One of my first jobs out of college was working as a dietitian in a nursing home. Like most people, I imagined nursing homes to be depressing places where people put their older family members when they could no longer care for them. I thought I would only see pain and suffering, but I actually found many good friends, comical moments and life-changing experiences.

I recently reminisced about this job while eating prunes (aka dried plums). My dad always had prunes at his house. It was one of the few sweet things he kept around. So each time he went into the kitchen to grab one, I usually had one, too. I’ve always loved sweets. I never thought eating prunes was anything unusual, but while working in the nursing home, I learned that older people treat prunes like medicine.

As I was snacking on prunes my boyfriend asked me, “Why do older people always eat prunes?” Older people associate prunes and prune juice with relief from constipation or “moving their bowels.”

While walking through the halls of that nursing home, I walked by a patient and said, “Good morning. How are you?” She replied, “Oh I’m fine but I haven’t moved my bowels in three days.” This was the first, but certainly not the last time I heard this statement.

Prunes have a laxative effect because they are a concentrated source of simple carbohydrates and also a good source of soluble fiber, both of which stimulate bowel function. When you consume simple carbohydrates that don’t contain a lot of water, as is the case with dried fruit, your digestive tract must pull in water to aid the digestive process. The influx of water helps move things through and out of the gastrointestinal tract. Soluble fiber helps to form a gel in the bowels which makes everything move through cohesively. Soluble fiber is also associated with lowering cholesterol.

Aside from aiding digestion and lowering cholesterol, prunes also top the ORAC list (oxygen radical absorbance capacity), a rating system that measures a food’s ability to fight free radicals. Bear in mind that when pitting one food against another, ounce for ounce, the dried version has more calories and therefore more nutrients than any comparable fresh source. Dried plums may be high in disease fighting antioxidants simply because their nutrients are more concentrated when water is removed. However, purple, blue or red fruits and vegetables are rich in a class of antioxidants called anthocyanins which are some of the most powerful antioxidants in the entire nutrition world.

Six prunes (dried plums, 2 ounces): 120 calories, 30g carbs, 4g fiber and a good source of vitamin A from beta-carotene, as well as copper, potassium, iron and B6.

In addition to popping one or two prunes in your mouth as you pass through the kitchen, you could also dice them up and add them to cooked carrots, pork or chicken stews or chili or even as a fat replacement in baked goods. Here some recipes to get you started. Eat more prunes so the next time someone asks, “How are you?” your answer will simply be, “Everything’s running smoothly.”

Elizabeth is a registered dietitian and certified holistic chef who believes that bowel health is tantamount to optimal health. Please visit her Web site to learn more ways to keep things moving, www.TheKitchenVixen.com.

Orange Infused Prunes

Zest of one orange

Juice of one orange

1/4 cup honey

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

20 prunes

In a sauce pan, combine OJ, zest, honey and cinnamon and simmer on high heat. Add prunes. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 10 minutes on low. Heat walnuts in a skillet until fragrant. Remove prunes from sauce pot. Continue to thicken the sauce. Pour over prunes. Top with warm walnuts. Enjoy as a bed for poultry or pork or use to top cooked or raw leafy greens.

Bowel Moving Brownies

(Don’t tell your friends and family the name or the ingredients. You will be amazed by the outcome.)

6 Prunes

1/4 cup water

15 ounce can black beans, drained & rinsed thoroughly

3 Eggs

1 cup organic brown sugar or granulated sugar

1/2 cup non-alkalized cocoa

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/8 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or pie tin with oil. In a small sauce pot, bring prunes and water to a boil. Remove from heat. Set aside. Rinse beans. Process prunes and water in a food processor or blender. Blend into a paste consistency. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until creamy smooth. Pour batter into baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serves eight. Per serving: 160 calories, 30g carbs, 5g fiber, 6g protein, 2.5g fat. A good source of copper, manganese, magnesium, iron, folate, selenium, zinc, potassium, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin.