sugar in early pregnancy can put the baby at 5x greater risk of congenital heart defects as well as other serious heart defects.
Uncontrolled blood sugar during pregnancy can progress to gestational diabetes (GD). When GD is uncontrolled, birth defects may occur and normal growth and development of the baby can be interrupted. This also can lead to a higher risk delivery because the baby could develop reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) at birth. A mother’s health is at risk as well. Women diagnosed with GD have a significantly higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
Now, this doesn’t mean the goal is to avoid sugar or carbohydrates entirely. That’s absolutely not necessary or helpful, however, we should be mindful. Carbohydrates and especially simple carbohydrates like sugary foods impact blood sugar to the greatest extent.
If you’re including dates in your diet during pregnancy, eat them in the context of a meal or with another snack that includes protein and fat to help reduce the blood sugar spike. For example, have a snack of 2 dates + a string cheese or 2 dates cut in half with a little peanut butter down the middle. Or just include the dates in a well balanced meal. If you’re making energy balls with dates, make sure to include some ingredients with fat such as chia seeds or nut butter and fiber such as chia seeds, flax seed, or whole oats.
Dates to include labor?
There have been a couple meta analyses (one of the strongest forms of research evidence) recently looking at this topic that found that women who consumed date fruit were admitted to the hospital for delivery with higher cervical dilation, yielded a lower need for labor induction or augmentation, and had reduced duration of active labor. There did not seem to be any beneficial effect on reducing frequency of cesarean. There have only been a few studies looking at date consumption on labor outcomes but the few that there have been, seem to find benefit.
One study had women eat 6 dates per day 4 weeks prior to their estimated due date while another had women eat 70-76 grams (about 3 dates) per day from the 37th week of pregnancy. Both studies showed positive effects.
The theory is that these benefits could be from the oxytocin-like effect that dates have. Compounds in dates bind to oxytocin (a hormone that contributes to labor contractions) receptors and mimic the actions of oxytocin. Dates also contain tannins which have been shown to help facilitate contractions.
Labor is a lot of work (it’s called labor for a reason!) and the sugar content of dates becomes a huge benefit. It’s also nice having an easy-to-eat, quick form of carbohydrates that can help keep you fueled and strong for labor.
This is also very beneficial during early postpartum. You’re recovering from a marathon at least and possibly major abdominal surgery. That requires a lot of energy (aka: calories) and nutrients. Something I always suggest to my clients is having snacks that can be eaten 1-handed for postpartum because you’ll be carrying a new baby around. It’s rare that you’ll have two hands to eat for the initial part of postpartum. Whole dates or using dates to make energy balls can be a great snack in these instances.
Whenever it comes to a nutrition or supplement intervention, we have to weigh the potential positives to the potential drawbacks in order to come to a recommendation. Because we’re talking about a whole food, there is very little drawback. The only possible downside that stands out is the sugar content. However, if your blood sugar is under control and you have the dates in context with other food containing protein and fat, I think it can be a good addition. The potential benefits are very real. If nothing else, it will help you meet your potassium, magnesium, folate, and fiber needs. It may also help with labor.
It might be best to just have them every once in a while during most of your pregnancy to be mindful of sugar intake then increase to 3-6 dates per day starting around week 36-37 of your pregnancy.
Where to buy
Azure Standard is a great place to buy high quaility ingreidnts and foods. They have many different options for buying dates including in bulk.
As always, your nutrition needs are specific to you and nutrition advice is best when individualized.
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