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Plantains are a delicious and versatile vegetable-like fruit that belong to the banana family, and are used extensively in tropical regions. Most Americans have only tried plantains as chips, but their culinary uses are vast and their nutrient profile is impressive.
Their popularity and traditional use in Latin American, Caribbean, and African cooking has made them the subject of much research—and they have proven to be as medicinal as they are delicious. Most notably, they are a gut-friendly food that supports healthy microbial balance, digestion, elimination, and more.
Read on to explore 7 reasons everyone should be eating more plantains for better microbiome health and nutritional diversity.
Plantains are to Latinos and West Africans what potatoes are to Americans, an inexpensive and convenient starch that adds body, flavor, and nutrition to nearly any type of meal. And like the humble (and often underestimated potato), plantains contain a variety of vitamins and minerals that help support immunity, digestive health, brain function, and more. Some key nutrients include:
When patients ask me about how to consume carbs healthfully, I tell them to think of carbs in terms of fiber. If a starch, grain, etc. is high in fiber then it’s (typically) a-okay to enjoy.
With just one cup providing one-fifth of your daily fiber recommendation, plantains are a perfect example of a healthy, nutrient-dense carbohydrate. Fiber, in general, is essential to digestive microbiome health and has also been shown effective in lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.
Specifically, plantain fiber has been shown effective in blocking intestinal pathogens from adhering to the gut lining. It’s also considered prebiotic in nature, which means it feeds good gut bacteria, which helps promote a healthy microbiome. New evidence suggests that prebiotics are even more important than probiotics to the microbiome. The prebiotic contained in plantains is called fructo-oligosaccharides. We’ll discuss more about plantain’s prebiotics in the next point.
As the name suggests, resistant starch (aka: “RS”) resists digestion...or at least part of it. Specifically, it resists digestion in the small intestine and ferments in the large intestine, where it’s converted into short-chain fatty acids (like butyrate). which are then converted to prebiotics that feed healthy gut microbes.
Consumption of resistant starch has been associated with a variety of health benefits including a reduction in visceral belly fat, improved insulin sensitivity, and enhanced gut health.
Sources of resistant starch include things like onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms, potato starch, green bananas, and plantains.
Typically, unripe/green plantains provide the best source of prebiotic fiber. These can be found fresh or as plantain flour which can be added to smoothies, used in baking, breading, etc. Doctor’s tip: if you’ve tried green banana flour as a source of RS without success, plantain flour may be easier on your digestion. Research has shown that non-starch polysaccharides from green plantains are more effective at feeding good bacteria and inhibiting adhesion of infections, than non-starch polysaccharides from other plant foods, even in patients with IBD.
The takeaway? All resistant starch is good for your gut, weight, blood sugar, and more...but plantain fiber may be a little bit better.
Plantains are antioxidant powerhouses, rich in vitamins A and C and precious flavonoids, polyphenols, glutathione (the “master” antioxidant), and lycopene—all of which fight off free radical damage and prevent inflammation, cell damage, and premature aging while protecting key organs and systems like the liver and GI tract.
Additionally, research has shown that plantain peel can be made into an antioxidant-rich flour compatible with baking.
In my functional medicine practice I see a lot of patients who are magnesium deficient. There are several reasons for this including stress (which depletes magnesium stores), too much sugar, magnesium-depleting medications, age, and a lack of magnesium-rich foods.
Magnesium plays a role in over 300 enzymatic processes and is intimately linked with things like sleep, mental health, digestive function, blood pressure, and central nervous system health. I’ve also found low magnesium levels associated with things like headaches, menstrual cramps, insomnia, brain fog, anxiety, autoimmunity, and gut health disorders—magnesium plays a role in altering gut microbiota
As we mentioned previously, one plantain contains about 14% of your daily value of magnesium in a highly-absorbable form, making them a top source of this critical nutrient. Other sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, and some whole grains.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help the brain regulate a variety of things like mood, sleep, heart rate, concentration, appetite, and muscle movements. The best commonly known neurotransmitter is serotonin, which is associated with mood disorders like depression. Antidepressants (SSRIs) inhibit the reuptake of serotonin to help you feel more emotionally balanced.
What’s been misunderstood about neurotransmitters until recently, is that many of them are manufactured, modulated, and stored in your gut. This is all part of that gut-brain connection we’ve talked about in previous articles. And new research has shown that gut microbiota diversity has a big impact on things like mood, sleep, and other neurotransmitter-related imbalances.
What does this have to do with plantains? Well, plantains contain a nutritive bioactive compound called biogenic amines, which helps support healthy neurotransmitter function including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Cool, huh?
As a functional medicine doctor, I can attest to the health-changing effects of a grain-free diet for those suffering from chronic digestive issues, autoimmunity, or gluten-sensitivity/celiac disease. However, going grain-free or “paleo” does somewhat limit you in terms of starches (because really, how much cauliflower rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes can one person reasonably eat?).
Enter the plantain: a delicious gluten-free, grain-free and equally nutritious alternative. Plus, despite the fact that most Americans don’t eat them, they are actually readily available in most grocery stores and easy to cook.
Here’s a quick primer on how to select the right type of plantain. Green plantains are starchy, not sweet, and perfect in most savory dishes. They’re a little hard to peel, but that’s normal. Just use a knife to score the skin, peel back, and extract the yummy flesh. Yellow-flecked plantains are semi-sweet and also usually used in savory dishes. Black plantains are sweeter, and are typically baked or broiled as a dessert. You can search online for delicious Caribbean, African, and Cuban plantain recipes.
Plantain flour can also be used in gluten-free baking, either alone or mixed with other gluten-free flours. It does produce a denser crumb than other wheat or gluten-free flours, so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to include it in your recipes.
The low-carb movement has given starchy foods a bad name. And yes, there is something to limiting your carbohydrate consumption if you’re concerned about blood sugar issues. However, as you’ve just learned, all starches/carbs are not created equal! Thus, it’s important not to avoid nutrient-dense, gut-healing foods, like plantains, just because they contain carbs. Instead, follow that fiber rule mentioned earlier: look at your carbs in terms of fiber. If they’re a good source of fiber, you can bet they’re a healthful, delicious, and functional food that deserves a place at your table. Enjoy!
Family Medicine and Integrative and Holistic Medicine Doctor
A board-certified physician, Dr. Carrasco, is the bestselling author of Bloom: 7 Steps to Reclaim Your Health, Cultivate Your Desires, and Reignite Your Spark, as well as a wife and mom of three. She founded the Austin, TX functional and integrative medicine practice, Nourish Medicine, and co-founded the online resource for moms and motherhood, Hey Mami. Dr. Carrasco holds board-certifications through the American Board of Family Medicine, and the Institute of Functional Medicine.
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