Dragon fruit is an exotic fruit which is also known as cactus fruit or pitaya. If its exotic-sounding name wasn’t enough to grab your interest, the health benefits of dragon fruit are sure to get your attention. Dragon fruit can boost your immune system, improve digestion, control blood sugar levels and may even prevent cancer and diabetes. It has high nutritional value and it is a good source of antioxidants and many vitamins which are needed to keep your body in top health. Dragon fruit offers a delicious addition to a healthy diet.
What Is Dragon Fruit?
Dragon fruit first originated in South and Central Americas and it is now found throughout Asia and Oceania. The fruit is fist-sized with red skin and green scales that give dragon fruit its fitting name. The most common variety has white flesh with black crunchy seeds. Less common types have red flesh and skin as well as yellow skin with white flesh.
But despite its odd appearance, dragon fruit is a mildly sweet fruit. It has a taste and mouth feel of something like a cross between a pear and a kiwifruit. Both the seeds and the pulp have high nutritional value and some people even consider dragon fruit to be a tropical superfood.
The seeds of dragon fruit contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats (omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids). The flesh contains fiber, carbohydrates and high level of vitamin C (equivalent to 15 percent of the daily recommended value) which can boost your immune system. It also contains some B complex vitamins (B1, B2, and B3) along with the minerals calcium, phosphorus and iron. The antioxidant lycopene present in dragon fruit is known to help prevent certain types of cancer.
Let’s look at the many health benefits of dragon fruit.
Health Benefits of Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit provides a good source of dietary fiber, which means that it can improve your bowl movements, prevent constipation and improve the general health of your digestive system.1
In addition to supporting good bowel health, a diet rich in dietary fiber can provide other health benefits. The soluble fiber that dragon fruit supplies can help you maintain stable blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar. It can also lower your cholesterol by reducing levels of the so-called bad cholesterol or LDL. Because fiber tends to fill you up, you may find that you’re eating less too, so dragon fruit can also help you maintain a healthy weight.
Blood Sugar Control
Dragon fruit is one of the best foods for diabetes because of its low glycemic index (GI).2 In addition, it may even reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
At 14 g per serving, dragon fruit has a low carbohydrate content which makes it a tasty addition to low-carb diets. In a study done with mice, researchers found that dragon fruit juice reduced insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes.3
Insulin resistance occurs when your body doesn’t respond to insulin properly. This can lead to higher levels of blood sugar or glucose and it is an early sign of pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. It is also one of a group of risk factors called metabolic syndrome that can increase your risk for other conditions such as heart disease.
Dragon fruit can significantly reduce heart disease risk due to its flavonoid content. Flavonoids are naturally-occurring chemicals in plants. A review of studies looking on flavonoids found that eating foods, like dragon fruit, which are rich in these chemicals, significantly reduced heart disease risk.4 Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Dragon fruit can support good cardiovascular health in other ways as well. Another study examined the effects of feeding dragon fruit pulp to diabetic rats. Researchers found that the rats showed improvements in blood vessel flexibility after five weeks of treatment.6 As you age, your blood vessels become stiff. So these findings suggest that a diet that includes dragon fruit may help keep your cardiovascular system healthy.
Dragon fruit can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels due to its betalain content. Betalains are pigments that give dragon fruit its color and also offer exciting health benefits. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that eating foods containing betalains, like dragon fruit, could keep LDL or bad cholesterol levels from increasing.7
Dr. Suzanne R. Steinbaum on WebMD says that high LDL levels increase your risk of heart disease.8 When LDL levels are high, plaque builds up on the inside of blood vessels. Then, high amounts of plaque can cause serious and sometimes fatal blood clots.
Dragon fruit is a rich source of antioxidants and anti cancerous nutrients which can help to prevent cancer. Much research has focused on antioxidants and their role in cancer prevention and treatment. The concern lies with free radicals and their effects on the body. Free radicals occur as by-products during normal body processes. Other external factors such as pollution may also produce free radicals,9 The risk of free radicals comes from their potential to cause cell damage and thus, cancer.
Antioxidants can reduce this risk. And this is where the health benefits of dragon fruit come in. Dragon fruit contains several powerful antioxidants including flavonoids and phenols.10 An article titled Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry explored the role of antioxidants extracted from dragon fruit as a possible cancer treatment.11
Researchers identified several antioxidants found in a wide variety of foods. As they pointed out, over 60 percent of anti-cancer drugs come from plants including fruits and vegetables. Different antioxidants appeared to target certain cancers. Knowing how antioxidants target cancers can lead to more effective treatment options. Dragon fruit is a delicious addition to the many foods containing good sources of antioxidants.
You can find more foods that protect against cancer development in my previous article as well as in my article about the best cancer fighting smoothies.
Reduce Stroke Risk
Dragon fruit can reduce your risk of stroke due to its high vitamin C levels. A single serving of dragon fruit provides 15 percent of your RDA of vitamin C which is a great addition to a healthy diet.12 But did you know that vitamin C may also reduce your risk of a stroke? The American College of Clinical Nutrition found that high concentrations of vitamin C in plasma could lower your stroke risk.
Immune System Support
Dragon fruit can boost your immune system due to its vitamin C content which is needed for a healthy immune system. According to Cleveland Clinic, vitamin C is one of several nutrients that can help to boost your immune system.14
And with a yummy source of vitamin C, like dragon fruit, you’ll have no problems getting adequate amounts of this important nutrient in your diet.
Dragon Fruit and Your Skin
A diet that includes dragon fruit can give your skin a healthy glow, reduce the effects of sun exposure and may even slow down the aging process of your skin. This is due to the good nutrients found in dragon fruit like vitamin C. Vitamin C protects your skin in many ways including wound healing. It helps your body produce collagen which is a protein that forms the structure of various tissues in your body including skin, tendons, and ligaments. In fact, your body cannot make collagen without vitamin C.
A study examining the effects of vitamin C found that this nutrient may also prevent skin aging and skin damage from UV radiation exposure.15 It is effective for both the UV exposure that causes sunburns and skin cancer.
Dragon Fruit and Pregnancy
Dragon fruit offers health benefits for your baby too, so it’s an excellent food to eat if you are pregnant. It is packed with nutrients to support your pregnancy including iron, calcium, protein, and potassium.1
In addition, the seeds of dragon fruit are a good source of healthy fats including oleic acid which is a monounsaturated fat. A study published in the Journal of Lipid Research found that oleic acid inhibits fat and cholesterol formation.16 Because it is a monounsaturated fat, it can also help you keep your LDL in check. For your baby, these healthy fats are important for brain and nervous system development.
How to Eat Dragon Fruit
All this talk about the health benefits of dragon fruit probably has you wondering how to eat it. Dragon fruit is eaten raw. While the peel isn’t edible, the juicy pulp has a firm but creamy texture. When buying dragon fruit, choose fruits that are firm. Then let them ripen a bit if they are too firm.
To get to the yummy flesh, slice the dragon fruit in half using a spoon to remove it from the skin.17 Then eat it as it is including the seeds. You can enjoy dragon fruit in a shake or as a healthy dessert.18 For an extra special treat, mix up a batch of dragon fruit salsa to serve as an accompaniment with seared scallops for an elegant meal worthy of date night.19
Its great taste and alluring look add to the many reasons to indulge yourself with some dragon fruit. Its sweet flavor is a bonus to the many health benefits of dragon fruit.
James Achanyi-Fontem, is a Senior Health Journalist and Communication Consultant. He worked as a health journalist and broadcaster for 30 years with Radio Cameroon and later Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV before retiring in 2005 to engage fully with Cameroon Link (Human Assistance Programme). Cameroon Link is a registered charity, not-for-profit organisation involved in the promotion of community health, humanitarian assistance, promotion of women and child rights through involvement of communities in Cameroon for mother and child health care. Cameroon Link is a partner to Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Farm Radio International (FRI), International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN Africa), World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). As the intermediary of Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Cameroon Link is engaged to implement a Cameroon Rural Radio story design Programming through an investigative research, which aims to discover through interviewing beneficiaries of health programmes on their interests, documenting and disseminating new ideas about how radio stations produce and air Healthy Communities Radio Programs in Cameroon.