With so many types of pumpkins, squashes and courgettes there’s a lot of choice but some varieties are very seasonal. As Halloween approaches, we’re used to seeing the bright orange ones in particular but how nutritious are they?
The varieties with orange flesh such as common pumpkin, butternut squash or Hokkaido are rich in beta-carotene. This is a plant pigment that your body converts to vitamin A so pumpkins and squashes with orange insides are a good source of this vital nutrient. And whilst you can get too much vitamin A from animal foods, there’s no such risk with beta-carotene because your body only coverts as much as it needs. In short, beta-carotene is a safe source of vitamin A.
We need vitamin A for healthy skin and mucus membranes, immune system, eye health and vision. Beta-carotene is also an antioxidant, protecting your cells and DNA from free radicals that can cause damage.
When it comes to squashes with pale flesh and courgettes, they still contain some beta-carotene but not as much as their brightly coloured cousins. Whilst a small serving of pumpkin (100g) can cover your daily need for vitamin A, a courgette based dish may only cover a third of the recommended intake.
Vitamin and mineral galore
The whole squash family also pack a wide variety of other vitamins and minerals. They are a valuable source of vitamins C, K, some B vitamins and minerals such as potassium, copper and manganese. And to top it off, there’s a whole array of plant pigments that act as antioxidants and have health-protective properties!
How about that canned pumpkin you might be using for a pumpkin pie? It’s quite a lot lower in vitamin C than if you cook it from scratch but it’s still excellent for beta-carotene and vitamin K.
Good carbs, good fats
All pumpkins, squashes and courgettes are a good source of healthy carbs and fibre. If you eat them with skin on, it bumps up your fibre intake even more and adds some antioxidants too. Mind, this is advisable only for the varieties with skin that gets softer when cooked!
All the members of the squash and pumpkin family are low in fat but they contain healthy unsaturated fats which we only need in small amounts. Hence, a portion of a pumpkin or squash-based dish can contribute to your daily intake of these essential fats nicely.
Aces of versatility
Pumpkins and squashes are extremely versatile and suitable for an endless variety of dishes – slice, dice or stuff them for savoury dishes, cook and blend them to use in cake mixture, bread dough or as pie filling; grate courgettes and use in cake batter or fruit bread. Their neutral taste also makes them perfect for smoothies and soups – the possibilities are endless! Many types are suitable for raw recipes from courgetti (courgette spaghetti) to raw pumpkin pie.
Don’t forget the seeds!
A great source of iron, zinc and protein, pumpkin seeds also contain an extra dose of vitamin K and magnesium. We need vitamin K for healthy blood clotting, our immune system and bone maintenance. Magnesium has a range of important functions in the human body, including nerve and muscle signalling, bone metabolism and the functioning of healthy blood vessels.
Pumpkin seeds are also bursting with antioxidants such as carotenoids, which have health-protecting properties. And that’s not all! The nutrients in pumpkin seeds seem to work especially well together for certain health conditions and regular consumption may help the treatment of prostate and urinary conditions.
All nuts and seeds are a great source of protein but pumpkin seeds have an added bonus – they are a rich source of tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids that form the building blocks of protein. Your body converts tryptophan into serotonin – a hormone that helps you feel and sleep better. So munch away!
Roast your own
If you want to use up all the bits of your pumpkin, it’s easy to make your own roasted pumpkin seeds. Once you’ve scooped them out from the pumpkin, try to remove as much pulp as possible and spread out the seeds on a sheet of paper. Be patient and let them dry out overnight.
The next day, spread the seeds thinly on a baking tray and roast them in the oven for up to 20 minutes. The temperature shouldn’t be higher than 80 °C so you preserve the healthy fats in the seeds. If you’re adding any flavouring such as soya sauce or spices, toss everything together first so the seeds are evenly coated and use non-stick paper for roasting.
You may not have thought about pumpkins, squashes and courgettes as superfoods but they are super! They are nutrient-dense, which means they contain a wealth of essential nutrients whilst also being low in fat and sugar.
One thing to bear in mind – if this article inspired you to eat pumpkin for breakfast, lunch and dinner, your skin may get a slight orange tinge from all the beta-carotene you’d be eating. It’s not harmful and goes away shortly after your pumpkin feast is over.