These Okra Health Benefits Will Make You Rethink This Summer Veggie

Is okra healthy? Actually, "healthy" might be an understatement: Full of disease-fighting antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber, okra is a green machine of goodness.

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is okra healthy?: a collage of vertical and horizontal slices of okra
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Okra often gets a bad rep, as many people know it to have a slimy texture when cut or cooked. But those who have that negative connotation don't ask the important question: Is okra healthy, though? The summer produce is actually impressively good for you thanks to its lineup of nutrients such as antioxidants and fiber. And if you always wind up with gross, slimy okra dishes, you might just be cooking it wrong: With the right techniques, okra can be delicious and goo-free — promise.

Read on to learn about okra's health benefits and nutrition, plus some delicious ways to enjoy okra.

The Basics on Okra

Though it's usually prepared like a vegetable (think: boiled, roasted, fried), okra is actually a fruit (!!) that originally hails from Africa. It grows in warm climates, including the southern U.S. where it flourishes thanks to the heat and humidity and, in turn, "ends up in a lot of southern dishes," explains Andrea Mathis, M.A., R.D.N., L.D., an Alabama-based registered dietitian and founder of Beautiful Eats & Things. The entire okra pod — including the stem and seeds — is edible. But if you happen to have access to a whole okra plant (e.g. in a garden), you can also eat the leaves, flowers, and flower buds as greens, according to North Carolina State University Extension.

Okra Nutrition

Okra is a nutritional superstar, boasting plenty of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, riboflavin, folic acid, calcium, and potassium, according to an article in the journal Molecules. As for that thick, slimy stuff that okra releases when it's cut and cooked? The goo, scientifically called mucilage, is high in fiber, notes Grace Clark-Hibbs, M.D.A., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition with Grace. This fiber is responsible for many of okra's nutritional benefits, including digestive support, blood sugar management, and heart health.

Here's the nutritional profile of 1 cup (~160 grams) of cooked okra, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • 56 calories
  • 3 grams protein
  • < 1 gram fat
  • 13 grams carbohydrate
  • 5 grams fiber
  • 3 grams sugar

Okra Health Benefits

If its roster of nutrients isn't enough to make you add this summer produce to your rotation, okra's health benefits may do the trick. Ahead, discover what this green machine of an ingredient can do for your body, according to experts.

Wards Off Disease

Okra happens to be an A+ source of antioxidants. "The main antioxidants in okra are polyphenols," says Mathis. This includes catechin, a polyphenol that's also found in green tea, as well as vitamins A and C, making okra one of the best antioxidant foods you can eat. And that's a huge benefit because antioxidants are known to neutralize or remove free radicals (aka unstable molecules) that can damage cells and promote illnesses (e.g. cancer, heart disease), explains Mathis.

Supports Healthy Digestion

If going number two feels like a chore, you might want to find a place on your plate for okra. "The mucilage in okra is particularly high in soluble fiber," says Clark-Hibbs. This type of fiber absorbs water in the gastrointestinal tract, creating a gel-like substance that firms up stool and helps curb diarrhea. The okra pod's "walls" and seeds also contain insoluble fiber, notes Susan Greeley, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. Insoluble fiber increases fecal bulk and promotes intestinal muscle movements, which can offer relief from constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic. (

Manages Blood Sugar Levels

By forming that gel-like substance in your gut, the soluble fiber in okra can also slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, thus preventing blood sugar spikes and reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, says Clark-Hibbs. A 2016 study found that regular intake of soluble fiber can improve blood sugar levels in people who already have type 2 diabetes. "Okra is also rich in magnesium, a mineral that helps your body secrete insulin," says Charmaine Jones, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Food Jonezi. In other words, magnesium helps keep your levels of insulin — the hormone that controls how the food you eat is changed into energy — in check, thereby helping to normalize your blood sugar levels, according to a 2019 article from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

And need not forget about those supercharged antioxidants, which may lend a hand, too. Oxidative stress, which happens when there's an excess of free radicals in the body, plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. But a high intake of antioxidants (e.g. vitamins A and C in okra) can lower the risk by fighting these free radicals and, in turn, oxidative stress, according to a 2018 study. (

Protects the Heart

As it turns out, the fiber in okra is quite the multi-tasking nutrient; it helps lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol "by collecting extra cholesterol molecules as it moves through the digestive system," says Clark-Hibbs. The fiber then brings along cholesterol as it's excreted in the stool, notes Mathis. This decreases the absorption of cholesterol into the blood, helping manage your cholesterol levels and reducing your risk of heart disease. (

Antioxidants, such as the phenolic compoundsfound in okra (e.g. catechins), also protect the heart by neutralizing excess free radicals. Here's the deal: When free radicals interact with LDL cholesterol, the physical and chemical properties of the "bad" stuff change, according to a 2021 article. This process, called LDL oxidation, contributes to the development of atherosclerosis or plaque buildup in the arteries that can lead to heart disease. However, a 2019 scientific review notes that phenolic compounds can prevent LDL oxidation, thus potentially protecting the heart.

Supports Healthy Pregnancy

Okra is rich in folate, aka vitamin B9, which everyone needs to form red blood cells and support healthy cell growth and function, says Jones. But it's especially crucial for proper fetal development during pregnancy (and thus is found in prenatal vitamins). "Low folate intake [during pregnancy] can cause birth abnormalities such as neural tube defects, a disease that causes defects in the brain (e.g. anencephaly) and spinal cord (e.g. spina bifida) in a fetus," she explains.

For context, the recommended daily intake of folate is 400 micrograms for people age 19 and older, and 600 micrograms for pregnant people, according to the National Institutes of Health. One cup of cooked okra offers about 88 micrograms of folate, according to the USDA, so okra is sure to help you meet those goals. (Another good source of folate? Beets, which have 80 mcg per ~100-gram serving. The more you know!)

Potential Risks of Okra

Prone to kidney stones? Go easy on the okra, as it's high in oxalates, which are compounds that increase your risk of developing kidney stones if you've had them in the past, says Clark-Hibbs. That's because excess oxalates can mix with calcium and form calcium oxalates, the main component of kidney stones, she explains. A 2018 review suggests that eating a lot of oxalates in a sitting increases the amount of oxalates excreted via the urine (which travels through the kidneys), boosting your chances of developing kidney stones. So, folks "who are more susceptible to developing kidney stones should limit the amount of oxalate-containing foods they eat at one time," cautions Clark-Hibbs.

You might also want to proceed with caution if you're taking anticoagulants (blood thinners) to prevent blood clots, says Mathis. Okra is rich in vitamin K, a nutrient that aids in blood clotting — the exact process blood thinners aim to prevent. (ICYDK, blood thinners help prevent blood clots in patients with certain conditions such as atherosclerosis, thus decreasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.) Suddenly increasing your intake of vitamin K-rich foods (such as okra) can interfere with the purpose of blood thinners, says Mathis.

TL;DR — If you're susceptible to stones or taking a blood thinner, check with your doc to determine how much you can safely eat before chowing down on okra.

How to Cook Okra

"Okra can be found fresh, frozen, canned, pickled, and in dried powder form," says Jones. Some stores might also sell dried okra snacks, such as Trader Joe's Crispy Crunchy Okra (Buy It, $10 for two bags, amazon.com). In the freezer aisle, it's available on its own, breaded, or in pre-made packaged meals. That being said, fresh and frozen non-breaded options are the healthiest, as they have the highest nutrient content without added preservatives such as sodium, explains Jones.

As for okra powder? It's used more like a seasoning, rather than a replacement for the whole vegetable. "[It's] a healthier alternative to using salts or pickled ingredients," says Jones, but you probably won't find it at your next Whole Foods jaunt. Instead, head to a specialty store or, not shockingly, Amazon, where you can snag a product such as Naturevibe Botanicals Okra Powder (Buy It, $5, amazon.com).

Naturevibe Botanicals Okra Powder

Okra-Powder-Product
Amazon

When buying fresh okra, pick produce that's firm and bright green and steer clear of that which is discolored or limp, as these are signs of rotting, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At home, store unwashed okra in a sealed container or plastic bag in the refrigerator. And be warned: Fresh okra is super perishable, so you'll want to eat it ASAP — within two to three days — according to the University of Arkansas.

While it can be eaten raw, "most people cook okra first because the skin has a slight prickly texture that becomes unnoticeable after cooking," says Clark-Hibbs. Fresh okra can be roasted, fried, grilled, or boiled. But as mentioned earlier, when cut or cooked, okra releases the slimy mucilage that many people dislike.

To limit the slime, cut the okra into larger pieces, because "the less you cut it, the less you will get that signature slimy texture," shares Clark-Hibbs. You might also want to use dry cooking methods (e.g. frying, roasting, grilling), notes Jones, vs. moist cooking methods (e.g. steaming or boiling), which add moisture to okra and, in turn, enhances the goo. Dry cooking also involves cooking at high heat, which "shortens the amount of time [the okra's] being cooked and therefore decreases the amount of slime being released," adds Clark-Hibbs. Lastly, you can minimize the slime by "adding an acidic ingredient such as tomato sauce, lemon, [or] garlic sauce," says Jones. Goo, be gone!

Ready to give okra a spin? Here are a few tasty expert-approved ways to use okra at home:

As a roasted dish. "One of the easiest and most mouthwatering ways to [cook] okra is to roast it," says Clark-Hibbs. "Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper, lay out the okra in a single layer, drizzle some olive oil, and finish with salt and pepper to taste. This will soften the okra while keeping it crispy and preventing the slimy texture that can [happen with boiling]," she says.

As a sautéed dish. For another simple take on okra, sauté it with your fave spices. First, "heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add okra and cook for about four to five minutes, or until bright green. Season with salt, pepper, and other seasonings before serving," says Mathis. Need inspo? Try this recipe for bhindi, or crispy Indian okra, from the food blog My Heart Beets.

In stir-fry. Elevate your next weeknight stir-fry with okra. The dish calls for a quick-cooking method, which will help reduce the slime. Check out this four-ingredient okra stir-fry from the food blog Omnivore's Cookbook.

In stews and soups. With the right approach, the mucilage in okra can work in your favor. It can thicken dishes (think: stew, gumbo, soup) just like cornstarch, according to Mathis. "Simply add diced okra [into your soup] about 10 minutes before [you finish] cooking," she says. Try this mouthwatering seafood gumbo recipe from the food blog Grandbaby Cakes.

In a salad. Make the most of summer produce by pairing okra with other warm-weather veggies. For example, "[cooked okra] can be cut up and added to a delicious summery tomato and corn salad," says Greeley.

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