Watermelons are not like other fruits. A watermelon is an event, a special occasion, or even a feast. Everything about watermelons is ritualized… There’s choosing the right one part, where you tap on it and try to guess if it’s it ripe by the sound that it makes… There’s splitting it in half part… and panicking about finding enough space for it in the fridge… and of course there’s eating it with your family part, where you often compete with your loved ones: who can eat the most slices and who can give best compliments to the watermelon if it’s good, or complaints about it being too ripe or not ripe enough – if it’s not so good.
When the temperatures rise over 30°C watermelons aren’t seen as a choice anymore, they become a need… the only way to survive the hellish heat of summer.
In short – watermelons are summer incarnated in the form of fruit… the strongest symbol of summer of all fruits out there… an institution.
You may wonder, why do I speak of all these things on a nutrition website, why don’t I jump straight to telling you whether they are healthy or not? Well there is a reason for that: namely, watermelons are among best examples of how food is closely related to culture, and how without taking this fact into consideration nutrition or dietetics will fail, it will remain reduced to formulaic recommendations that don’t take into account real life. But before discussing it let’s give you a brief nutritional summary of watermelons… how they stand, from purely nutritional point of view:
- Watermelons are rich source of potassium . It can help you keep your blood pressure under control, and it’s especially useful if your diet is packed with salty foods. For more info about how potassium can help you regulate your blood pressure, you can check this article: How Potassium Can Help Control High Blood Pressure.
- Watermelons, as their name says contain huge amounts of water (around 91.5% of a watermelon is water), therefore they are excellent for hydrating the body… no wonder they are so popular during summertime. Still eating too much watermelon or any other fruit for that matter, can increase levels of potassium a bit too much and lower the level of sodium in your blood, both through diluting the blood with water, and through their own potassium content (112 mg of potassium per 100 grams of watermelon)… Potassium is typically a good thing as it helps lower the blood pressure, but it can be a problem if you overdo it, and especially for people who have kidney disorders or issues with hyperkalemia. It can cause irregular heartbeat, so if you have any of these conditions you should limit your intake to around 150 grams per day. Even if your kidneys are healthy and you don’t have hyperkalemia, it doesn’t mean that you should eat as much watermelon as your heart desires… using common sense should help you know when it’s time to stop.
- When it comes to macronutrients, watermelons contain only sugar, and negligible amounts of fat and protein.
- When it comes to vitamins and minerals, besides potassium, we can say that watermelon is not a very good source of any of them. Only vitamin C is present in a little higher amount, around 8.1 mg per 100 grams.
- Watermelon also contains dietary fiber which helps with digestion and regular bowel movements. The amount of fiber it has is actually a bit lower than that of a typical fruit, but due to fact that watermelon is usually consumed in much larger quantities, it can be a considered a good source of fiber.
- There is also another way in which watermelon can help you control your blood pleasure. Namely it contains appreciable amounts of amino acid citrulline. Citrulline from watermelon could improve L-arginine/nitric oxide pathway, which can result in lowered blood pressure and improved exercise performance, as shown in this study. Additionally citrulline may have beneficial effects on erection. It converts into arginine, which is a precursor for nitric oxide, which causes blood vessel dilation. However it’s not clear what quantity of watermelon needs to be consumed to achieve these effects.
- Finally, watermelon contains significant amounts of lycopene, a carotenoid that gives it the red color. According to some studies lycopene is mildly beneficial in promotion of good cardiovascular health and control of blood pressure. It should be noted that absorption of lycopene is enhanced by presence of fat or by cooking, therefore traditional way of watermelon consumption is not very effective in providing you with lycopene.
As you see… SO MUCH INFORMATION about just one food item! And it was supposed to be just a summary. 🙂
But now let’s see what watermelons can teach us about nutrition, and most importantly about what is wrong modern nutritional approaches:
- First of all a typical dietitian or nutritionist would include watermelon in a daily eating plan, just like they would other fruits… for example saying: Snack: 2 cups of watermelon… 2 cups! But who eats watermelon in cups? This completely disregards the fact that watermelons are typically eaten in slices, in much larger quantities (as the family needs to finish the whole watermelon in a couple of days, and a watermelon can weigh 10 kg… even if half of this mass is rind, it’s still 5 kilos of food, and a big pressure to consume a lot of it), and not as a typical snack, but as a relatively rare, occassional summer treat, even a feast.
- Providing all that information about nutritional facts and health benefits can lead to confusion, as for many of these benefits and effects to take place, it would require regular consumption of watermelon. Which is not realistic for most of us, as the high season of watermelons usually lasts just a little more than one month. So of course
- if you have a high blood pressure, consuming a couple of watermelons during the summer may be beneficial, but it will surely not solve your issue.
- Neither can you count on watermelon treats when it comes to erection problems or exercise performance…
- But here is the catch… while watermelon can’t do much for your health on its own, it can be a part of a healthy diet. If you consume lots of watermelon during the summer, and add to it other fruit and vegetables throughout the year (including summer as well), then you’re having a healthy diet, which is much more important. I could even go further saying “there are no healthy foods, there is only a healthy diet”… as individual food items can’t make big changes to your health no matter how healthy they are.
- Finally a few more words about quantities: watermelon being quite atypical in the way it is consumed doesn’t fit neatly into traditional eating plans. For me it means that the very idea of precise meal planning might be questionable, unless, of course, there is a big medical reason for it. But for healthy people, suggesting them that they need to eat one cup of watermelon sounds silly. Instead, a more generalized, global eating plan should find a way to accomodate even such feasts that happen just a few times during whole summer, where the whole family is sitting on a table and mindlessly feasting over the fresh, cold watermelon, not caring about the quantities, unless of course they are competing who can eat more… 🙂 Still please pay attention not to overdo it, mainly for hyperkalemia concern.
- Or in other words: nutrition must take into account culture around food and try to work together with it to achieve its goals. Disregarding cultural habits around the food can lead to unsustainable recommendations and starting a battle that can’t be won.
- Also the way something is eaten can change how it works nutritionally: for example eating watermelon after a fatty meal can be much better for absorption of lycopen… Also since typical quantities of watermelon consumed are measured in kilos, not in grams, it can turn a relatively poor source of vitamins like watermelon, into a moderate one, that can on its own cover 30-40 % of daily needs for many vitamins. This shows us that we need to visualize and plan a bit more carefully considering most likely ways of consuming foods, rather than just giving routine recommendations based on dry nutrition facts.
Now, I’ll end this article by saying: eat your watermelons! Do it now! Now is the season, now is the time they are most delicious and most refreshing! You might reap some health benefits, but you’ll surely get a lot of delicious refreshment… Eat the red watery stuff because it is summer incarnated in the form of fruit, and if there are so many things that are going downhill this year, at least we can enjoy our watermelons!