5/5 experts say yes.
Prepare the pita: falafel's a health food, say all five of our experts.
That's great news for lovers of the little gold balls, made from soaked chickpeas, parsley, garlic and spices. Rich in plant protein with about 2 grams per ball, falafel stands in handily for red meat. “I certainly eat falafel,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Imagine falafel with a Middle Eastern salad replacing meatballs and spaghetti made with white flour.”
But the benefits go far beyond plant-based protein. A 3.6-ounce portion of chickpeas—what's in three falafel balls, roughly—gives you about 26% of the daily recommended fiber. “As a result, falafel can improve bowel function and decrease the absorbance of both cholesterol and simple sugars,” says Peter Zahradka, PhD, principal investigator in molecular physiology at the Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health and Medicine at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnepeg.
It’s worth meditating a minute on the benefits of fiber, since most of us don’t come close to the recommended 25 grams a day. Doing so would do us good, says Phil Chilibeck, PhD, professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “High-fiber foods will help to lower blood lipid levels"—i.e. cholesterol—“reducing your risk of heart disease and also lowering your risk of colon cancer,” he says. A study earlier this year found that people who simply added more fiber-rich foods lost the same amount of weight and showed similar drops in cholesterol, blood pressure and inflammation as people who were assigned a low-fat diet.
Foods like chickpeas help fill that fiber gap. “Our own research has shown that legumes like chickpeas can actually improve the function of our blood vessels,” Zahradka says. “This makes falafel potentially a very good way of reducing the risk of heart disease, especially if the fat content is kept low through baking.”
Must we really ditch frying the balls? Yes, say both Chilibeck and Zahradka. “Personally, I like falafel a lot,” says Zahradka, “but would not recommend eating it regularly if fried, since it adds too much fat to the diet.” Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic, concurs.
But Willett has another take. “Deep-frying is not necessarily bad if the oil is non-hydrogenated unsaturated oil from plant sources, and if care is taken to not overheat the oil,” he says. “Until recently, most commercial deep frying used beef fat or oils high in trans fat. This was unhealthy, but most deep frying now is done with trans-fat-free oils that are largely unsaturated, and these can actually reduce your blood cholesterol levels and decrease risk of heart disease.”
So should you eat falafel? “Hell ya!” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, in a short but spirited response. “Chickpeas, spices, olive oil. Love it!”
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