The Health Benefits of Pumpkins

You see them all over, this time of year. If you’re out in the country, you’ll find them in the fields in such profusion that they turn the ground orange. They’ll make their way to your local grocery, where they’ll be stacked neatly (at first) by the door. And eventually they may appear on doorsteps or in windows, hollowed out and carved into likenesses both silly and serious.

Oh, and they come canned, too.

The pumpkin is a ubiquitous part of the American fall season-which is understandable, considering that it’s indigenous to this part of the world. The Native Americans used it as both a food and a medicine. The first settlers from Europe added it to their diets. Then some of them helped spread it to the rest of the world by returning to their birthplaces in Europe with the seeds.

This time of year, many people will get the biggest specimens they can find, collect their kids (and maybe the neighbors’ as well), and have a pumpkin-carving party. This can be great fun. There’s just one problem-after the outside is carved, most of the time the inside is thrown away. And that’s a shame, because the “meat” and seeds of a pumpkin can have some great health benefits.

What’s so good about pumpkins, anyway?
Pumpkin meat is very high in carotenoids. They’re what give pumpkins their orange color-but that’s the least of their benefits. Carotenoids are really good at neutralizing free radicals, nasty molecules that can attack cell membranes and leave the cells vulnerable to damage.

Pumpkins are also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which scavenge free radicals in the lens of the eye. Therefore, they may help prevent the formation of cataracts and reduce the risk of macular degeneration, a serious eye problem than usually results in blindness.

Besides carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are all antioxidants, pumpkins have a lot of common nutrients, like iron, zinc, and fiber. Iron, of course, is needed by red blood cells. Zinc deficiency may be related to osteoporosis of the hip and spine in older men. And fiber is important for bowel health.

What’s so good about pumpkin seeds, then?
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, are very high in protein; one ounce of seeds provides about seven grams of protein. They also contain copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. And their oil is high in phytosterols, plant-based fatty acids that are chemically so like cholesterol that they can replace it in the human body-contributing to the reduction of blood cholesterol levels.

More about pumpkin seed oil
Pumpkin seed oil is high in essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs have many benefits, among them the maintenance of healthy blood vessels and nerves and the lubrication of all tissues, including the skin. And as mentioned above, they can help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.

EFAs are not the only constituents of pumpkin seed oil. This oil also contains vitamin A, which (among other things) helps keep our eyes healthy and stimulates the T cells of the immune system to help fight off infection. And it has vitamin E, which acts like lutein and zeaxanthin to get rid of free radicals.

Tips for using pumpkins in the kitchen
– Bigger pumpkins have tougher meat than smaller ones; that’s why pie pumpkins, also called baking pumpkins, are so much smaller than the ones used for carving. But you can still cook and eat the meat of a carving pumpkin; it just won’t be quite as soft.

– If you don’t like the taste of pumpkin, try adding a small amount of orange juice.

– If you’re planning on cooking rather than carving the pumpkin, you don’t have to go to the trouble of scooping out the inside after you remove the top. You will have to remove the seeds, but after that you can just cut the entire pumpkin into pieces, remove the skin with a peeler, and boil the pieces in water for about 20 minutes. After the pieces have been boiled, drain the water and either mash the pieces by hand or puree them in a blender.

– A whole pumpkin can be stored at room temperature for up to a month, or in the refrigerator (if it’ll fit!) for up to three months.

– Besides pies-a traditional Thanksgiving favorite-pumpkin can be used to make pudding, custard, cookies, and of course pumpkin bread. But it’s also great as soup, or as a side dish for the main course of a meal.

Pumpkin seeds can be sprinkled with oil and other flavorings and roasted at 300�° for about 30 minutes. However, most nutritional experts believe that roasting weakens a lot of the nutrients, so they recommend that the seeds be eaten raw. Whole seeds can be added to steamed vegetables, salads, cereals, and cookies, and ground seeds can be added to burgers.

– Pumpkin seed oil can be used in recipes (it’s popular in Austrian dishes) or just taken by the teaspoon or tablespoon, like other EFA oils (for example, flax seed, evening primrose, borage seed, or black currant seed oils).

So the next time you’re carving a pumpkin and are tempted to just throw out the inside-don’t! Save it, cook (or bake) it, and eat it instead. And if you’re not into pumpkin carving, don’t pass by those small specimens in the Produce section.

Finally, if all that cutting and boiling is too much work or too time-consuming, get yourself a can of already-cooked pumpkin. There are lots of ways to enjoy the nutritional benefits of this uniquely American food.

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