The phytonutrients found in pumpkin show a lot of promise when it comes to protecting our noggins.
10/06/2017 18:50 EDT | Updated 10/07/2017 12:24 EDT
Integrative & Functional Nutritionist, Registered Dietitian
If you’re like a lot of people, Thanksgiving and Halloween are probably the only times you really give pumpkin a second thought; something to make a pie with and cover it with whipped cream or as a front-porch decoration, carved and lit with a candle. Both a traditional tribute to autumn, but pumpkin is so much more than that!
Rethinking the plump orange fruit
Yup, pumpkin is a fruit, not a vegetable! Pumpkins belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes cucumbers, melons, squash, and gourds. Pumpkin is an extremely nutritious food with lots of health-promoting properties. Going beyond pumpkin pie, there is no shortage of mouth-watering pumpkin recipes, so getting more pumpkin nutrition in your diet is easy, whether it’s in salads, soups, desserts, preserves or baked goods like muffins or quick breads. To make it easier, nothing could be more straightforward than seasoning it with a little butter and cinnamon and baking it like you would a sweet potato.
Pumpkin nutrition. Check it out…
Pumpkin is rich in fiber, iron, vitamin B3/niacin, alpha and beta-carotene, vitamin E, lutein and zeaxanthin, and potassium.
One cup of cooked pumpkin [baked, boiled, and roasted] has an impressive:
52 calories (very low)
3 grams of fiber
13 gm of carbohydrate
1.48 milligrams of iron
595 mg potassium
5.4 mg beta-carotene
7 mg alpha-carotene
2.5 mg lutein & zeaxanthin
2 mg vitamin E
No doubt the first food that comes to mind when potassium is mentioned is bananas, thank you banana marketing boards, kudos. But there are loads of other potassium-rich foods out there, not the least of which is pumpkin. The same one-cup measure has a whopping 565 mg of potassium, more than a large banana. Potassium is an under-appreciated mineral; more potassium and less sodium = healthy blood pressure and less cardiovascular disease risk. In fact getting more potassium is more important than lowering sodium intake.
Carotenes are awesome in so many ways too. As a group, they give several plants their respective colors, lycopene is red (tomatoes), lutein is yellow (corn, avocado), and alpha and beta-carotene are orange (pumpkin, mango, peaches, carrots etc.).
Carotenoids are anti-cancer and anti-inflammation superstars. They help to reduce the risk for several cancers and the carotenoid lutein helps to reduce the risk for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause, and one of the most preventable forms, of blindness in those over 50 years of age.
One cup of pumpkin has a boat-load of these awesome carotenoids: 5.4 mg beta-carotene and 7 mg of alpha-carotene and 2.5 mg lutein & zeaxanthin. Take my word for it — that’s a lot.
5 delicious health benefits of pumpkin
Cardiovascular disease: Eating more plant foods has been shown over and over to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease — high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease — because plant foods provide a plethora of protective compounds like phytonutrients and blood vessel-loving minerals like potassium and magnesium. Get more heart-loving pumpkin with this warming Pumpkin Soup with Almonds and Sage.
Immunity: Plant foods help the immune system stay strong so that it can respond quickly and adequately to fight off invaders like viruses and bacteria. The immune system is even responsible for killing different types of cancer cells as they form, however, to be vigilant, the immune system needs good nutrition to keep it in tip-top shape. Phytonutrients such as beta and alpha-carotene help it do just that. For something different, try this Pumpkin Pie Smoothie for a twist on the classic Thanksgiving dessert.
Eye health: As an antioxidant, beta-carotene appears to protect the lens from oxidation, helping to reduce the risk for cataracts. Lutein, on the other hand, is concentrated at the back of the eye in the macula where it helps to reduce the risk for macular degeneration by filtering out harmful blue light. The more lutein in your diet, the more lutein in the macula and the better protection your eye has. Nourish your eyes with this amazing Pumpkin Lasagna.
Dementia and cognition: Nutrition plays a huge role in the health of the brain. What we eat and drink affects the structure of the brain which, in turn, affects its function and this is no truer than with dementia and cognition. Several nutrients have been shown to nourish the brain and the phytonutrients found in pumpkin such as alpha and beta-carotene and lutein show a lot of promise when it comes to protecting our noggins. Loving your brain is easy with this simple Roasted Pumpkin and Garlic side dish (personally, I’d load it up with rosemary as well).
Blood pressure: As mentioned above, higher intake of potassium is crucial for a blood pressure-lowering diet. To be specific, the ratio of potassium to sodium appears to be more important than the amount of sodium in your diet, a ratio that is naturally found in diets that include a lot of plant foods and little processed foods. Because most of us don’t get enough potassium, a focus on getting more plant foods is the best place to start and these Pumpkin Bran Muffins make it easy to do so.
Doug Cook RD, MPH is a registered dietitian and integrative and functional nutritionist. Doug’s practice at the Donvalley Integrative Digestive Clinic focuses on digestive and mental health. He is the coauthor of Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies (Wiley, 2008), The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book (Robert Rose 2015) and 175 Best Superfood Blender Recipes (Robert Rose, 2017). Learn more by checking out his website www.dougcookrd.com