PUMPKIN: HEALTHY OR HYPE?
This time of year, it is hard to avoid seeing advertising for the latest and greatest pumpkin-spiced food or drink. From Pumpkin Spiced Lattes to Pumpkin Spiced Spam, it is everywhere.
How important is pumpkin to a healthy diet and which foods are best? Let’s find out.
HISTORY OF USING THE PUMPKIN
Pumpkin is thought to have originated in North America, with the oldest related seeds found in Mexico dating back to 5000 BC. Native American Indians used it as a dietary staple. This was adopted by the early settlers and used in whole food soups, stews, and desserts. Pumpkin pie is thought to have originated when settlers cut off the top of a pumpkin, de-seeded it, put milk, spices and honey in the center and cooked over their open fire. Fast forward, now you can find thousands of pumpkin spiced products on grocery store shelves. In addition, many restaurants serve pumpkin-inspired dishes in the fall.
Pumpkin has an impressive nutrient profile:
One cup of cooked pumpkin (245 grams) contains:
- Calories: 49
- Fat: 0.2 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Carbs: 12 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Vitamin A: 245% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
- Vitamin C: 19% of the RDI
- Potassium: 16% of the RDI
- Copper: 11% of the RDI
- Manganese: 11% of the RDI
- Vitamin B2: 11% of the RDI
- Vitamin E: 10% of the RDI
- Iron: 8% of the RDI
- Small amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, folate and several B vitamins.
Don’t forget to roast the pumpkin seeds!
It is very high in Vitamin A and its precursor Beta-Carotene, Lutein and Zeaxanthin. A single cup contains over 200% of the recommended amount of vitamin A! Vitamin A keeps our eyes healthy and Beta-Carotene is an important antioxidant that fights free radicals which contribute to heart disease and cancer. Multiple studies have associated higher beta-carotene intake with lower risk for cancer. Lutein helps prevent cataracts and zeaxanthin slows development of macular degeneration.
Pumpkin is high in fiber and healthy, low glycemic carbs and it is low in calories. This reduces blood sugar spikes and can contribute to losing or maintaining weight. Because it reduces glucose levels it is a great vegetable to include in the diabetic diet.
It is also high in Potassium and Vitamin C. Many of us don’t get enough potassium in our diet. Adding to the benefits of eating pumpkin, this potassium helps modulate blood pressure in our diet. In addition, Vitamin C increase white blood cell production, helps immune cells work more effectively and make wounds heal faster.
Some individuals may have a sensitivity or allergy to pumpkin. In addition, because it is a mild diuretic, eating a large quantity may cause too much water loss.
Don’t forget to roast the Pumpkin Seeds! These nutrition powerhouses contain ample fiber and are good sources of the following:
- Manganese and phosphorous– healthy bones, teeth and metabolism
- Magnesium– healthy muscle, nerve and heart function
- Copper– healthy immune system, initiate healing, repair damaged tissue
- Zinc– Proper functioning of all cells
- Iron– hemoglobin, responsible for transporting oxygen, supports healthy hair, skin and nails
To get the best nutritional bang for your buck, it is always better to eat whole or canned pumpkin in your soups, stews, or roast the pumpkin. If using canned, be sure to use whole plain pumpkin. Organic is always best. For cooking, the small pie pumpkins will be easier to handle and less stringy.
Because many processed pumpkin products are high in refined grains and sugar, it is very important to be aware of what you are actually consuming. The pumpkin spice syrup in your lattes can add significant calories. If you do not have an allergy or sensitivity, the spices used with pumpkin (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger) make delicious and nutritious additions to many home baked and cooked products!
Adding whole pumpkin to your healthy diet provides you with many health benefits. Homemade pumpkin muffins, bread, cookies or pie are a great addition this time of year- try reducing the sugar by a third to keep it healthy. Be sure to read the labels of store-bought products as many are high sugar, contain unhealthy fats, and may not contain as much whole pumpkin as you think.
Donna Bacchi-Smith, MD, MPH has over 30 years of clinical experience improving patient health and wellbeing. She uses a broad-based approach that focuses on the four pillars of wellness: nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction and mindfulness. Dr. Bacchi-Smith received her bachelor’s degree in nutritional science from Cornell University, a medical degree from University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University.