Whether fresh from a pumpkin patch or right from a can, pumpkin packs a nutritional punch from its low calorie/high fiber content to its richness in disease-preventing vitamins.
Pumpkins abound this time of year and while pumpkin-spice treats like frothy lattes, pumpkin cake and donuts can be delectable, they very rarely have much, if any pumpkin in them. Registered dietitian Cheryl Marco, who specializes and is certified in diabetes care and education, emphasizes everything in moderation with her patients, so while every diet can afford a treat, you want to eat mostly whole foods, rich in diversity—and pumpkin is one healthful and underutilized vegetable in season right now.
Here, we chat with Cheryl about what makes pumpkin so especially good for you and she offers up some easy ways to incorporate more of it into your diet.
Pumpkin is a nutritional powerhouse.
This seasonal vegetable is packed with nutrients. According to Marco, the bright, deep orange color of pumpkin immediately tells you that it’s packed with the antioxidant beta-carotene, which is great for skin and eye health, and vitamins A and C. It contains lots of phytochemicals, or plant chemicals, which are known to help prevent diseases. It’s important to note though that these nutrients are best absorbed by the body in combination with other foods. “These disease-preventing plant chemicals work in a synergetic effect with other foods,” Marco adds, “You want to aim for six to eight servings of vegetables each day, which will go a long way towards disease prevention and even some disease treatments.”
The seeds are full of healthy fats.
“Pumpkin seeds are so good for us,” explains Marco. “They are an excellent source of healthy fats, fiber, protein and minerals like iron and magnesium. Magnesium can actually help control blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease by declogging the heart’s arteries.” Marco recommends saving pumpkin seeds if you’re carving up pumpkins this fall and roasting them in the oven, or you can easily grab a bag from the market to add to yogurt bowls, smoothies, salads, soups, baked goods or oatmeal.
Pumpkin may play a role in blood sugar regulation.
While some studies do suggest how pumpkin may help lower blood sugar, Marco emphasizes how important it is not to think that pumpkin can replace your diabetes medication or is a single food powerhouse. “Some of the scientific tests involve testing pumpkin with rats,” she explains. “My fear is that people will latch onto these findings and think they can go off their medication. However, it is a really good food that can play a role in blood sugar regulation. Beware of claims that sound too good to be true – blood sugar regulation is a complex interaction between all food consumed, activity, medication and an individual’s own metabolic processes. There is no one food that does it all.
Pumpkin can help aid weight maintenance/loss.
Any carb can get a bad rap these days but this is a reminder that carbs are not inherently bad! Pumpkin in particular is lower in calories and high in soluble fiber which slows the breakdown of sugar in the blood. Marco separates carbs into two categories—slow and fast carbs, depending on how slow or fast it takes to digest them. “We want to eat more slow carbohydrates in our diet because when our blood sugar goes up more slowly, we can better handle that load of carbohydrates,” she explains. “A soft pretzel will make your blood sugar go up very quickly, whereas something like quinoa, farro or steel-cut oats are all slower carbs. All vegetables are also slower carbs.” When our blood sugar goes up from a fast carb, Marco explains, the excess carbohydrates get stored as fat, which causes weight gain. Fiber-rich carbs are digested more slowly. Consider carrots, which are known to be more carb-loaded than other vegetables. Marco says that you would need to eat a whole pound of carrots to equal the carb-load of two pieces of bread.
What are some of your favorite ways to incorporate pumpkin into your diet?
Marco says she starts almost every morning with a bowl of oats that she prepares with chia seeds. For the fall, you can add pumpkin puree to your oats, either hot or cold, and top it off with some pumpkin seeds and some warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice. “Just remember if you’re buying the canned pumpkin to make sure it’s all pumpkin and no sugar,” she adds.
Pumpkin can also be frozen and added to smoothies. The puree can be spooned into a silicon ice cube tray to freeze ahead of time for thicker, creamier smoothies. “My tip for smoothies is to add chia seeds, about tablespoon, and make sure you give the chia seeds enough time to soak up some of the liquid you’re using first,” explains Marco. “It’ll make it that much thicker for you to eat with a spoon and chew which is important for digestion!”
Especially in the fall and winter months, Marco emphasizes pumpkins make for excellent additions to soups and stews or you can roast them whole and have it as an easy side dish. “You can also use pumpkin puree as a substitute for oil in baking recipes,” she says. “This is going to boost the fiber content and cut the amount of fat in your baked goods—a great tip as we go into the holiday season.”