8 Fabulous Middle Eastern Foods for Your Health
I love Middle Eastern foods. The spices, the meats, the intense flavor combinations are unique and versatile. I was happy to discover that many of the foods I already enjoy so much are also powerhouses of nutrition.
Some of these will be familiar to you (you might already include them in your meals) and others you should put on your list to try. I’m not a vegetarian but my diet is heavily plant-based. These foods fit into any eating plan – vegetarian, paleo, Mediterranean, or a blend like mine.
Middle Eastern Foods for Your Shopping List
- Molokhia is a leafy plant native to Egypt that is part of the Corchorus family. The taste and texture are similar to mustard or collard greens but it’s not something you hear much about and might be hard to find locally in the United States outside of an imported food market.
That’s a shame because the health benefits of this Middle Eastern food are fantastic. Every bite is packed with vitamins A, B6, C, E, K, calcium, iron, potassium, fiber, and so much more. In fact, molokhia boasts more than 30 vitamins and minerals in all! Studies have shown it improves blood pressure, cholesterol levels, digestion, sleep quality, inflammation, and overall immunity.
- Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are well-known and readily available around the world fresh (dried) or canned. They originate from the Middle East and remain an important ingredient in the region’s cuisine to this day. Chickpeas’ mild flavor and versatile texture make them an excellent addition to salads, soups, and appetizers. You might have tasted them in popular dishes such as hummus, falafel, or curry.
They’re an incredible source of protein and fiber along with manganese, folate, copper, iron, and zinc. The protein content alone makes them an ideal choice for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Research conducted to date have found them beneficial in the treatment and control of diabetes, obesity, digestion, and heart disease. In fact, adding three-quarters of a cup each day lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides for one study’s participants within a month.
- Tahini is a sesame seed paste. The best options are those made with the whole seed. It can be used much like other sauces (such as teriyaki or soy) and has a buttery, sweet flavor and consistency. Delicious in soups, salads, and entrees, tahini blends well with other ingredients. It provides flavor and nutrition without overpowering the dish.
Another excellent vegan source for protein, omega-3 fatty acid, and calcium, tahini doesn’t stop there. It’s also rich in vitamin E, multiple B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, potassium, lecithin, magnesium, and methionine. These nutrients have been shown in countless studies to help protect your heart, liver, teeth, bones, muscles, and central nervous system.
- Lentils are a wildly popular ingredient that are available fresh, canned, dried, and even frozen. Versatile and inexpensive, if you’re not including lentils in your diet, you’re missing out! Originating in Asia, these durable legumes were one of the first crops ever cultivated by humans (alongside barley and wheat). Archeologists have found dried lentils dating back 8,000 years old and they’re mentioned in many ancient texts.
With such a rich history, it makes sense they’d be a rich source of valuable nutrition as well. They’re an incredible source of folate, fiber, and protein while providing substantial amounts of selenium, copper, phosphorus, manganese, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Naturally anti-inflammatory, this nutrient-dense Middle Eastern food protects your heart, blood, and digestion while providing energy that lasts.
- Freekah is young wheat, harvested when it’s still green. The name makes me giggle but you simply have to take this grain seriously because the health benefits it possesses are even better than quinoa. Yes, you read that right. It’s better than quinoa. This is an ancient grain used in the Middle East for thousands of years (with a texture similar to pasta and a “nutty/smoky” flavor) but we’re only just now hearing about it.
It contains double the fiber content of quinoa and is a great source of protein and iron as well. The nutrients don’t stop there because it’s packed with iron, manganese, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, and very little sugar for a carbohydrate food. It’s also got lutein and zeaxanthin to protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Because it performs as a prebiotic (feeding the good bacteria in your gut), it’s a powerful food for weight loss, digestion protection, detoxification, and blood sugar control.
- Eggplant is one of those vegetables everyone sees at the store but passes it up. The most commonly known variety is a beautiful shade of purple on the outside with white flesh. It’s a member of the Solanaceae family (nightshade). This Middle Eastern food is used in more than 150 recipes in the region for so many good reasons. It’s a popular vegan ingredient because it can replace the texture and flavor of meat and is even more filling.
Extremely low in calories, eggplant is high in fiber and water content. It’s also a great source of vitamin K, copper, calcium, B vitamins, manganese, potassium, and folate. Various studies have pointed to a compound known as nasunin found in this vegetable that protects the fats around brain cells. It’s a great choice for a heart healthy diet due to its ability to lower LDL cholesterol, improve blood circulation, and prevent dangerous clotting.
- Pomegranates have been around for thousands of years and are one of the most popular and delicious Middle Eastern foods on our list. They’re also considered one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. You can buy them fresh, seeded, or in juice form (make sure you’re buying 100% pure pomegranate juice). The red fruit produced by this shrub is considered a berry.
The hundreds of sweet seeds inside are packed with fiber, protein, vitamins C and K, folate, and potassium. Two compounds in particular – punicalagins and punicic acid – make pomegranates more beneficial than green tea or red wine. Multiple studies have clarified their strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, their ability to lower blood pressure naturally, and their anti-cancer traits that slow and inhibit cancer cell growth.
- Za’atar is a spice blend commonly used in Middle Eastern foods. If you have difficulty finding it, consider making your own if possible. Oregano, thyme, sumac, salt, and sesame seeds are the ingredients used and offer amazing flavor on top of their nutritional benefits. It can be mixed with olive oil as a topping for breads or salads, added to soups, or used to flavor meats.
The combined benefits of these spices have been shown to improve circulation, boost brain cognition, provide a burst of energy, protect the respiratory system, and act as a natural anti-inflammatory to ease chronic pain.
Some of these are going to be inexpensive and easy to find. Others, you might have to search a little harder or order them online. You can’t go wrong by adding these delicious foods from the Middle East to your recipes.