To Your Health: Pumpkins


MIREILLE BLACKE, MA, RD, CD-N (this article was first published in OCTOBER 2012)

Mireille Blacke gives you the skinny on what's fit to eat in this monthly nutrition column. Click the veggies for her archives.

Mireille Blacke gives you the skinny on what’s fit to eat in this monthly nutrition column. Click the veggies for her archives.

“Have you come to sing pumpkin carols?”
-Linus, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) (created by Charles M. Schulz)

Gourd envy can hit hard at this time of year. Not familiar with the term? Growing up in New England, it is a relatively common phenomenon. In fact, just days ago, I learned that not only did one of my mature and responsible registered dietitian (RD) friends have gourd envy, she had also perpetrated a fraud upon some of her neighbors in order to swipe an enormous, majestic pumpkin from their yard and keep it for herself. Of course, in her frenzied state, she didn’t realize such a hefty pumpkin theft would be noticed right away in such a small, familiar group of neighbors, cause a blind panic, and require her to incorporate the stealth of a serial killer dumping a body in the woods to keep her guilt (and large prize) contained.

I can relate. I see a plump pumpkin or grinning jack-o-lantern and I’m five years old again, ready to hit the town in Halloween attire and trick-or-treat for a bursting sack of candy. Now, as an RD, it’s not the candy, but the fondness for pumpkins that persists.

Along with gourds and squashes, pumpkins are members of the plant family Cucurbitaceae. Considered winter squashes, pumpkins are larger and slower growing than summer squashes. Winter squash is hard, with a thick, tough skin or rind that needs peeling away from flesh. Pumpkin rinds tend to be smooth with light vertical ribbing.

Pumpkins range in size from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds. (Currently, the world record is held by a 1,810-lb. Atlantic Giant pumpkin.) As with size, pumpkins also vary considerably in shape (from spherical to oblong) and color (hues of orange, yellow, green, red, white, and grey).

Native to North America, pumpkin remains dating back approximately 6,000 years ago have been found in Mexico. Today, Antarctica is the only continent that cannot produce pumpkins.

Pumpkin festivals are abundant across the United States, including some notable Southern locations like Pumpkintown in Athens, Tennessee; Stone Mountain in Atlanta, Georgia; and annual pumpkin celebrations in Katy, Texas; Central Alabama; Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Milton, West Virginia. Refer to all things pumpkin in Louisiana here.

Giant pumpkins at an annual festivals. By Yourcsd (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

As for cooking, the pumpkin is a versatile food: its fleshy shell, leaves, seeds, and flowers are all edible. Small pumpkins are sweeter, with less fibrous flesh than larger pumpkins; jack-o-lantern-sized pumpkins are often considered too wet, fibrous, and bland for eating. Beyond that, an internal flame from a Halloween pumpkin may result in an unpleasant burned flavor when cooked.

Ripe pumpkin flesh can be steamed, boiled, pureed, mashed, sautéed, fried, microwaved, baked, roasted, braised, broiled, griddled, stuffed, and baked/roasted. A pumpkin can be cut into chunks, slices, wedges, sectioned, or cooked whole.

Pumpkins are not just about decoration. The pumpkin is a versatile nutritional superstar, full of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals. As with sweet potatoes, natural foods with dark orange flesh are rich in pigments producing such color, as well as the cancer-fighter and antioxidant beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A).

One cup of cooked pumpkin (boiled, mashed, and without salt) contains 49 calories, 3 grams fiber, 2 grams protein, 2 mg sodium, and has no saturated fat or cholesterol. In addition to providing beta-carotene, pumpkin is rich in vitamins C, E, and B-complex, as well as the minerals potassium, iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Translation? Pumpkin is a nutrient powerhouse: a low-calorie, low-fat source of dietary fiber, which can benefit heart health, aid in digestion, boost mood, enhance immunity, and promote weight loss.

Because pumpkin is packed with beta-carotene, a fat-soluble carotenoid, pairing it with a healthy fat (like olive oil) will boost absorption. That may sound like dry science, but this pumpkin cornbread demonstrates the concept deliciously.

By Andy C, via Wikimedia Commons

Beta-carotene in higher concentrations leads to reduced risk of several chronic diseases (lung cancer, heart disease, and cataracts) and increases skin and eye health. Additional carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin in pumpkin help to fight against macular degeneration. A positive impact on blood sugar and insulin levels has been associated with pumpkin in diabetes research, and this winter squash has been shown to improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well.

Don’t waste the seeds you gut from your pumpkin during Halloween carving festivities. Just scoop the seeds out of a fresh pumpkin and toast or roast them. Pumpkin seeds (or pepitas) are edible and highly nutritious, containing protein, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, potassium, niacin, selenium, and zinc. Zinc in particular is beneficial to bone health. Magnesium may protect against migraines and improve sleep. Phytosterols in pumpkin seeds help to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase heart health.

Put simply, it’s not just about pie anymore. Though pumpkin is traditionally made into pies and other Halloween and Thanksgiving staples across the United States and Canada, it can be used to make so much more. From the sweet to the savory, pumpkin is growing in popularity as a prominent ingredient in soups, sauces, breads, casseroles, soufflés, ice cream, chili, muffins, pancakes, risotto, biscuits, and various beverages. Need gluten-free? Check out this recipe for GF pumpkin spice muffins here courtesy of California Raisins. Improve your nutritional status and blend flavors creatively with these pumpkin enchiladas from Perre Magness of The Runaway Spoon.

Perre’s Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sauce. Photo courtesy Perre Magness of the Runaway Spoon.

Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):

1)    Experiment with the natural versatility of this nutrition superstar. Combine pumpkin with other flavors: tomatoes, chiles, garlic, butter, orange, olive oil, parmesan cheese, cream (in moderation), herbs (cilantro, sage, rosemary), bacon, pancetta, beef, lamb, and spices (ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice). The pumpkin syrups mixed into your favorite seasonal lattes and alcoholic beverages? DON’T COUNT!

2)    Use canned pumpkin in place of mashed pumpkin in any recipe. [Note: Don’t confuse canned pumpkin filling with pumpkin pie filling!] Canned pumpkin filling is cooked down to reduce water content and can be used in recipes for soups, breads, and muffins. Need ideas? Mix canned pumpkin with low-fat or non-fat yogurt, or with applesauce. Drizzle with honey and add raisins or nuts.

3)     Don’t like pumpkin? Other carotenoid sources include bell pepper, baby carrots, dried apricots and prunes, cantaloupe, watermelon, mango, and persimmon. (Remember: look for vivid color.) Or give pumpkin seeds (pepitas) a try. Add them dried (roasted or toasted) to savory or sweet dishes, adding healthy fats to your plate. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on salads or eat them as a snack.

4)    Size matters. The larger the pumpkin, the less flavor its flesh will possess. Use smaller (and darker) pumpkins for flavor in cooking and baking, and use the large pumpkins for Halloween jack-o-lanterns and other seasonal decorations. For example, a large hollowed-out pumpkin makes a very functional and festive serving container for soup or chili.

5)    As with sweet potatoes, eating pumpkin with small amounts of “healthy” fat (like olive oil) will increase the absorption of beta-carotene, associated with numerous health benefits. [Note: Avoid excessive boiling of pumpkin as it results in sogginess.]

The great pumpkin. Photo: Mireille Blacke

It may be all of those years watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” that have made the pumpkin such a favorite of mine. But more than just its link to Halloween, the pumpkin belongs to American culture and reflects that in its diversity of colors, shapes, and sizes. Take the opportunity to frequently add pumpkin to your plates this season as well as your Halloween festivities.

And for those of you suffering from gourd envy, I know an RD here in Connecticut who can help you out.

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