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4 Surprising Reasons You Should Eat More Prunes

Research shows the dried fruit protects bones, supports heart health and offers plenty of other advantages  for people over 50 — beyond constipation relief


spinner image a jar of jam next to fresh prunes on a blue picnic table
Getty Images

Prunes can get a bad rap. Overshadowed by dates — which often come cloaked in bacon or stuffed with decadent cheese — prunes are often stereotyped as, well, a constipated old-person’s food.

But nutrition experts and researchers say it’s time to give prunes a second chance — and not just for digestive support. Sweet, affordable and portable, the nutrient-packed dried fruit has been shown to support bone health, heart health, brain health and more.

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“Prunes are a really nice way to add a whole food to your diet that can decrease inflammation, work through the gut and yield beneficial effects on bone,” says Mary Jane De Souza, distinguished professor of kinesiology and physiology at Penn State University.

Here’s what else might surprise you about the power of prunes.

What are prunes?

Prunes are a type of dried plum. While not all plums can become prunes, all prunes are former plums. The particular variety of plums that become prunes, called “French” or “d’Agen,” dry well because they’re relatively large and high in natural sugars. California produces 99 percent of the prunes in the United States and 70 percent of the world’s prune crop, according to the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  

While plums have health benefits on their own, prunes have a longer shelf life and tend to be more versatile. They’re used in savory Mediterranean dishes, as a sugar or fat substitute, or as a snack or a dessert on their own, says Serena Ball, a registered dietitian nutritionist outside of St. Louis and coauthor of The Smart Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.

A single prune has about 20 calories, and it’s rich in fiber, vitamin K, copper, potassium and magnesium. Prunes are particularly high in polyphenols, an inflammation-fighting plant compound, Ball says. “Because it’s a super dark fruit, you know that there’s lots of concentrated sources of those polyphenols,” she says.

A bag of about 25 prunes costs less than $6. That investment can pay off in myriad ways. Yes, including help with constipation. And because one-third of older adults deal with a stopped-up colon on occasion, this well-known benefit of prunes is important. But the fruit benefits other body systems too.

1.  Supports strong bones  

Move over milk  —  prunes seem to be another great way to build and support strong bones, in part due to their vitamin K and potassium content.

For “The Prune Study,” which was funded by the California Prune Board and has yielded multiple scientific papers, De Souza and colleagues randomly assigned about 200 55- to 75-year-old postmenopausal women to eat either five to six prunes daily, 10 to 12 prunes daily, or no prunes at all. All women also received calcium and vitamin D, as is standard of care.

The researchers followed the participants over the course of a year to see if or how prune consumption affected various health markers. Among other takeaways, they found eating five to six prunes a day was linked to the prevention of bone mineral density loss and the preservation of certain measures of bone structure and strength when compared to prune abstainers.  

“That is really, really important because that decreases fracture risk,” De Souza says.

A follow-up analysis of the research, published in the journal Nutrients, found that the women who’d eaten 10 to 12 prunes daily had maintained more bone mineral density than the other groups — five years after the study ended. There’s some work, too, showing that men can also benefit from prunes’ bone-boosting effects.

“We don’t have the same body of literature [on men], but we hypothesize that there would be beneficial effects as well,” says Connie Rogers, professor and head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Georgia.

2.  Improves heart health

Adding prunes to your grocery list may also help protect against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.

One 2021 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food, for one, found that postmenopausal women who ate 50 to 100 grams of prunes a day — that’s about five to 12 individual prunes — lowered heart disease risk factors like cholesterol, oxidative stress, and inflammation. Oxidative stress occurs when the body has too many free radicals (unstable molecules that damage cells) and not enough antioxidants to fight them, contributing to disease.

Earlier work has shown that eating a few prunes and drinking prune juice is associated with a significant reduction in blood pressure as well as both total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

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3.  May give the brain a boost

Good news: If you’re eating for your heart, you’re also eating for your brain. “Good circulation to the heart means good circulation to the brain, which can decrease the risk of brain degeneration,” which in turn can protect against Alzheimer’s disease, Ball says.

Similarly, if you’re eating for your gut (as many prune consumers do), you’re also roundabout eating for your brain. That’s in part due to the gut-brain connection, or the concept that your digestive system and brain are in constant communication, affecting everything from your mood and behavior to your pain sensitivity and immune system function.

Creative Pairings

Try prunes with some of these:

  • Bright, tangy fruits like apples, pears, pomegranate seeds and citrus
  • Greek yogurt and toasted pecans, almonds or pine nuts
  • Cheeses boards, including goat cheese, aged Gouda, manchego and blue cheese
  • Sweet root vegetables like caramelized onions, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and other winter squash
  • Hearty grains like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice and basmati rice

Source: California Prunes

“When your immune function is humming right along, then your brain is probably going to work a little better, too, and is going to be more healthy,” Ball says.

While more research is needed, one scientific article details how polyphenol-rich foods like prunes tend to metabolize through particular pathways related to the large intestine, which is linked to brain health.

Those processes play key roles in neurons’ ability to weather stress, meaning polyphenols could be powerful tools against the progression of neurodegenerative diseases,  the study authors say.

4. Could help with weight management

While prunes are sweet, they don’t seem to cause weight gain and blood sugar problems in the same way sugar does. That’s in part because the sweetness comes from sorbitol, a complex carbohydrate that’s metabolized slowly.

In a 2024 study, De Souza, Rogers and colleagues found that postmenopausal women who ate five to 12 prunes daily for a year didn’t experience any negative metabolic effects, like increased waist circumference, compared to nonprune eaters. “That’s good news for people who might be at risk for diabetes,” Rogers says.

Other research has shown that prunes can be a healthy dessert substitute, even if they’re no less calorie-dense. For instance, one report found that, compared to jelly bean eaters, people who ate prunes ate fewer calories at later meals, and they reported decreased hunger and increased feelings of fullness.

Potential negative effects of prunes

Like any one food, prunes are not a silver bullet. And, it’s important to recognize most studies investigating their benefits are funded by the California Prune Board and require people to eat at least five prunes every single day.

“That’s always what gets lost in these studies: These foods help only if you eat them pretty much daily,” says Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian who works in a New York City gastroenterology practice. “If you eat a couple of prunes once a week, you’re probably not doing anything for your bones.”

That said, Duker Freuman, author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer, often recommends clients, particularly those with constipation, experiment with prunes or prune juice in their diets. She personally uses them culinarily, like in a recent chicken marbella dish.

One word of caution: If you’re prone to diarrhea, you may want to avoid prunes or at least introduce them slowly. Ball recommends dicing them up and adding them to yogurt, which might help counteract their laxative effect. And, just start with one a day to see how they affect you.

If you “miss the boat” on making prunes a kitchen staple, “you can pick them up any time.”

Ready to Experiment With Prunes?

Try these recipes from The Smart Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: 101 Brain-Healthy Recipes to Protect Your Mind and Boost Your Mood, by Serena Ball and Deanna Segrave-Daly.

Published by BenBella Books Inc., May 2024

spinner image two bowls of prune-pomegranate risotto pudding on a table
Prune-Pomegranate Risotto Pudding from 'The Smart Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: 101 Brain-Healthy Recipes to Protect Your Mind and Boost Your Mood.'
Serena Ball, MS, RD and Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD.

Prune-Pomegranate Risotto Pudding

Serves 6

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 2½ hours (slow cooker)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups 2% milk
  • ⅔ cup uncooked Arborio (risotto) rice or other short-grain rice
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • ½ cup chopped California prunes
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
  • ¼ cup chopped pistachios

How to make it:

  1. Spray the slow cooker insert with cooking spray.
  2. Add milk, ½ cup water, rice, sugar and salt, and whisk well to combine.
  3. Cover and cook on low for 2½ hours, or until the rice is soft and the liquid has thickened, stirring each hour during cooking.
  4. Turn off the heat and mix in the prunes and vanilla. Let sit uncovered for 10 minutes (or let cool completely and chill before serving).
  5. Spoon into serving cups, drizzle with the pomegranate molasses, top with the pistachios and serve.

Healthy Kitchen Hack: Once made, portion the risotto pudding into individual mason jars or containers without the pomegranate molasses or pistachios for an easy meal-prep breakfast. Just remove the lid, heat in the microwave, add the toppings and enjoy!

spinner image a bowl of fettuccine with prunes on a yellow and white patterned napkin on a table
Fettuccine with Prosciutto, Prunes and Black Pepper from 'The Smart Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: 101 Brain-Healthy Recipes to Protect Your Mind and Boost Your Mood.'
Serena Ball, MS, RD and Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD.

Fettuccine with Prosciutto, Prunes and Black Pepper

Serves 4

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1½ teaspoons kosher or sea salt
  • 8 ounces fettuccine
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ red onion, thinly sliced in half rings
  • 2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 8 pitted California prunes, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for serving (optional)
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

How to make it:

  1. Fill a large stockpot with water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Add salt and then stir in pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente according to package instructions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water.
  2. While the pasta cooks, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add prosciutto and cook, stirring frequently, until crispy, about 3 minutes. Add prunes and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add ⅓ cup reserved pasta water and stir until everything is mixed well.
  4. Using tongs, transfer the cooked fettuccine to the skillet and toss to coat. Stir frequently until the liquid is almost all absorbed, about 1 minute, and then add an additional ⅓ cup reserved pasta water.
  5. Continue to stir frequently until almost all the liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Add ¼ cup cheese and mix well. Mix in 2 to 3 additional tablespoons reserved pasta water to help incorporate the cheese and toss well. Remove from the heat.
  6. Mix in the remaining ¼ cup cheese; toss well until the pasta is coated and almost all the liquid is absorbed. Top the pasta with more pepper, if desired. Serve immediately.

Healthy Kitchen Hack: Experiment with different types of peppercorns in this recipe. If you have them, try red, pink, green or white peppercorns.

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