Pumpkins are one of the most overlooked foods in terms of health benefits and nutrients. It seems many people’s only exposure to this extremely healthy food is sugar laden pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Even worse, millions of pumpkins are hollowed out for carving at Halloween, with the pumpkin meat and seeds, probably about the healthiest thing in the kitchen at the time, never used.
Pumpkins deserve better. In fact, with the incredible array of health nutrients in pumpkins, they should really be considered a superfood. And one we’d do well to eat a lot more often.
Antioxidant in Pumpkins
Pumpkin is a very rich source of antioxidant carotenoids and not just beta-carotene either. They are probably the best source of alpha-carotene available in regular food.
New research is showing alpha-carotene to be an even more powerful antioxidant, for improving your immune system and preventing disease, than the more well known beta-carotene.
Pumpkins are one of the highest food sources of beta-cryptoxanthin. Beta-cryptoxanthin has not been studied as much as the other main carotenoids, but research so far suggests a good intake can significantly reduce your risk of lung cancer and lower your chance of developing arthritis.
Pumpkin is also a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in the macular region of the eye, where they provide antioxidant protection against damaging UV and high energy blue light.
A regular intake of these two carotenoids may help protect our vision, lessen eye strain and significantly reduce the risk of developing both cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) – the leading cause of blindness in the USA.
About the only one of the main six carotenoids that pumpkins aren’t high in is lycopene. But tomatoes, particularly when processed, are a great source of this.
Perhaps alternating regular tomato and pumpkin soup with lunch or dinner could be a simple step to getting a great intake of antioxidant carotenoids in your diet.
Pumpkins are usually high in vitamin C and have useful levels of vitamin E and the B vitamins riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and folate.
If your body needs more vitamin A, the beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin in pumpkins can usually be converted into retinol (the active form of vitamin A) in the liver. Keep in mind though, that this conversion is estimated at a ratio of around 12 to 1 for beta-carotene and around 24 to 1 for alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin.
Eating some dietary fat in the meal should improve absorption, but for most people, perhaps with the exception of vegans, high carotenoid foods like pumpkin and carrots are better eaten for their antioxidant potential, rather than as primary sources of vitamin A. A high quality cod liver oil is a far better source of vitamin A, as well as the important omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.
While pumpkin seeds have an even higher mineral content, the pulp of the average pumpkin is a useful source of a variety of minerals like potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.
The mineral content of pumpkins will of course vary depending on the soils they are grown in. For this reason, you may want to consider buying organic pumpkins.
Despite pumpkins not usually having as much of a pesticide problem as say carrots or apples, the soils that organic pumpkins are grown in often have a higher mineral content and this may mean more minerals available in the pumpkin itself.
Pumpkin Calories and Dietary Fiber
Pumpkins are very low in calories for such a rich tasting food, with around 26 calories per 100 g. Foods like pumpkin soup make a beneficial addition to the diet of anyone trying to lose weight. Pumpkin soup seems to be much more filling than most other soups and you’d be unlikely to still feel hungry after a big bowl of it, despite the low calories.
There is a high dietary fiber content in pumpkins that may aid in reducing your LDL cholesterol and regulating blood sugar levels (particularly helpful for people with diabetes).
This fiber can also help improve digestion and elimination and pumpkin is said to be a good food to eat to help relieve constipation. Proper digestion and elimination is vital to health and energy.
If you feel you may have some problems in this area, pumpkin is one of the first go to foods. Try a big bowl of pumpkin curry soup or pumpkin garlic soup for dinner and see if you don’t feel a lot better the next day.
Selecting and Storing Pumpkins
Fresh pumpkins are better bought whole rather than in portions for the most health nutrients. Smaller pumpkins with a good weight for their size and bright color tend to be best for eating. Leave the ones with cracks and heavy scarring and check that the rind is hard and the stem is firm.
Stored in a cool dry spot away from direct sunlight, a good pumpkin should last for at least a month. If you’re only using half the pumpkin for a recipe, you can keep the unused half with the seeds and center intact in the fridge. Cover it with some plastic wrap or keep it in a sealed container and it should be fine for at least a few days.
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