It’s that time of year when artfully-crafted Jack O’Lanterns perch on porches, pumpkin lovers rush to Starbucks, and aromas of pumpkin spice infuse the air. It’s very clear who the star of the show is this season. If you’re a lover of all things pumpkin, then you probably get giddy just by hearing the words: pumpkin and spice. If you don’t engage in the pumpkin hype, keep reading as we’re about to give you ten healthy reasons to fall in love with pumpkin, plus one tasty smoothie recipe sure to earn your 10/10 vote.
We’re going bold by just throwing this out there — pumpkin is a superfood! While there isn’t a “true” definition of superfood, the term signifies foods that are power-packed with nutrients that will do incredibly magical things for our bodies when we eat them. Based on pumpkin's nutritional profile, it can definitely hold a light to goji berries, acai, and kale. For example, pumpkin’s pretty orange hue does more than make us think of Halloween. That orange hue comes from phytonutrients. Phyto means “plant,” and phytonutrients are healing nutrients specific to only plant-based foods. There are over 25,000 phytonutrients and pumpkin holds several of them in just one little (or huge!) gourd.
Fun fact about pumpkins: There are approximately 20 species of pumpkin including names that sound like your favorite childhood stuffed animal like Snow Ball and Baby Boo. Then there’s the Yuxijiangbinggua—yes, it looks like our cat stomped on the keyboard and no, please don’t ask us how to pronounce it. Different portions of this plant are consumed all over the world including the pulp and seeds that you know and love (hello, pumpkin pie and roasted pumpkin seeds) as well as the flowers, leaves, shoots, and roots. For today, we’ll stick with chatting about the most commonly consumed portions: the pulp and the seeds (but please let us know if you’ve tried the flowers, leaves, shoots, or roots!).
While they might sound like the name of a peace-loving 60’s band, free radicals are actually substances our bodies create when cells use oxygen for energy. A small amount of free radicals can be beneficial, destroying harmful pathogens. However, excessive free radical accumulation can be detrimental and lead to what’s called oxidative stress. Free radical accumulation can occur through foods we eat (sugar, processed food, fried food, meat and dairy), stress, environmental pollution, medication and smoking. Excess free radicals can damage cells, leading to inflammation and premature aging, some of which may be obvious like skin damage and achy joints and others that may be silent (until they’re not) like heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. When imbalances occur and we have more free radicals than we need, antioxidants are required to neutralize them, preventing them from accelerating aging and creating inflammation. Vitamins that act like antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Many phytonutrients found in plants also act as antioxidants.
From supporting skin health to helping with weight management to preventing heart disease, pumpkins can do … well, pretty much anything, except carve themselves into Jack O’Lanterns. Low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with nutrients are attributes that give pumpkin pulp its superfood credibility. It’s also high in several phytonutrients including carotenoids, flavonoids and phenolic acids that act like antioxidants, scavenging free radicals.
While higher in calories, due to their healthy fat content, tiny (but mighty) pumpkin seeds come with their own array of nutrients that can support immunity, promote sleep, and boost mood. Don’t ditch them! They’re perfect for snacking, sprinkling on salads, or added to grain bowls for a little crunch. (We’ll get into how to use both the pumpkin pulp and seeds a bit later.)
One cup of canned pure pumpkin puree contains 100 calories, 2 grams of protein, 20 grams of carbohydrate, and 7 grams of fiber. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of vitamin C, potassium, copper, manganese, vitamin E, and vitamin B2.
Whole pumpkin, coming directly from the gourd, has a slightly different macronutrient nutrient composition. One cup of freshly boiled then mashed pumpkin has 59 calories, 2 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrate, and 3 grams of fiber.
One ounce of pumpkin seeds contain 163 calories, 8.5 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat, 4 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of fiber, is an excellent source of vitamin E and a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and selenium. The seeds also contain carotenoid phytonutrients.
Have you heard of a pumpkin facial? There’s a reason estheticians are using this superfood topically. Pumpkin pulp is high in the collagen-building nutrients vitamin C and vitamin A. Vitamin A in pumpkin is in the form of carotenoids, which are converted to vitamin A in our body. There are over 600 different carotenoids. Pumpkin contains high amounts of the carotenoids zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta carotene. Pumpkin pulp and seeds also contain vitamin E, another vitamin that protects the skin. Vitamin E, vitamin C and carotenoids naturally protect the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays from the inside out. (However, you should still use that sunscreen!)
Lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids found in pumpkin, are also the main compounds found in the retina of the eye. Consuming foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin have been linked to lowering the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (the leading cause of severe, permanent vision loss in older adults).
There are several nutrients in both the pumpkin pulp and the seeds that can support the immune system and fight infection, including carotenoids and vitamin C in the pulp and zinc and selenium in the seeds. Vitamin A has also been shown to increase white blood cell and T-cell production, immune cells that are critical to fighting infection. Just one cup of pumpkin pulp is equal to 245 percent of your daily recommended dose of Vitamin A.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America and diet plays an important role in heart health. Pumpkin is especially beneficial for our hearts with its abundance of potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Potassium helps to reduce blood pressure and vitamins C and E are potent antioxidants shown to reduce inflammation associated with heart disease.
Not-so-fun fact: Less than five percent of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber each day (25-38 grams minimum is recommended per day for women and men, respectively). In fact, most people get less than 12 grams of fiber each day. Can you guess where fiber is found in plentiful amounts? If you guessed plant-based foods, then you’re already a plant-powered rock star! In fact, one cup of pumpkin contains 7 grams of fiber—that’s nearly 30 percent of your needs in just one food. Fiber is key for healthy digestion, but plays an important part in so much more. It fosters a healthy gut, decreases inflammation, balances hormones, supports the immune system, prevents breast and colon cancer, and reduces cholesterol. That’s just the fiber-licious short list. Bottom line—fiber is pretty important.
Pumpkin pulp is also 94 percent water. Since pumpkin is high in water and in fiber it can help to fill you up quickly and keep you feeling full longer—factors that can support healthy weight. Not to mention, it’s also a good source of prebiotic fiber, which can foster healthy gut bacteria that support metabolism. Prebiotic fiber has been shown to increase the balance of bacteria that prevents obesity and comorbidities associated with obesity. Changes in the gut microbiota after consumption of prebiotic fiber have been shown to positively affect energy intake, satiety hormones, and insulin sensitivity.
Pumpkin seeds are high in lignans, which are phytonutrients that have been associated with decreased risk of breast, prostate and colon cancer. What’s more, the high antioxidant content of pumpkin seeds can reduce oxidation associated with inflammation and cancer initiation and progression.
Pumpkin seeds are a natural source of tryptophan, an amino acid that converts to serotonin then to melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle. The zinc in these powerful seeds assists with tryptophan’s conversion to serotonin. Pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of magnesium, which has been shown to promote better sleep.
Eating seeds—particularly pumpkin (as well as sesame and sunflower seeds)–can boost serotonin levels through their high levels of tryptophan. One study gave subjects, who suffered from social anxiety disorder, a serving of pumpkin seeds to add to their diet daily and noticed less anxiety after just two weeks of eating the seeds. The magnesium in pumpkin seeds can help mood in two ways: It can block the activity of stimulating neurotransmitters as well as bind to calming receptors, resulting in a more peaceful, resting state.
Nutrient-dense pumpkin seeds contain bone-building minerals like phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. They’re also chock-full of healthy fats and plant-based protein—more nutrients that are essential for bone health.
Right now, you’re probably saying, that all sounds great, but how do you eat pumpkin other than indulging in pumpkin pie? We’re glad you asked!
Treat pumpkin like any other squash—roast it, steam it, add it to soups and stews, or turn it into a creamy pumpkin pudding. Add pumpkin puree to smoothies for a nutrient boost and a creamy consistency. Stir the puree into your morning latte with cinnamon and nutmeg for a warm winter treat. Add it to pancakes to make festive fall pancakes. Mix it into oatmeal with pumpkin pie spice to make pumpkin pie overnight oats.
While pumpkin puree and whole pumpkins are typically found during the fall months, pumpkin seeds can be found all year long. Pro plant-based tip: pumpkin seeds should never go to waste. Spread them on a sheet, sprinkle them with a little salt and roast them at 350 degrees F until toasty, around 25 minutes, tossing in between. Munching on a handful of pumpkin seeds a day is a delicious and nutritious way to snack. Add pumpkin seeds to stir fries, salads, sandwiches or snack on them as a part of a homemade trail mix.
Pumpkin positively influences nearly every aspect of the body, from eyes to skin to heart to gut to weight to the innate ability to fight off infection. It’s an intimidating fruit—heavy and messy and hard to cut — so, make it fun and festive by getting the whole family involved in the process! Or, take the short-cut by opting for the canned version of pumpkin purée. No matter how you enjoy it, know that you’re fueling your body with a “true” superfood ... if there were a definition.
While this smoothie is already power-packed with nutrition from the pumpkin, banana, tahini and spices, you could boost the nutritional value even more by adding a handful of spinach (however, just note that you will lose that pretty orange hue) or a tablespoon of hemp seeds. Make it cocoa-flavored by adding a tablespoon of cocoa powder or make it a smoothie bowl by adding less milk and fun toppings.
Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Taste for additional ingredients of choice (for example, more cinnamon for warming spice or more milk for a thinner consistency). Add a handful of ice if you prefer it chilled. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon or chopped pumpkin seeds.