‘Tis the season for pumpkin patch tours and jack-o-lanterns. Are those large orange gourds useful for anything besides holiday decoration? The answer is, without a shadow of a doubt, yes!
Pumpkin is a winter squash in the Cucurbitaceae family that is actually native to North America. It grows on ground vines.
Did you know that pumpkin is not a vegetable? It is classified as a fruit since it contains seeds. However, in terms of nutrition, pumpkin is more like a vegetable than a fruit.
To make a jack-o-lantern from a whole pumpkin, first cut a hole around the top stem so you can reach in and remove the “guts” or stringy pulp. If you are processing a pumpkin for cooking, cut the squash in half length-wise to make this step easier.
Either way, there will be lots of off-white seeds attached to the pulp. You can separate the seeds from the pulp and bake them in a low oven to make them dry and crispy, a great snack when lightly salted. Or save some seeds to plant in the spring so you can grow your own.
Pumpkin seeds taste great and are loaded with protein and contain no cholesterol which is good news for people with cardiovascular health conditions. The seeds also have an amino acid called tryptophan which, once it reaches the brain (through the bloodstream), turns into GABA, a nutrient that relaxes muscles, calms nerves, improves sleep, and help neural signaling.
Once the pumpkin has its innards removed, you can slice the meaty fruit into chunks for further reduction in a food processor or blender. This is how to make pumpkin purée.
A pumpkin that has been cooked, boiled, drained, and left unsalted is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium (salt). It also has vitamins A, C, E and B6, thiamin, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, copper, and manganese – plus, it is a great source of dietary fiber.
Pumpkin is high in carbohydrates which make up about 88 percent of it. The rest is protein (9 percent) and fats (3 percent). Pumpkins are low in calories because they are almost entirely water: 94 percent!
Here is the nutritional breakdown for one cup of cooked pumpkin:
- 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
Pumpkins are orange because of their beta-carotene content. This helpful phytonutrient converts to vitamin A, once ingested, which is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals, many degenerative symptoms of aging, heart disease, and cancer (including prostate and lung). It also protects skin from wrinkling after exposure to the UV rays of sunlight.
Vitamin A contributes to good vision – it helps the retina absorb and process light – and is also a preventative for lung and mouth cancers. This important vitamin combats infections and viruses. Oil made from pumpkin fights bacterial and fungal infections.
Two antioxidants that may slow macular degeneration (impaired vision caused by retinal deterioration) and reduce the risk of developing cataracts (cloudy areas in the lens of the eye that can cause changes in vision).
The fiber in pumpkins slows digestion and helps keep waste elimination regular. Diet and nutrition expert Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN said, “Pumpkin keeps you feeling fuller longer. There are seven grams of fiber in a cup of canned pumpkin. That’s more than what you’d get in two slices of whole-grain bread.”
For all these reasons, pumpkin can help with:
- Weight loss
- Improved vision
- Stronger immunity
- Reduced cancer risk
- Youthful skin
Make a completely natural facial mask by combining 1/4 cup of pumpkin purée, one egg, and one tablespoon each of honey and milk. Apply the mixture and wait 20 minutes or so before rinsing it off with warm water.
Researchers are examining pumpkin as a treatment for diabetes. It lowers blood glucose (sugar) levels, improves glucose tolerance, and increased insulin production. Tao Xia of East China Normal University in Shanghai said, “Pumpkin extract is potentially a very good product for pre-diabetic persons, as well as those who have already developed diabetes.”
This year, as the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch, elevate your overall health by snacking on some dried and lightly salted seeds or indulging in a nutritious cooked dish.