'Tis the season of pumpkin everything: lattes, rolls, pies, muffins, smoothies – the list seemingly goes on forever (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Many of my clients have asked me about these orange spheres of Autumn-goodness – is pumpkin a healthy choice? Is it a fruit? A vegetable? Can I eat it raw? Can I eat it at every meal? With pumpkin being baked, blended, and beaten into nearly every food we will eat for the coming month or so, I figured now is the perfect time to talk all about pumpkin from a nutritional perspective.
Pumpkin is a member of the squash family and, while technically a fruit, it is nutritionally classified as a vegetable. Furthermore, pumpkin is often classified as a starchy vegetable, meaning it is higher in Calories and carbohydrate as compared to nonstarchy vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, et cetera; but don't let this scare you off. Pumpkin contains several key vitamins and minerals and provides many health benefits, making it a worthy ingredient for sweet and savory recipes alike.
For starters, the pumpkin's bright orange color is a clear indication that it is indeed a nutritional powerhouse. The intense orange hue of the skin and 'meat' is due to the presence of beta-carotene, a provitamin (vitamin precursor) that is converted to vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene (along with vitamin A) is specifically essential for maintaining optimal eye / vision health (1).
While I usually promote buying fresh ingredients, using fresh pumpkin on-the-daily can be an arduous task and therefore, not the most practical solution. Using canned 100% pumpkin is an easier way to access all of the nutritional power of the pumpkin, minus the sweat, tears, and pumpkin guts. Just 1 cup of canned pumpkin (canned 100% pumpkin – NOT canned pumpkin pie filling) contains around 7 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of fat, and 80 Calories, which is about equal to the nutritional profile of fresh pumpkin (see complete nutrition information here). Additionally, canned (and fresh) pumpkin provides around 50% DV (daily value) of the fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin K (provides about 40 mg), which is necessary for maintaining healthy blood clotting, among many other things.
But wait, there's more! Pumpkin seeds are an additional source of nutritional awesomeness all on their own. Just 1 ounce (about 85 seeds) contains around 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, 70 mg of magnesium (18% DV), and 3 mg of zinc (20% DV) (see complete nutrition information here). Studies also suggest that pumpkin seeds provide many potential health benefits, including possibly lowering the risk of bladder stones and helping to combat depression (2, 3, 4). Pumpkin seeds also contain a good amount of phytosterols (plant compounds), which research suggests can help to lower cholesterol levels and possibly prevent the development of colon cancer (5, 6).
Now that you're privy to the power of the pumpkin, let's talk about what to do with it. My Easy Oat-y Pumpkin Pie Pancakes (on right) are a great way to sneak in some serious nutrition for breakfast. Remember to control your portions and limit sugary toppings (like honey, pure maple syrup, and jam) to just 1-2 teaspoon(s). Or, ditch the concentrated sweet stuff altogether and go for more nutrient-dense toppings, like nuts, nut butters, yogurt, and/or fresh fruit. Also, canned pumpkin can generally be used in place of mashed ripe bananas or sweet potatoes in a variety of recipes, so feel free to experiment accordingly.
If you happen to buy a fresh pumpkin for carving purposes, save your seeds! Scoop 'em out, rinse, toss with a little extra virgin olive oil and salt (you can add additional spices if you're feeling creative), place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and roast at 350°F for about 10 minutes (find a more complete how-to guide on roasting pumpkin seeds here).
So, while keeping added sugars and fats in mind, keep calm and pumpkin on.
Eat (pumpkin) well,