Food and Nutrition

Every Time You Eat Okra, Your Gut, Eyes, and Immune System Reap Serious Benefits

Photo: Getty Images/ vm2002
If you live in the American South, okra is one vegetable that's found in abundance, often served deliciously steaming hot straight from the frying pan. Less familiar with it? Okra is a green flowering plant with edible seed pods. Originally, it was cultivated in Ethiopia and by ancient Egyptians in Egypt. From there, it spread through North Africa and the Middle East, eventually making its way to the U.S. through slaves and settlers.

While many are drawn to okra for its taste—mildly earthy with more depth and crispness the longer it gets cooked—what may not be as apparent with each bite is its many health benefits. "Okra is especially good for the gut," says Nour Zibdeh, RD,  a registered dietitian and author of The Complete Acid Reflux Diet Plan. Here, she explains exactly what the health benefits of the veggie are—including the especially noteworthy gut health perks. Plus, get tips for cooking okra and some delicious recipes to try.

What are the benefits of okra?

1. Okra is good for the gut.

Let's get into the big one right away. All vegetables contain fiber (the key nutrient for keeping the digestive system functioning properly) and okra is no exception. The veggie has three grams of fiber per cup. But that's not the only reason Zibdeh says it's good for the gut. "Okra can take on a slippery texture; this substance actually helps coat the lining of the gut when you eat it," she explains.

Zibdeh explains that it's super important that the lining of the gut stay intact. Otherwise, harmful pathogens can make their way into the bloodstream; this is often referred to as leaky gut. Case in point? You definitely want your gut lining to be strong, and eating okra can certainly help with that.

2. It's a super source of vitamin A.

One serving of okra has almost all the vitamin A you need for an entire day. (It packs 716 microunits per cup when you want to aim for 900 microunits.) "This is good for both eye health and the immune system," Zibdeh says. So if you're staring at a computer all day, definitely keep okra in mind as a good veggie to work into more of your meals.

3. Okra is a beneficial food for people with IBS.

Many of Zibdeh's clients have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Zibdeh says that often, when someone is dealing with the symptoms of that on a regular basis, they are hesitant to eat fiber-rich foods. "Okra is a great vegetable for people with this hesitancy because it doesn't have fermentable fiber, which can be an irritant to people with IBS," she says. So if cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are causing some gut issues for you, try upping your okra intake until a registered dietitian can help get you back to eating a wider range of veggies.

4. Okra contains calcium.

Besides being good for the gut, eating okra will also benefit your bones. This is because it has calcium, specifically 82 milligrams per cup. You want to aim for 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, so okra likely won't be your primary source of the nutrient, but every bit helps!

5. It has has iron.

Zibdeh says another nutrient many may not know okra has is iron. Similar to calcium, it doesn't bring enough to the table to be considered a primary source of the nutrient, but it's still noteworthy—especially for people who eat a primarily plant-based diet and need to be extra mindful of their intake.

6. It's good for immune health.

Between the cooling temperatures and looming arrival of prime flu season, who isn't trying to get more vitamin C right now? Good news, okra has 23 milligrams of vitamin C per serving. "This means it's linked to benefitting the immune system," Zibdeh says. "Just be mindful of the fact that some of the vitamin C is lost when cooking okra, so the actual amount of it you'll get is lower than what you may think."

7. Okra is full of antioxidants.

All fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, and Zibdeh says okra is no exception. Antioxidants are what protect the body from free radicals we encounter through the environment. Exposure to these toxins breaks down cell DNA over time. So when you fill up on foods high in antioxidants, you're helping your body fight these toxins off and protect against chronic inflammation in the process.

Now that you know the benefits of okra, you're probably wondering how you can integrate it into your life more, right? While you certainly can eat okra raw, most people will tell you that it tastes much better cooked. Here in the U.S., okra is often fried. Delicious? Yes, but Zibdeh says the batter and oils can subtract from the health benefits. (Unless you use an air fryer.) Instead, she recommends boiling, steaming, or roasting it. Need some ideas on how to do this in a delicious way? Keep reading for a few recipes to try.

Reap the benefits of okra through these yummy recipes

benefits of okra
Photo: Amira's Pantry

1. Bamya (okra stew)

Bamya is a traditional Ethiopian dish often made by integrating the okra into a hearty tomato-based stew, with lamb, onion, and carrots. There are lots of anti-inflammatory herbs in it too, like cinnamon, cayenne, and bay leaves.

Get the recipe: bamya (okra stew) 

okro soup
Photo: Immaculate Bites

2. African okro soup

Between the okra, spinach, seafood, and meat in this okro soup, you're definitely getting a great amount of iron. Recipe creator Imma Adamu also likes to add pumpkin seeds (egusi), which gives the stew another layer of texture. Add a little heat with red pepper flakes and paprika.

Get the recipe: African okro soup

biscuits and burlap
Photo: Biscuits and Burlap

3. Air fryer okra

If you're looking for a good air fryer okra recipe, this is it. The batter is a mixture of eggs, flour, cornmeal, black pepper, and Cajun seasoning. That way, vibrant spice is worked right into every bite. The best part? It only takes 15 minutes to make.

Get the recipe: air fryer okra 

okra recipe
Photo: Real Greek Recipes

4. Baked okra and tomatoes

In this recipe, okra is drizzled with red wine vinegar and baked in the oven with red onion. Then, it's paired with juicy tomatoes. Add olive oil, a touch of dill, side of feta cheese, and Kalamata olives and you have yourself a delicious Mediterranean-inspired app.

Get the recipe: baked okra and tomatoes 

indian okra
Photo: My Heart Beets

5. Bhindi (Indian okra)

Sometimes, okra and a few spices is all you really need. Here, the gut-healthy veg is paired with cumin seeds, ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Besides that, all you need is a little ghee, onion, and a Serrano pepper for extra heat. Literally every ingredient is full of nutritional benefits.

Get the recipe: bhindi (Indian okra) 

As you can see, there's no shortage of ways to cook with okra. Experiment by using the recipes included here or put your own creative ideas to the test. Integrating the veggie into your meals isn't just delicious, it will do your body a whole lot of good—especially your gut.

Get more healthy recipe ideas in Well+Good's Cook With Us Facebook group.

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