4 Unexpected Health Benefits of Pumpkin, Say Dietitians
Studies indicate this autumn-favourite food is packed with antioxidant-rich nutrients.
If you believe pumpkins are only good for baking pies and decorative carving, you may be surprised to learn that both pumpkin—and its seeds—are loaded with nutrients. In fact, there are numerous possible health benefits of pumpkin and pumpkin seeds.
"Both pumpkin foods deliver protein, fibre and nutrients, but in differing amounts", said Amy Gorin, MS, RDN. And while pumpkin seeds are high in unsaturated (healthy) fats and calories, pumpkin itself is both low in fat and calories, in part because of its high water content. It's also a rich source of carbs, said Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
And, according to the fruit's nutritional profile, pumpkin is not one to skimp on. The USDA's database, FoodData Central, reports that a single serving (1 cup) of canned, cooked pumpkin provides about 25 percent of the daily requirement of fibre for women and roughly 17 percent for men. It's also a great source of the antioxidant, beta-carotene—the colourful pigment found in numerous fruits and vegetables that converts into vitamin A in the body. It can play a vital role in immune health and organ function.
Pumpkin seeds are also packed with vital nutrients. FoodData Central reports that a 28-gram serving of shelled pumpkin seeds provides approximately 14 grams of healthy fats (such as PUFAs or polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are essential for brain health and muscle strength) and nearly 9 grams of protein. For context, a sedentary person who weighs 68kg requires 55 grams of protein per day to sustain their current muscle mass. That's close to 20 percent of their daily needs.
4 Health Benefits of Pumpkin
1.Pumpkin and Pumpkin Seeds Can Help Decrease Inflammation
Both pumpkin and its seeds are loaded with antioxidants, or natural compounds that can protect cells from free radicals that cause cell damage and increase the risk of various chronic diseases. In turn, antioxidants such as vitamin A (specifically, beta-carotene) found in canned pumpkin, and magnesium and folate found in pumpkin seeds, all play a major role in combating chronic inflammation that's often associated with chronic diseases like arthritis, heart disease and cancer.
A medical review found in a 2015 issue of the journal Natural Medicine, concluded that vitamin A-rich foods could strengthen the immune system and keep inflammatory diseases (including cardiovascular and joint diseases) at bay. Another review, published in 2018 issue of the Indonesian Journal of Cancer Chemoprevention, reported that the phytoestrogens (plant compounds) in pumpkin seeds have the potential to prevent high cholesterol and osteoporosis in menopausal women.
(Related: How Exercise Impacts Your Immune System)
2.Pumpkin May Protect Eye Health
Gorin emphasised that the beta-carotene (which converts to vitamin A in the body) naturally found in pumpkins has been shown to be advantageous for eye health.
Take, for example, a 2017 cross-sectional analysis in Nutrition Journal that examined the eating and smoking habits of more than 1,400 men, aged 65 years and older. Researchers found that increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in alpha-carotene and beta-carotene (carotenoids that give fruits and vegetables their colourful pigments) helped protect all participants, but especially those who smoked cigarettes, against AMD. Also known as age-related macular degeneration, AMD is an eye disease that blurs central vision—it's the leading cause of vision loss in older adults.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) also states that vitamin A is an important antioxidant in vision. That's because it plays a critical role in the functioning of the conjunctiva (the mucous membrane that covers the surface of the eyeball) and cornea, as well as the rhodopsin—the light-sensitive protein in the retina that responds to light entering the eye.
3.Pumpkin and Pumpkin Seeds May Boost Heart Health
In order to determine if carotenoids and vitamins are linked to beneficial changes in heart rate variability or HRV, researchers gathered health data and blood samples from more than 1,000 American men and women between the ages of 34 and 84 over two years. Because the participants varied in age and lifestyle habits, the authors made adjustments for their physiological factors, including gender, race and body mass index, as well as their drinking, smoking and exercise habits.
According to their findings, which were published in a 2021 issue of Nutrition Journal, an association was identified between increased blood carotenoid (due to the intake of fruits and vegetables that contain alpha-carotene and beta-carotene) and positive changes in HRV. As a result, the researchers theorised this favourable outcome could lead to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases.
"Also, [pumpkin] seeds contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats, making them good for cardiovascular disease prevention", said Young. According to FoodData Central, a 28-gram serving of pumpkin seeds offers nearly 5 grams of monounsaturated fatty acids, a type of fat that can help reduce bad cholesterol levels and ultimately lessen the risk of heart attack and stroke—according to the American Heart Association.
4.Pumpkin May Help Lower Risk of Cancer
One case-controlled 2012 study, comprising more than 8,300 post-menopausal women in Germany, concluded that consuming pumpkin seeds (as well as sunflower seeds and soybeans) could decrease the risk of breast cancer.
In addition, research published in a 2013 issue of the journal Nutrition and Cancer suggested that the lignans (plant compounds that can interact with the hormone, oestrogen) should be studied in greater detail for possible breast cancer treatments. The Linus Pauling Institute, a research centre at Oregon State University, reported that lignans may help reduce the risk of multiple hormone-related cancers in both women and men. These include breast, ovarian, uterine and prostate cancer.
How to Shop for Healthy Pumpkin Products
When choosing any packaged food item, read the nutrition label closely. If you're shopping for canned pumpkin, for example, Gorin suggested searching for the term "100 percent pumpkin", on the label—and Young said to skip items with added sugar.
Both registered dietitians recommended perusing the supermarket shelves for unsalted pumpkin seeds. This is an especially important tip for those who have high blood pressure (hypertension), or have been advised by a health professional to lower their sodium intake, Gorin said.
Healthy Pumpkin Meal and Snack Ideas
As for simple ways to sprinkle pumpkin into your dishes, Gorin said she enjoys tossing canned pumpkin purée into smoothies and mixing it with espresso, milk, maple syrup, nutmeg, cloves and a light (or vegan) whipped topping to make a pumpkin spiced latte.
"Both canned pumpkin and pumpkin seeds taste great in oatmeal and yoghurt, [and] a little of each goes a very long way", Young said. "Pumpkin seeds are also delicious in salads, along with being eaten plain as a snack".
Recipe for Gorin's Pumpkin Spiced Latte
- In a small saucepan over a medium heat, combine 240ml of milk (plant-based or dairy), 2 tablespoons of pumpkin purée, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of maple syrup, and a dash of nutmeg and cloves. Stir and heat until warm.
- Brew 120ml of espresso and divide between two mugs.
- Pour the pumpkin-and-milk mixture over the espresso. Garnish with a whipped topping of your choice and another hint of nutmeg and cloves.
Words by Amy Capetta