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Are There Health Benefits of Falafel?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Falafel is a traditional food in many Middle Eastern countries. It’s said to have originated in Egypt when Christians wanted an alternative to meat during fasting periods like Lent.

What Is Falafel?

Falafel usually has chickpeas (garbanzo beans), fava beans (broad beans), or both. It’s made by soaking the dried legumes, grinding them, and mixing them with herbs and spices. Then, they’re shaped into balls and deep-fried.

Falafel and Nutrition

A 100-gram serving (about 3 to 4 falafel patties) of frozen premade chickpea falafel has:

  • 321 calories
  • 21 grams of protein
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 11 grams of dietary fiber
  • 36 milligrams of sodium

Health Benefits of Legumes

Chickpeas and fava beans are legumes, a type of vegetable. Legumes have many benefits for your health, including:

Low fat. Because they’re plant-based, legumes are low in saturated fat. Experts recommend that you limit saturated fat to 20 grams per day for a diet of 2,000 calories a day. 

High protein. Legumes are high in protein and low in cholesterol. This means that legumes can be a good substitute for meat. 

Lots of vitamins and minerals. Legumes have:

  • B vitamins
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Phosphorus
  • Zinc

Good dietary fiber. Experts recommend that you get 25 to 38 grams of fiber a day. It’s better to get your fiber from food instead of supplements. Four ounces of legumes has about 7 to 9 grams of fiber.

A high-fiber diet can:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Help your bowel movements and help you maintain bowel health
  • Help control your blood sugar levels
  • Lower your risk of colorectal cancer
  • Make you feel full for longer

Lower cholesterol levels. Eating legumes for more than 3 weeks can lower your total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels. For a study of people with type 2 diabetes, one group replaced red meat with legumes 3 days a week. Their LDL cholesterol and triglycerides fell, as did their fasting blood glucose and insulin levels.

Lower blood pressure. Eating nutrient-rich legumes may also help to lower your blood pressure. Several trials found that after they ate 1 cup of legumes a day for 10 weeks, people’s blood pressure fell significantly.

Low glycemic index. Foods that are low on the glycemic index release glucose steadily and slowly. This helps you maintain control over your blood sugar level. Legumes generally range between 10 and 40 on the glycemic index

Is Falafel Healthy?

Falafel is potentially a healthy food. It’s plant-based, and chickpeas or fava beans have many health benefits. But falafel can also have some disadvantages, depending on how it’s made and what other ingredients go into it.

Salt intake. Many people order falafel at restaurants as part of a falafel pita. This dish usually comes with pita bread and toppings like sauces and pickles. These foods tend to be high in salt or sodium. More than 70% of the sodium you eat is from prepackaged, processed, or restaurant foods.

The American Heart Association recommends that you eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, well over the average consumption of 3,400 milligrams.

Fried food. Falafel is usually deep-fried. Fried foods are appetizing and crunchy. But they absorb the oil they’re fried in. It may be as much as 20% of a food’s weight.

Eating too much fried food can lead to many health issues. It’s linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Fried food is also tied to obesity and being overweight.

Allergies. Some falafel may include sesame, the 9th most common food allergy in the U.S. An estimated 0.2% of Americans are allergic to sesame.

Making Falafel Healthier

You can make healthier falafel at home in a few ways:

  • Bake or air fry the dish instead of frying it in oil. 
  • Lower the amount of salt used in the recipe, or cut it out entirely. Add aromatics, herbs, and spices for more flavor, such as garlic, parsley, cilantro, or cumin. 
  • Use a whole-wheat pita to add whole grains to your meal.  
  • If you’re watching your carbs, serve falafel with a salad or vegetables instead of pita. 

If you’re ordering falafel at a restaurant, try to avoid adding too many pickled vegetables. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “Sesame now the ninth most common food allergy in the United States.”

American Heart Association: “How much sodium should I eat per day?,” “Sodium sources: Where does all that sodium come from?.”

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Intake of fried foods is associated with obesity in the cohort of Spanish adults from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition.”

Clinical Diabetes: “Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake.”

Gastronomica: “Falafel: A National Icon.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Glycemic index for 60+ foods,”  “Legumes: A quick and easy switch to improve your diet.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet.”

nutrients: “Fried Food Consumption and Cardiovascular Health: A Review of Current Evidence.”

USDA: “100% natural falafel."

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