In parts of the Southern United States, okra is a food staple, like pizza in New York City or beef brisket in Texas.
This flowering warm-season plant arrived in the U.S. with the slave trade in the 1700s and became a mainstay of Creole and Cajun cuisines. It finds a home in soups like gumbos, or fried -- with flour, cornmeal, and maybe a little bacon grease -- as a side dish.
Okra is more than a regional delicacy. Several studies say that it can help lower blood sugar, which makes it another possible tool for those with diabetes. If you or a loved one has it, it's worth asking your doctor, a dietitian, or a diabetes educator if there's a place in your diet for okra.
How Okra Helps
Controlling diabetes is all about watching the level of sugar in your blood. Losing weight and being active help. And so does eating healthy.
Okra is low in calories, with almost no fat. It's also loaded with vitamin C, vitamin A, and zinc. But perhaps its biggest benefit, especially for people who have diabetes, is its high amount of fiber.
The fiber in the fruit of okra -- the green, seedy part of the plant -- lowers blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of sugar from your intestines.
It's better to get your fiber through food, rather than supplements. If you decide you need more fiber, raise the amount you get slowly. Too much too quickly can lead to things like gas, bloating, and belly cramping. Talk to your doctor before making any big changes to what you eat.
Adding Okra to Your Diet
When you head out to pick up some fresh okra, look for bright green fruit pods that are less than 4 inches long, free from bruising, and firm to the touch.
When you cut it, okra releases a sticky substance. It's key for thickening soups, gumbos, and stews. That stickiness can be a turnoff, though; some can't get past the idea that okra is "slimy." Quick-cooking or dry-cooking can get rid of that. Adding vinegar or other acidic ingredients (tomatoes, for example), can help, too.
Okra can be prepared in a variety of ways, in many different dishes, or by itself. One healthy choice would be to lightly fry it (without the breading and minus the bacon grease), or maybe sauté it with onions and tomatoes. You could also have it raw, pickled, roasted, or steamed.
Some say that drinking "okra water" (cutting up pieces of okra, setting it in water overnight, and drinking it in the morning) can help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar. We need more research on that.
This much, though, is clear: Okra is good for you (especially if you lay off the bacon grease). As part of a good diet under the supervision of a professional, it can help you lower your blood sugar and keep your diabetes under control.