Popular during fall holidays, the pumpkin is one of the most nutritious fruits available. Packed with disease-fighting nutrients, it offers numerous health benefits.
More than just a decorative Halloween candle holder or a pie filling to be eaten only once a year, pumpkin is one of the most nutritional foods available year round. Rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, both the flesh and seeds of the pumpkin provide many health-boosting nutrients.
Nutrients in Pumpkin
Pumpkin is low in fat and calories and rich in disease-fighting nutrients such as:
- Vitamins C and E
- Pantothenic acid
Health Benefits of Pumpkin
The alpha-carotene and beta-carotene are potent antioxidants found in pumpkin and are pro-vitamin A carotenoids, meaning the body converts them to vitamin A. Vitamin A promotes healthy vision and ensures proper immune function. The beta-carotene in pumpkin may also reverse skin damage caused by the sun and act as an anti-inflammatory. Alpha-carotene is thought to slow the aging process and also reduce the risk of developing cataracts and prevent tumor growth. Carotenoids also boost immunity and lessen the risk of heart disease.
What’s so good about pumpkins, anyway?
Pumpkin meat is very high in carotenoids. They’re what give pumpkins their orange color-but that’s the least of their benefits. Carotenoids are really good at neutralizing free radicals, nasty molecules that can attack cell membranes and leave the cells vulnerable to damage.
Pumpkins are also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which scavenge free radicals in the lens of the eye. Therefore, they may help prevent the formation of cataracts and reduce the risk of macular degeneration, a serious eye problem than usually results in blindness.
Besides carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are all antioxidants, pumpkins have a lot of common nutrients, like iron, zinc, and fiber. Iron, of course, is needed by red blood cells. Zinc deficiency may be related to osteoporosis of the hip and spine in older men. And fiber is important for bowel health.
What’s so good about pumpkin seeds, then?
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, are very high in protein; one ounce of seeds provides about seven grams of protein. They also contain copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. And their oil is high in phytosterols, plant-based fatty acids that are chemically so like cholesterol that they can replace it in the human body-contributing to the reduction of blood cholesterol levels.
More about pumpkin seed oil
Pumpkin seed oil is high in essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs have many benefits, among them the maintenance of healthy blood vessels and nerves and the lubrication of all tissues, including the skin. And as mentioned above, they can help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.EFAs are not the only constituents of pumpkin seed oil. This oil also contains vitamin A, which (among other things) helps keep our eyes healthy and stimulates the T cells of the immune system to help fight off infection. And it has vitamin E, which acts like lutein and zeaxanthin to get rid of free radicals.
Tips for using pumpkins in the kitchen
- Bigger pumpkins have tougher meat than smaller ones; that’s why pie pumpkins, also called baking pumpkins, are so much smaller than the ones used for carving. But you can still cook and eat the meat of a carving pumpkin; it just won’t be quite as soft.
- If you don’t like the taste of pumpkin, try adding a small amount of orange juice.
- If you’re planning on cooking rather than carving the pumpkin, you don’t have to go to the trouble of scooping out the inside after you remove the top. You will have to remove the seeds, but after that you can just cut the entire pumpkin into pieces, remove the skin with a peeler, and boil the pieces in water for about 20 minutes. After the pieces have been boiled, drain the water and either mash the pieces by hand or puree them in a blender.
- A whole pumpkin can be stored at room temperature for up to a month, or in the refrigerator (if it’ll fit!) for up to three months.
- Besides pies-a traditional Thanksgiving favorite-pumpkin can be used to make pudding, custard, cookies, and of course pumpkin bread. But it’s also great as soup, or as a side dish for the main course of a meal.
- Pumpkin seeds can be sprinkled with oil and other flavorings and roasted at 300° for about 30 minutes. However, most nutritional experts believe that roasting weakens a lot of the nutrients, so they recommend that the seeds be eaten raw. Whole seeds can be added to steamed vegetables, salads, cereals, and cookies, and ground seeds can be added to burgers.
- Pumpkin seed oil can be used in recipes (it’s popular in Austrian dishes) or just taken by the teaspoon or tablespoon, like other EFA oils (for example, flax seed, evening primrose, borage seed, or black currant seed oils).
So the next time you’re carving a pumpkin and are tempted to just throw out the inside-don’t! Save it, cook (or bake) it, and eat it instead. And if you’re not into pumpkin carving, don’t pass by those small specimens in the Produce section.
Finally, if all that cutting and boiling is too much work or too time-consuming, get yourself a can of already-cooked pumpkin. There are lots of ways to enjoy the nutritional benefits of this uniquely American food.