Pumpkin-Spiced Wellness Advice
Contributed by Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician
Okay, so I’m jumping on the fall-themed pumpkin extravaganza. Pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin flavored coffee…pumpkin is everywhere; and why not? For many of us, a taste of pumpkin or pumpkin spice reminds us of fall, the imminent holidays, and transitioning to winter (and here in Phoenix, we need all the cues we can get as the temperatures still hover in the upper 80s and 90s). Having tastes and treats that bring up past memories, or that help us enjoy the moment we are in, is important to our mental, spiritual, and overall health. Pumpkin has even more to offer, however, as it actually packs a powerful nutritional punch…if you pick the right pumpkin.
One of the primary benefits of pumpkin is easy to see. The bright, rich, orange color tells us that this fruit from the squash family provides bioflavonoids in the carotenoid family. Bioflavonoids are powerful antioxidants that defend our bodies from cancers, heart disease, and aging. A one-half cup serving of pumpkin gives you about twice the daily recommended servings of beta-carotene, a carotenoid which in the body is converted to Vitamin A. Beta-carotene and Vitamin A are linked to protecting and improving eye health and vision and have specifically been shown to decrease risks of macular degeneration and improve night and dim-light vision. Carotenoids including lutein and zeaxanthin aid in these benefits, as well as help to prevent cataract formation. Pumpkin fruit is also high in Vitamin C. Additionally, C and bioflavonoids in combination can be effective in decreasing allergies.
The potassium in pumpkin also lends health benefits. Potassium is a great way to decrease muscle spasms, and consuming it through foods is generally a safe way to get it. Potassium is also vital in preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke.
In addition to beta-carotenes, potassium, and the handful of other vitamins and minerals contained in pumpkin, it also has a high amount of fiber. Pumpkin is a bulky food, meaning that much of each gram of pumpkin fruit is made of water and fiber (versus fat, carbohydrate, or sugar). This makes it a low calorie option and also makes it very filling. People who consume high fiber meals are more likely to eat less, and to not be hungry as soon as those who miss out on the fiber. Fiber, of course, also helps to keep blood sugar balanced, making weight loss easier, and even decreasing the risk for diabetes. Consuming fiber can also lower cholesterol and improves digestion.
The caveat to the benefits of the fruit of the pumpkin is, of course, what are you having with it? Any recipe using a good amount of fresh pumpkin will provide health benefits. Canned pumpkin is okay too, just make sure that the ingredient list says “pumpkin” without a lot of other additives (and without added sugar, which many of the purees, canned pie fillings, etc., have). And, it probably doesn’t need to be said, but pumpkin pie consumption should probably be more moderated than, say, a pumpkin soup or something else less sweetened!
Also be aware that many of the pumpkin options out there are not pumpkin but are “pumpkin spice.” Pumpkin spice is typically a blend of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and sometimes allspice. And while the beta-carotene, fiber, etc., found in actual pumpkin is not found in these spices, they too, each provide great nutritional value. A clinical trial reported that supplementation with cinnamon promoted healthy glucose balance and that cinnamon provided statistically significant support for healthy lipid and triglyceride metabolism. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties, promotes circulation, decreases nausea, and can be warming. Beware though, that many processed foods use “pumpkin spice” when really there is very little “pumpkin spice.” They may actually contain “pumpkin spice flavoring.” Flavoring is often a manmade synthetic chemical with no benefits and questionable risks. Unfortunately, the majority of flavored lattes probably fit in this category!
Pumpkin seeds rival the fruit of the pumpkin as a powerful super-food. Pumpkin seeds are very high in zinc, which has been shown to be important in the prevention of prostate disease. Zinc is also a great immune booster and will help you fight off those winter common colds and flus. Seeds are also high in phytosterols, which are proven cancer fighters and also have been linked to helping to control the type of LDL (bad cholesterol) that we produce. The fat content of pumpkin seeds is in the form of mono-unsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), the same beneficial type of fat found in olive oil, which is linked to improvements in cardiovascular health. And if that’s not enough, pumpkin seeds can literally make you happy, as they are high in tryptophan, a pre-cursor to our natural anti-depressant serotonin. Remember that seeds, like nuts and nut butters, should be kept air-tight and refrigerated, as they are vulnerable to oxidation.
Keep in mind during your pumpkin shopping that the normal label rules apply: watch for a lot of added sugar (pumpkin will always have some naturally occurring sugar as a fruit), watch for trans-fats or partially hydrogenated oils, and watch for high-fructose corn syrup. In other words, don’t let the “pumpkin” on the label blind you as to whether something is healthy or not. And, of course, the more actual pumpkin or spice in an ingredient list, the more of the above benefits you will get. Remember, ingredient lists are in order of amount, so if pumpkin is in the first few ingredients it is in higher amounts than if it is toward the bottom of the list.
It’s true that we go a little crazy with the pumpkin craze, but pumpkin is not totally undeserving because each of its parts does pack such a nutritional punch. So enjoy these pumpkin-obsessed days, and if you continue to read your labels or prepare at home, you will reap the benefits that this superfood has to offer . . . especially if enjoying this taste of autumn makes you take a step back and appreciate the season, life, and traditions.
Stay healthy & be well!
– Amy Whittington, NMD