When fall hits, a certain harvest celebrity hogs center stage — pumpkin, along with its closest squash cousins. “From muffins to pies to lattés, pumpkin finds its way into every treat. But the actual pumpkin flesh itself (minus the added sugar) is chock-full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber,” says registered dietitian Laura Burak, MS, RD.
Health Benefits of Pumpkin:
While its popularity peaks in the fall, pumpkin’s powerful nutritional value should encourage you to keep it around all year. “Pumpkins are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, potassium, manganese, iron, copper and antioxidants,” says Robin Barrie Kaiden, MS, RD, CDN. For all the nutrients they contain, they’re also low in calories, which may be in part due to their high water content — they’re 94% water!
Pumpkin’s rich orange hue also signals its health properties. “That orange pigment is called beta carotene which the body converts to vitamin A, an essential nutrient for skin, eye and cognitive health, as well as immunity,” says Burak. Shockingly, one cup of canned pumpkin offers 209 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin A.
Fun fact: One cup of pumpkin pureé contains more potassium than a large banana. They also:
1. Protect Against Disease
Pumpkin, and other winter squash, contain key antioxidants — like alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin — that help fight damage done by free radicals and “protect against chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease,” explains Burak. Our body’s metabolic processes naturally create free radicals; however, too many free radicals floating around the body can damage cells and increase the risk of disease. Luckily, antioxidants curb that damage.
You might want to dry the seeds on a low temp in the oven with a little salt and pepper and eat them, too. They are “high in antioxidants and good for heart health,” says Kaiden.
2. Support Your Immune System
Due to their high vitamin content, pumpkins are also great for your immune system. Vitamin A has been shown to strengthen the immune system and even help fight infections. And vitamin C helps the body produce more white blood cells, which support immune cells.
3. Improve Digestion
“One cup of cooked pumpkin has 7 grams of fiber and almost 3 grams of protein,” says Kaiden. Fiber is essential for healthy digestion, but most people don’t get enough of this key nutrient. A cup of pumpkin “provides more than a quarter of the recommended amount in a day,” adds Burak. (The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams of fiber a day for a 2,000 calorie diet.)
Plus, pumpkin contains zinc which helps digestive enzymes work more effectively. The seeds are also “a great source of both protein and fiber, which can keep you full and help stabilize blood sugar,” says Kaiden.
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4. Enhance Your Glow
On top of that, vitamin C boosts your body’s collagen production, which is essential for healthy skin.
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5. Promote Relaxation
Pumpkins also contain high amounts of magnesium, which helps relax the nervous system and aid in muscle recovery. The seeds may even help you catch a more restful night of sleep. “Their tryptophan (an amino acid often associated with turkey) and magnesium enhance sleep quality,” explains Kaiden.
What to Look for When Picking
While every pumpkin is technically edible, the best ones for cooking aren’t the ones you use for carving jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins labeled “sugar” or “pie” are generally sweeter and ideal for cooking. But don’t limit yourself to only using the classic orange pumpkin. The botanical distinction between pumpkins and other sweet winter squash is so slight that their flavors don’t differ much. In fact, canned pumpkin is often a mix of pumpkin and other “golden-fleshed, sweet squash,” according to the FDA.
If buying other kinds of squash, choose ones with thinner skins (like delicata, kabocha and red kuri) earlier in the season since thinner skins means they’re more perishable, says Laura Allen, professional chef and Director of Food and Beverage at THE WELL Kitchen & Table, who notes that you can eat the skins, which contain extra nutrients.
“Save the thicker-skinned squash that you have to peel (butternut, acorn, hubbard and spaghetti varieties) for later in the winter when that's all that is available,” suggests Allen, who offers these three picking tips:
- Find one that is heavy for its size with no soft spots
- Look for matte (not shiny) skin, which signifies ripeness
- Avoid any item that has been coated (sometimes wax is used for preservation during transportation)
How to Add Winter Squash to Your Plate
Luckily, there are countless ways to enjoy the benefits of pumpkins and other winter squash. The easiest? Pure pumpkin pureé! “A scoop right from the can is an excellent way to add vitamin A, beta carotene and fiber to muffin and cookie mixes, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, chia pudding and more,” says Burak. Just make sure you aren’t buying pumpkin pie filling, which has added sugar. “There should just be one ingredient and that's pumpkin!” says Burak.
You can even substitute pumpkin for an egg in baking! “Pumpkin pureé can also double as a butter, oil and egg replacer when modifying recipes for dietary restrictions,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD, creator of Once Upon a Pumpkin. Just swap one egg for one quarter cup pumpkin pureé.
Need some inspiration? Below, a few delicious ways pumpkin and squash are being used at THE WELL Kitchen & Table in New York City this season.
- 1 kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin)
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Cut squash in half stem to stem. Scoop seeds out and cut in half radially. Then cut each quarter into 4-6 wedges depending on squash size.
- Roast in the oven at 375 degrees F until tender.
- Cool and store until ready to serve.
Note: “We leave the skin on which at this time of year is very tender and an important reason to buy organic. Enjoy as a standalone side — we serve ours with spicy pepitas (recipe below) — or cut up in salads or pasta,” says Allen.
Used to garnish our Harvest Mix salad and kabocha squash side.
- 1 cup pumpkin seeds (either shelled or with husk on)
- 1/2 tsp korean chili flakes
- A sprinkle of salt
- 2 tsp orange juice
Toss seeds in a bowl with chili flakes, salt and orange juice. Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes. Roast a bit longer if using seeds with the husks still on.
Honey Nut Soup
“Honeynut squash is a hybrid squash that came from a collaboration between Cornell’s plant breeding program and chef Dan Barber,” says Allen. “Honeynut squash is more nutrient dense than butternut squash and it’s small size makes it easy to use.”
Can’t find a honeynut squash? Don’t fret! Allen says you can swap it for a butternut squash, just make sure you remove the peel.
- 1 honeynut squash
- 1 green apple
- 1 spanish onion
- 1-inch piece of ginger
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp vadouvan curry powder
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 quart vegetable stock
- 20 sage leaves
- Cut honeynut squash in half stem to stem, scoop out seeds and cut in 1/2-inch dice, leaving skin on.
- Also dice skin-on apple and skin-off onion into 1/2-inch pieces.
- Peel ginger and garlic and slice both thinly.
- In a heavy bottomed pot, heat olive oil on medium heat.
- Add sage leaves, stir quickly and remove from pan with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel, season with 1/2 tsp of salt immediately and reserve for garnish.
- Add squash to the pot and cook for 4 minutes.
- Add apple and onion and cook for 4 more minutes.
- Add ginger, garlic, curry powder and salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add vegetable stock and simmer until vegetables are completely soft, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly and blend in batches using a blender until completely smooth.
- Adjust consistency with vegetable stock and check seasoning.
- Garnish soup with crispy sage leaves.