Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Dried plums, far better known as prunes, have a poor reputation – especially among younger people, and worst among women between the ages of 25-54. Does the prune deserve it?
Grandma was right: prunes do help to relieve constipation. Their high fiber content is more effective than psyllium and other fibers, and helps to digest food, keep the bowels moving and prevent hemorrhoids. One prune contains nearly a gram of fiber. Sorbitol, the natural sugar in prunes, also helps. Prune juice doesn’t contain as much fiber as the whole fruit, but it still works as an excellent laxative.
Prunes contain key vitamins and minerals. They are high in vitamin A, which can help to prevent poor night vision, dry eyes, macular degeneration, and cataracts. They are also high in vitamin K, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, and niacin, and contain the minerals iron, manganese, copper, and magnesium. Iron helps to make more red blood cells and prevent anemia.
Prunes are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants appear to be extremely valuable in the prevention of a number of age-related, degenerative diseases. (Antioxidants are also found in fresh fruits and vegetables, and in whole grains.)
Prunes are a great source of potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps with digestion, heart rhythms, nerve impulses, lower blood pressure, and muscle contractions. Keep in mind that there is such a thing as too much: too many prunes or too much prune juice can lead to dangerously high potassium levels.
Prunes play a role in maintaining healthy bones. They are an important source of the mineral boron, which can help build strong bones and muscles. There is some evidence that the polyphenols in prunes are beneficial to bone as well. They may help to limit bone loss from radiation treatments and to treat and prevent osteoporosis.
Prunes can help control appetite. This is due to their high fiber content, which digests slowly and keeps us feeling full longer. They also help to control appetite because of their low glycemic index, which means they raise the blood sugar level slowly. This makes them a good part of a diabetic diet. Note that prunes are not low in calories, and can add a lot of natural sugar to the diet. Six prunes contain about 138 calories and 22 grams of sugar.
Also note that too many prunes may loosen the bowels enough to cause diarrhea, gas, or bloating. Or, constipation may occur if there isn’t enough fluid to accompany the fiber.
My bottom line is that prunes are pretty great, and have benefits that go beyond the bathroom. Most people can safely build up to eating as many as ten dried prunes a day, which is about one-half of a cup. It’s easy to add prunes to your diet; try chopping them into pieces and adding them to hot or cold dishes, to smoothies and shakes, to cookie batter, or even using them as a sugar substitute. Eat them alone as a snack or in a trail mix with nuts, other dried fruits, and chocolate chips. They’re highly nutritious and even small amounts will provide a good source of energy and make a real contribution to your diet.