Pumpkins might be one of the most underrated and overlooked fruits that you’re not eating. Rich with antioxidants and high in fiber, pumpkins pack a nutritional punch, proving they are not just for carving scary faces or for your seasonal pumpkin spice lattes (if there is even real pumpkin to be found in there, that is).
But before you go biting into your pumpkin — which isn’t recommended, by the way — it’s important to note that, according to Ashley Reaver, a registered dietitian, only the flesh and the seeds should be consumed. And while technically, carving pumpkins are safe to consume, you’re better off with those grown specifically to eat.
"Both are great for your health and offer different benefits,” she tells SheKnows. “The pumpkin flesh is high in carotenoids, a potent type of antioxidant that can help to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system. It is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, which can help to improve metabolism, manage weight and control hunger.”
Pumpkin is a great source vitamin A — a vitamin characterized by a group of compounds associated with many aspects of overall health.
“Technically, what pumpkin contains is beta-carotene, a plant pigment that is converted into vitamin A in the body,” Summer Yule, a registered dietitian and nutrition communication specialist, tells SheKnows. “What is nice about getting this vitamin through plant sources is that unlike preformed vitamin A from animal-based foods and some supplements, excess intake of beta-carotene is not generally associated with toxicity.”
Although she does caution that an excess of beta-carotene can give the skin “an orange glow.”
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is especially critical to vision, according to Yule. “It is an essential component of a protein [called rhodopsin] that absorbs light in the receptors of the retina…” she says. “One of the earliest signs of a vitamin A deficiency is night blindness, so if you are having a little more trouble seeing at night lately, make sure you are getting enough vitamin A in your diet.”
As a potent antioxidant, Reaver says vitamin A can help to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system by reducing the damage caused by free radicals in the body.
“For this reason, vitamin A is also linked to lower incidence of some cancers," she adds. "It is also essential for optimal to vision, reproduction, skin health and the proper functioning of many internal organs.”
Yule says a half-cup of pumpkin (canned or fresh) has about 100 percent of the daily value for vitamin A. “But I’ve seen some canned pumpkin with 200 percent of the daily value per half cup, so I would check the label for exact amounts,” she says.
Both fresh pumpkin and canned pumpkin offer the same benefits, says Reaver, who recommends mixing puréed pumpkin into oatmeal, in a smoothie or into energy balls.
While pumpkin contains less vitamin C than vitamin A — around 8 to 9 percent of the daily value, or one-half cup of fresh pumpkin cubes — says Yule, it’s still a good option when you need to add more of it into your diet.
“We need vitamin C for the synthesis of collagen, a component of our connective tissue that plays a role in wound healing,” Yule explains.
Vitamin C is also important for its antioxidant activity, limiting free radical damage in the body, says Yule, as well as helping us to absorb sources of nonheme (plant-based) iron. “If you are a vegetarian with anemia, make sure to get some vitamin C in with your iron,” she notes. “Stirring some pumpkin into fortified oatmeal is a great way to get both nutrients in together.”
Those pesky, sticky seeds, also known as pepitas when they’ve been shelled, are a great addition to your diet. They might be small, but they’re mighty in terms of their nutritional value.
“Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of iron, fiber, protein and healthy fats,” Reaver explains. “The iron found in pumpkin seeds is crucial for the proper transportation of oxygen throughout our bodies. Low levels of iron can lead to anemia, a condition characterized by fatigue, decreased athletic performance, decreased mental acuity and poor mood.”
Iron is an important nutrient for premenopausal people, Reaver adds, especially because iron is lost in the blood during menstruation. Active young females have even higher requirements.
Reaver says the seeds should be roasted (to make them taste better) and that they make “a filling snack alone or in a trail mix or an awesome addition to salad, stir fries and vegetarian dishes.”
So, before you dismiss the pumpkin as just something to adorn your front steps for the month of October, you might want to consider working it into your diet too.
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