The Surprising Health Benefits of Eating Pumpkin
A nutritionist explains how everyone's favorite fall gourd stacks up nutritionally. Plus, she shares her best tips for finding healthy pumpkin products beyond the farm.
If you're obsessed with brewing pumpkin-flavored coffee and lighting pumpkin-scented candles in the fall, it's easy to forget that pumpkin is actually produce—and it's in season from late August through December. But even ardent pumpkin fans who eat the gourd regularly may not be aware that the orange winter squash—which is technically considered a fruit, given that pumpkins bear seeds—is actually quite nutritious. Both in its whole form and in purées, pumpkin contains more essential nutrients than many other leafy greens and fruits in the produce aisle.
"Pumpkins are a great example of nutrient-dense foods; it's high in fiber and several vitamins and minerals while relatively low in calories," says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, the associate director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. Here, we're highlighting all the ways that these great gourds can supercharge your diet and boost your health. To make adding this gourd to your diet even easier, Webster also shares her best tips for selecting healthy pumpkin products in the supermarket.
What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Pumpkin?
Believe it or not, a cup's worth of raw pumpkin packs in more vitamin A than the same amount of kale, per data from the United States Department of Agriculture. "Pumpkin is incredibly high in vitamin A—one cup provides over twice the amount recommended for daily intake," Webster says. "It's also a great source of carotenoids, several of which can be converted into vitamin A in the body." In addition to vitamin A and a smaller amount of vitamin C, one cup of pumpkin purée holds more than seven grams of raw fiber, which is more than a cup of cooked quinoa. "[That's] about a quarter of what's recommended for women each day, and about a fifth of what's recommended for men. Pumpkin is also equally high in potassium," Webster says. Overall, a cup of cubed pumpkin contains only 30 calories, and virtually zero fat, cholesterol, and sodium, according to nutrition info from the USDA.
The same can't be said for pumpkin seeds, though. This delicious snack isn't as nutrient-dense as pumpkin in its original form, Webster says. "Pumpkin seeds are a totally different ball game. There's virtually no vitamin A or beta-carotene in them, but they still provide a little bit of fiber and nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, and zinc," she shares.
How Can Pumpkin Boost Your Holistic Health?
The three most appealing health benefits of incorporating more pumpkin into everyday dishes are the squash's elevated vitamin A, fiber, and potassium levels, according to Webster, who flagged its vitamin A content (believe it or not, more than 40 percent of American adults aren't eating enough for optimal health, according to the Environmental Working Group) as particularly noteworthy: "Vitamin A is essential for maintaining good vision and a strong immune system, and it's also important for healthy reproductive systems."
Cooking with more whole pumpkins (luckily, roasting or baking this squash won’t totally diminish its nutritional value; Webster recommends serving it as a side dish, on its own, or in salads, and to incorporate pulp and purées into soups or stews like chili for an added nutritional punch) could also be a boon for our gut health. "Fiber is crucial for maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract. It helps move digestion along, [and] feeds our gut microbes," Webster says. The gourd’s soluble and insoluble fiber can help us feel satiated for longer, which can also play a hand in weight management. Fiber is also complemented by a rich amount of potassium, which plays a "critical role" in almost every bodily function and regulatory system, Webster says. "It's indispensable in processes like keeping our heart beating, sending nerve signals, and contracting muscles."
How to Shop for the Best Pumpkin Products
If you don't have access to a fresh pumpkin to cook with in your kitchen, don't fret; Webster says you can pick up a can of organic pumpkin purée to use at home without sacrificing its nutritional value. "Canned pumpkin purée is an excellent option for people hoping to cook or bake with pumpkin," she says. "It's nutritionally equal to making homemade purée, saves a lot of time, and is much more convenient than buying a whole gourd." Be sure to look for pumpkin products that aren't processed or loaded with artificial flavorings and additional added sugar—these options are nowhere as nutritionally valuable as pure pumpkin. "I wouldn't say anyone should look to foods like pumpkin pie, pumpkin bars, or pumpkin-spiced lattes for a nutrition boost, but they're tasty seasonal foods that can definitely still be included in an overall healthy eating pattern."