By Prof. Raphael Nyarkotey Obu
Okra or commonly known as lady’s finger is a widely consumed vegetable in tropical regions. Especially in Ghanaian kitchen okra is one of the most versatile foods, which are loved and consumed by all. It is biologically categorized as a fruit but is generally consumed as a vegetable. For men, there are assertions that men who eat too much of it could affect their waist BUT no studies confirm this. However, okra presents much good news for men and women from a scientific perspective and I examine it in this article.
Rich in nutrients
Okra boasts an impressive nutrient profile.
The US Department of Agriculture reports that one cup (100 grams) of raw okra contains:
Carbs: 7 grams
Protein: 2 grams
Fat: 0 grams
Fiber: 3 grams
Magnesium: 14% of the Daily Value (DV)
Folate: 15% of the DV
Vitamin A: 14% of the DV
Vitamin C: 26% of the DV
Vitamin K: 26% of the DV
Vitamin B6: 14% of the DV
Two studies(Carr and Maggini, 2017; DiNicolantonio et al. 2015) found that okra is a good source of vitamins C and K1. Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient that aids holistic immune function, and vitamin K1 is a fat-soluble vitamin that’s known for its role in blood clotting.
Moreover, okra is low in calories and carbs and contains some protein and fiber. Numerous fruits and vegetables lack protein, which makes okra somewhat unique.
Eating enough protein is linked with weight management, blood sugar control, bone structure, and muscle mass(Pasiakos SM, 2015; Devries and Phillips, 2015).
Okra is loaded with numerous antioxidants. One study(Xia et al. 2015) found that the main antioxidants in okra are polyphenols, including flavonoids and isoquercetin, as well as vitamins A and C.
Tressera-Rimbau et al.(2017) note that eating a diet high in polyphenols may improve heart health by lowering the risk of blood clots and oxidative damage. It may also support brain health as it can penetrate the brain and protect against inflammation (Sarubbo et al. 2018), enhance symptoms of aging and improve cognition, learning, and memory.
Decreases heart diseases risk
The thick-gel nature of okra called mucilage plays an important role as it kind binds cholesterol during digestion and this trigger it to get rid of the body with the stool instead of maintaining it in the body.
For instance, Wang et al.(2014) conducted an 8-week duration randomly separated mice into 3 groups and gave them a high-fat diet containing 1% or 2% okra powder or a high-fat diet without okra powder. It was found that the mice on the okra diet got rid of extra cholesterol in their stools and had decreased total blood cholesterol levels than the control group.
Okra also contains polyphenols. For instance, Medina-Remón et al.(2017) conducted a 4-year study on 1,100 people and found that those who ate a diet rich in polyphenols had reduced inflammatory markers linked with heart disease.
Okra also contains a type of protein called lectin, which may inhibit the growth of human cancer cells. These properties have been reported to demonstrate potential in many cancer cells which are adumbrated:
The first study report: Okra kills 72% of human breast cancer cells in vitro
This study was conducted by Monte et al.(2014) and found that the lectin in common okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) was shown to kill up to 72% of human breast cancer cells (MCF7) in vitro, mostly by inducing programmed cell death (apoptosis). The okra lectin was found to reduce the growth of breast cancer cells by 63%. In this study, the lectin is found in okra seeds, and researchers in this study got their lectin by water extraction from okra seed meal. This anti-cancer lectin was found in 2012 and contained anti-inflammatory and anti-nociceptive (pain relieving) properties which makes it a very interesting compound for future research.
The authors found that the lectin compound is a “potential therapeutic to combat human breast cancer.” Apart from the seeds, other parts of okra also have demonstrated anti-cancer properties, namely pectin.
The second study reports: Okra pectin inhibits 75% of highly metastatic melanoma cells in vitro.
This study was conducted by(Sengkhamparn et al. 2009) and found that okra pectin is found just under the skin of the pods, and it contains special compounds (highly branched rhamnogalacturonans). This is unique as it has never before been found in other pectins. Commentators believed that it is one of the recent compounds that are responsible for the effectiveness of pectin against melanoma.
In another study by Vayssade et al.(2010), pectin inhibited the proliferation of highly metastatic mouse melanoma cells (B16F10) by 75% after 48 hours of treatment and also increased the rate of programmed cell death (apoptosis) by nearly 23-fold. They further discovered that the pectin triggered apoptosis by interacting with Galectin-3. This is akin to the mechanism that exists with the well-known compound Modified Citrus Pectin, however, okra pectin does not have to be modified in any way to have this effect.
Finally: Men who eat okra (Southern diet) have 40% less prostate cancer
The two studies above show clearly that two different components of okra (pectin and lectin) have potent anticancer properties, therefore as usual, we are probably better off consuming the entire edible portion of okra if we want to maximize its anti-cancer benefits. Have any actual benefits been observed in human populations?
One study (Tseng et al. 2004) conducted in the United States found that men eating a Southern dietary pattern (characterized by eating okra, grits, cornbread, beans, rice, and sweet potatoes) had 40% less prostate cancer as compared to those who do not.
Some academic commentators believe that, although the result bordered on statistical significance, this was a fair-sized study that followed nearly 3,800 men for ten years. The surprising thing about this study is that, apart from okra, beans, and sweet potatoes, the Southern eating pattern was not a very healthy diet, and contained high portions of red meat and bacon which are both known to increase cancer risk. Furthermore, the Southern eating pattern protected men from prostate cancer much more than a vegetable and fruit-rich diet did, even though it contained 24% less fruit and vegetables (29 servings weekly on the Southern diet vs. 38 servings weekly on the fruit & vegetable-rich diet). Research now says that okra could protect us from at least three different cancers.
Fan et al. (2013) mice study found that eating okra or okra extract could decrease blood sugar levels.
In one previous study, rats were prescribed liquid sugar and purified okra and had smaller blood sugar spikes than animals in the control group(Khatun et al. 2011). They further held that okra reduced sugar intake in the digestive tract, thus causing a stable blood sugar response.
Apart from that, okra could interfere with metformin, a common diabetes medication. Therefore, eating okra is not recommended for those taking this drug.
A previous study also found that okra water improved the blood sugar levels of pregnant rats that had gestational diabetes(Tian et al. 2015). Also, roasted okra seeds, have been studied and proven to have a positive effect on lowering blood sugar (Thanakosai and Phuwapraisirisan, 2013).
Doreddula et al.(2014) study found that the seed extracts of okra have an antioxidant, anti-stress effect in the bloodstream of mice. Managing stress levels is an important part of managing diabetes. Long-term, high-stress levels can cause blood sugar levels to spike.
Okra, Pregnant women
Okra is a good source of folate, with 1 cup (100 grams) providing 15% of a woman’s daily needs for this nutrient. Folate (vitamin B9) is an important nutrient for pregnant women. It helps lower the risk of a neural tube defect, which affects the brain and spine of a developing fetus (16Trusted Source). It’s recommended that all women of childbearing age consume 400 mcg of folate every day.
Drinking “okra water” is a popular new method of using okra. Some have even suggested that drinking it helps lessen diabetes symptoms.
The drink is made by putting okra pods in water and soaking them overnight. Some of the valuable nutrients in the skin and seed pods will be absorbed into the water.
If you’re not crazy about the taste of okra, drinking this okra water solution is a quick and simple way to derive the benefits of okra without eating it.
Some people prefer to cut the okra into thin slices instead of soaking the pods whole. If you’re going to prepare okra water this way, be prepared for a slightly bitter drink.
Okra peel and powdered seeds
Okra peel is the most traditional way to use okra medicinally.
In the preliminary studies done to investigate the benefits of using okra, using shredded okra peel was seen to be the most favorable way to ingest it.
You can prepare okra peel yourself by using a handheld kitchen grater or a lemon zester. Though there’s no known limit for how much okra peel someone should eat at one time, half of a teaspoon of okra peel should be more than enough for your body to benefit.
Powdered okra seeds are dried out before being ground down. Ingesting the powder from the seeds as a supplement has also been researched and seen to be beneficial.
The process of making the powder is a bit time- and labor-intensive. However, you can easily buy powdered okra seeds from health food stores and online suppliers.
From the review, eating okra could give you magnesium, folate, fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins C, K1, and A. it could also support pregnant women, heart health, and blood sugar control. It may even have anticancer properties.
Prof. Nyarkotey has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations to justify his write-ups. My articles are for educational purposes and do not serve as Medical advice for Treatment. I aim to educate the public about evidence-based scientific Naturopathic Therapies.
The writer is a Professor of Naturopathic Healthcare, a Medical Journalist, and a science writer. President, Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT)/African Naturopathic Foundation, Ashaiman, Ghana. Currently BL Candidate at the Gambia Law School, Banjul. E. mail: email@example.com.
Doreddula SK, Bonam SR, Gaddam DP, Desu BS, Ramarao N, Pandy V. Phytochemical analysis, antioxidant, antistress, and nootropic activities of aqueous and methanolic seed extracts of ladies finger (Abelmoschus esculentus L.) in mice. ScientificWorldJournal. 2014;2014:519848. doi: 10.1155/2014/519848. Epub 2014 Oct 21. PMID: 25401145; PMCID: PMC4221879.
Tian ZH, Miao FT, Zhang X, Wang QH, Lei N, Guo LC. Therapeutic effect of okra extract on gestational diabetes mellitus rats induced by streptozotocin. Asian Pac J Trop Med. 2015 Dec;8(12):1038-1042. doi: 10.1016/j.apjtm.2015.11.002. Epub 2015 Nov 12. PMID: 26706676. Thanakosai W, Phuwapraisirisan P. First identification of α-glucosidase inhibitors from okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) seeds. Nat Prod Commun. 2013 Aug;8(8):1085-8. PMID: 24079173.