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Pumpkins and their seeds can provide ‘stellar’ nutrition

It has begun!

It is the season for cinnamon sticks, vanilla, and all things pumpkin!  Just take a look at some of the menus of local restaurants and coffee shacks.

While pumpkin is an expected participant in both fall and winter festivities, few of us know how exceptional it is. Its nutrients are well-suited for the cold and flu season and for dealing with some of the those blood sugar-raising sweets so commonplace around the holidays.

Since both the pumpkin’s flesh and the seeds are edible, it’s fairly versatile in application too.  Rumor also has it that the leaves are nutritious too (although I can’t admit to having consumed them).

This may go without saying, but a pumpkin is a type of squash.  It ripens in September and can be stored for months in a cool, dry place.  Not all pumpkins are good for eating, however.  Some (typically the large ones sold in the big bins in front of stores) have thin, very stringy layers of flesh and are best left for decoration and carving.

The smaller ones, commonly labeled as “pie pumpkins” are the best for eating.  Once cooked, their flesh is thick and fairly creamy (although it is normal for it to have some fibrous strings).

Regardless of the type of pumpkin (decorative or pie-bound), the seeds from pumpkins can be scraped out, rinsed, and roasted or dried.  Believe it or not, the off-white, tough outer hull of the seed is totally edible and need not be removed before eating. This outer hull actually adds more fiber to the already excellent nutritional value. It also crisps up nicely when oven-roasted which, if you are like me and are a big fan of everything crispy, you will likely enjoy!   

You can look for store-bought varieties of seeds labeled as either pumpkin seeds or pepitas.  (Pepitas normally refer to seeds that have the hull removed.  They appear a little green-ish in color, like a pistachio).

A one-fourth cup serving of pumpkin seeds contains approximately 180 kcals, 9 grams protein, 14 grams of fat, 4 grams carbs and 3 grams fiber. You can sprinkle it on salads, add to granola, cereal, trail mix or baked goods.

Pumpkin puree, the most well-known pumpkin product, is  made from the flesh of pumpkins and can be cooked up fresh or purchased canned. The nutritional value of both is stellar. One cup boiled raw pumpkin (no salt) boasts approximately 50 calories, 2 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 12 grams carbs, 3 grams fiber (note that canned pumpkin has about 7 grams fiber).  It also has a fair amount of potassium, which can help with blood pressure regulation.

Colors of foods tell you important things about nutrition.

The orange color of pumpkin’s flesh shouts that is brimming with a nutrient called beta carotene.  In the human body, beta carotene is converted into the better-known vitamin A. One cup of pumpkin has 14,100 IU equivalents of vitamin A. That’s a lot!

Taking a supplement with that high a dose of vitamin A wouldn’t be so good. Don’t worry, though, because it comes in the form of beta carotene; you can’t overdose from eating pumpkin. Your body will excrete what it doesn’t convert to vitamin A and use.

This vitamin A, along with the vitamin C in pumpkin, is perfect for supporting your immune system, which tends to get taxed with all the sweets of the season and the flu bugs running around.

Add pumpkin puree to pie (of course!), yogurt, smoothies, muffins and breads, pancakes or even homemade granola for a seasonal taste. Note that when buying canned pumpkin, you need to  make sure you know if you are grabbing plain pumpkin puree or pumpkin pie filling. The latter has seasonings and sometimes sweetener added.  You may be very surprised if you thought you purchased one but accidentally grabbed the other.

Pumpkin contains yet another nutrient that may prove helpful for diabetics.  A compound called D-chiro-inositol from pumpkin, has been studied and shown to help lower blood sugar in diabetics.  It does this by helping to regenerate the pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production. Since insulin is responsible for lowering blood sugar, this is helpful for diabetics (although everyone can benefit from it too).

While you probably shouldn’t expect miracles from eating a boatload of pumpkin pie, you can feel good about including pumpkin regularly into your diet.

People watching their carbohydrate intake may feel wary of pumpkin, since it does indeed have 12 grams of carbs in one cup.  It is important to realize, however, that other compounds (like the fiber and the D-chiro-inositol ) may help offset spikes in blood sugar that otherwise might be expected. So don’t be afraid of adding pumpkin to your life. ’Tis the season!

Have a nutrition question that you would like Dietitian Cathryn to answer?  Ask away! No question is too small!

Send your nutrition questions to either [email protected] or [email protected] and a limited number of questions will be answered and printed in upcoming editions. Please title your email/correspondence on the subject line as “TNE: Ask the RD” and include your contact information.

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”  Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.