If You Aren't Cooking with Fenugreek, Here Are 8 Reasons to Start
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Everyone has their favorite go-to herbs they reach for regularly when cooking, the ones they grab almost without even thinking about it. Maybe for you it’s garlic or perhaps you favor paprika. But what about fenugreek? The tangy, slightly bitter herb is often used in Indian, North African and Middle Eastern cuisine and can also be enjoyed as a tea.
Incorporating fenugreek into your cooking won’t just add more flavor to your food; it benefits the body in many ways. Here, dietitians explain exactly how, highlighting the benefits, risks and giving tips on how to include fenugreek in your diet.
What is fenugreek?
Fenugreek is an herb that’s part of the legume family. It was first grown in Asia, but now is grown in other parts of the world, including India, Northern Africa, the Middle East, France, Spain and Argentina.
It’s long been used for its health benefits (since around 4,000 B.C.) and is the oldest plant from the legume family used medicinally. Its seeds are what’s most nutrient-rich and what is often used in cooking.
Fenugreek nutrition facts
Serving size: 1 tsp
Total fat: .2 g
Total carbohydrates: 2.2 g
Protein .9 g
Fiber .9 g
Iron: 1.2 mg (7% DV)
What are the health benefits of fenugreek?
1. It may be good for your heart.
Registered dietitian and Crave Something Healthy owner Anne Danahy, RDN, says that fenugreek’s iron content makes it a beneficial food for heart health. “Most people think of meat when they think of iron-rich foods, but it’s also in plants and seeds like fenugreek,” she says. Danahy explains that the body needs iron to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. “Iron carries oxygen to the muscles and brain,” says Jamie Lee McIntyre, MS, RDN, a dietitian and nutrition communications consultant. “Without enough iron, fatigue and malaise sets in both physically and cognitively.”
Additionally, scientific research shows that people who don’t consume enough iron are at greater risk for cardiovascular diseases, including chronic heart failure. This is why, especially if you have a primarily plant-based diet, it’s important to incorporate nuts and seeds, like fenugreek seeds, into your diet.
2. Fenugreek may help reduce high blood pressure.
Another way that fenugreek supports heart health is its effect on blood pressure. Danahy says that there is some scientific research and lots of anecdotal evidence suggesting that consuming fenugreek can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Having high blood pressure and high cholesterol are two of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is why this particular benefit is so noteworthy.
3. It may lower inflammation.
Both dietitians say that fenugreek is high in antioxidants, which could help protect against chronically high levels of inflammation. “Fenugreek contains polyphenols, or plant compounds, called flavonoids that have antioxidant properties, meaning they help fight free radical damage in the body,” McIntyre explains. “There is growing scientific evidence supporting flavonoids’ anti-inflammatory properties, suggesting that fenugreek may potentially help suppress the inflammatory response in the body when triggered due to its flavonoid content.” Danahy adds that flavonoids protect cells by blocking inflammatory pathways and supporting the immune system, reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.
4. It may keep blood sugar levels from rising.
Danahy says that fenugreek is often used for blood sugar control and to help prevent diabetes because it seems to improve insulin sensitivity. Scientific research backs this up: In one study, one group of participants with type 2 diabetes consumed 10 grams of fenugreek seeds soaked in hot water daily while another group of participants with type 2 diabetes did not. The two groups were compared five months later and the group that consumed the soaked fenugreek seeds daily had significantly lower blood sugar levels than the group that did not consume them.
5. Consuming fenugreek seeds regularly may help prevent cognitive decline.
Add fenugreek to your brain food grocery shopping list. McIntryre says that there are two major reasons why consuming fenugreek seeds regularly may support cognitive health: One is its anti-inflammatory properties. “A reduction of inflammation in the body, particularly the brain, can help improve cognitive impairment,” she says. The second is due to its magnesium and iron content. McIntrye explains that these nutrients are also linked to supporting cognition.
6. It may be good for your gut.
While there aren’t any scientific studies focusing specifically on fenugreek and gut health, both dietitians point to several nutrients in the plant that suggest that it can support both healthy digestion and overall gut health. “Magnesium, iron and fiber, all found in fenugreek, contribute to a healthy gut and bowel regularity,” McIntyre says. Magnesium helps with digestion because it helps the muscles in the gut relax. As for iron, not getting enough can cause low stomach acid, which can cause digestive problems. And fiber plays an important role in digestive health too.
7. It may help increase breast milk supply.
If you’re nursing, you especially may want to add more fenugreek to your diet. Four different scientific studies found that consuming it regularly significantly increases breast milk supply, compared to placebos.
8. Consuming fenugreek regularly could help with hair growth.
There is some preliminary evidence showing that consuming fenugreek extract can help with hair growth. However, it should be noted that so far the scientific studies have been very small and further research needs to be done to truly prove this connection.
Are there any risks associated with consuming fenugreek?
Even with all these benefits, it’s still important to note the possible risks of consuming fenugreek. “As with many herbs, spices and supplements, fenugreek may cause an allergic reaction in some individuals,” McIntrye. Just like with other new foods, if you’ve never consumed fenugreek before, it’s best to have just a tiny amount to start to make sure you don’t have any negative reactions before going all in.
Danahy says that fenugreek is widely considered safe, but, as with other foods, consuming it in large quantities (such as drinking cup after cup of fenugreek tea or consuming it as a supplement) could have a negative effect. These side effects can include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness or headaches. She adds that since fenugreek can affect blood pressure and blood sugar, anyone taking blood pressure or blood sugar medication should check with their healthcare provider before consuming fenugreek.
Additionally, Danahy says that large amounts of fenugreek (more than what you would use in cooking) is not recommended for pregnant women because it’s linked with miscarriage and birth defects (at least in mice).
How to incorporate fenugreek into your diet
Now that you know what fenugreek is and the benefits of consuming it comes the next big question: how to incorporate it into your diet. Danahy says that fenugreek is widely used in many different types of cuisine including Indian, North African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. “It has a sweet, maple-like scent and flavor that’s slightly bitter,” she says. She adds that the leaves and toasted seeds work well in curries, dal (lentil or split pea soup or stews) and sauteed vegetable dishes. “If you have a fenugreek plant, you can add a sprinkle of the raw leaves to sauteed vegetables, salads or use them to flavor salad dressings,” Danahy says.
Not sure where to find it? You can shop for whole or ground fenugreek seeds in the spice section at the grocery store or online. “Toasting the whole seeds tones down their bitter flavor and brings out their sweetness,” Danahy says, adding that the ground seeds or powder can be used as a spice seasoning or rub.
Often, you’ll see fenugreek as part of a spice seasoning blend. “It’s an ingredient in garam masala [an Indian spice blend], which adds delicious flavor to curries or biryani dishes. It’s also found in berbere [an Ethiopian spice blend], which adds a nice flavor to grilled meats or even roasted chickpeas,” Danahy says.
In addition to incorporating it into your cooking, McIntyre says that fenugreek can be enjoyed as an herbal tea. You will also find fenugreek supplements online, but it’s important to know that these products are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The bottom line: Fenugreek is not only a flavorful herb that can be used in a wide variety of cuisine; consuming it also comes with many health benefits. When you work fenugreek into your diet, you’ll be supporting your brain, heart and gut while also helping prevent chronic inflammation. There are few risks or side effects to be worried about, although those who are pregnant should only consume small amounts of the herb, if at all. If you have any underlying health conditions or take medication for blood pressure or blood sugar, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before consuming fenugreek.
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