When you hear the word pumpkin, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? A jack-o-lantern at Halloween or a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. You may not think of pumpkin as a staple vegetable in your house, but you should.
Table of Contents
- The power of pumpkin
- 1) Healthy blood pressure
- 2) Healthy cholesterol
- 3) Protects against cancer
- 4) Reduces the risk of diabetes
- 5) Reduces benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
- Adding pumpkin to your diet
- Cooking with Pumpkin
- Ways to Use Pumpkin
- Canned Pumpkin Puree Versus Pumpkin Pie Mix
- Are there any cons?
- Take-Home Message
It may surprise you to know that pumpkin has been used medicinally for centuries. This makes sense as it is incredibly nutritious – low in calories, rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and antioxidants. Pumpkin is not only good for you, but it is also delicious and remarkably versatile.
Although it is a winter squash and often celebrated and eaten in autumn, it can be enjoyed all year. You can bake, boil, stir-fry, roast, steam, microwave, and puree it. And, you can reap the nutritional benefits regardless if it is fresh, canned, or frozen.
The power of pumpkin
Pumpkin has been used historically (folk medicine) to treat many conditions. Today science can back up some of the folklore. Pumpkin flesh and seeds are packed with powerful nutrients that help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
1) Healthy blood pressure
Pumpkin supports healthy blood pressure. This support is found in animals and human trials [source]. One study found a 7% reduction in diastolic blood pressure in women consuming 2 grams of pumpkin seed oil per day [source]. An animal study found pumpkin seed oil was as effective in reducing blood pressure as a common antihypertensive medication [source]. Blood pressure improvements are likely due, in part, to pumpkin’s rich mineral content.
Pumpkins are high in potassium. Surprisingly, one cup of cooked pumpkin provides more potassium than a banana and nearly an eighth of what you need in a day [source]. Potassium plays a vital role in blood pressure regulation. Research shows low potassium intake raises blood pressure, while high intake helps prevent and correct hypertension. Potassium helps counteract the adverse effects of sodium on blood pressure.
Pumpkin is also rich in magnesium. Magnesium helps protect against hypertension and heart disease. Interestingly, the walls of the arteries and capillaries constrict with magnesium deficiency. Constriction of blood vessels increases blood pressure. Tight or restrictive blood vessels lead to increased resistance and elevated blood pressure. This puts a strain on the heart. The heart must overcome this resistance day in and day out. This is one reason elevated blood pressure increases the risk of a heart attack.
Pumpkin may also help reduce blood pressure by increasing nitric oxide. More specifically, researchers found pumpkin seed oil increased nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes the vessel, which can then widen. Blood pressure decreases, and blood flow is improved. Researchers think the positive changes in nitric oxide may be due, in part, to the type of fats found in pumpkin seeds (e.g., linoleic fatty acids) [source].
2) Healthy cholesterol
Pumpkin supports healthy cholesterol levels [source]. Research in animals and humans has shown positive effects of pumpkin on cholesterol levels. Pumpkin is high in both insoluble and soluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps to lower “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, LDL-cholesterol) [source]. Fiber is not absorbed in the intestine; therefore, it can bind to cholesterol in the intestine and remove it from the body. Eating 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day can help lower total and LDL-cholesterol by 5 percent [source]. Eating pumpkin is a great way to increase your soluble fiber intake.
Research has also shown improvements in “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, HDL) in people consuming pumpkin seed oil. One study found a whopping 16% increase in HDL-cholesterol in post-menopausal women given 2 g of pumpkin seed oil per day for 12 weeks. Researchers theorized this result was due to the phytoestrogens found in pumpkin seeds (e.g., secoisolariciresinol).
Phytoestrogens are compounds that naturally occur in plants. These compounds have been heavily researched because they have weak estrogenic activity. During menopause, estrogen levels decrease, leading to negative cholesterol changes and other cardiovascular risk factors such as elevated blood pressure and blood glucose (sugar). Hence, consuming phytoestrogens may help reduce some of the negative effects seen during menopause [source].
3) Protects against cancer
Compounds found in pumpkin may help protect against cancer [source]. Pumpkin is rich in antioxidants that protect our cells from free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules. When in excess, free radicals damage our cells and DNA, paving the way to chronic diseases, including cancer. We need an abundance of antioxidants in the diet to protect us from free radical damage.
Pumpkin is rich in flavonoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lutein). Flavonoids are powerful phytonutrients that have been extensively researched for their ability to slow the growth of cancer cells [source]. Studies show eating foods rich in beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing several types of cancers including prostate, lung, stomach, head, neck, ovarian, and breast cancer [source]. It is important to note that beta-carotene from dietary supplements in high doses has been shown to increase lung cancer risk in people at risk (e.g., smokers) [source]. Stick with food – like pumpkin.
Pumpkin is also a good source of vitamin C. Vitamin C supports immune defenses and is a powerful antioxidant. Vitamin C not only fights free radicals, but it helps replenish other antioxidants. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), this powerhouse nutrient may protect from several types of cancer, including breast, lung, pancreas, oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, rectum, and cervix [source].
4) Reduces the risk of diabetes
Pumpkin supports blood glucose (sugar) regulation. This is likely due to its unique nutrient makeup. Pumpkin is rich in fiber, and fiber helps prevent blood glucose from rising after you eat. High fiber foods play an important role in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Soluble fiber is especially helpful in lowering blood glucose levels [source]. Fiber lengthens the time food is in the digestive tract. This slows the absorption of glucose, which helps prevent a glucose spike.
The magnesium content in pumpkin may also contribute to an anti-diabetic effects [source]. Magnesium is needed for carbohydrate metabolism. Low magnesium is commonly seen in people with type 2 diabetes. Animal studies have shown an association between low magnesium intake and severe insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means the cells are not responding to insulin, so glucose cannot efficiently enter the cells, which leads to a rise in blood glucose levels. Increasing magnesium-rich foods in the diet, like pumpkin, may help reduce the risk of diabetes [source].
Pumpkin seeds also contain trigonelline and nicotinic acid, compounds with anti-diabetic properties. Research has shown animals fed diets containing trigonelline and nicotinic acid isolated from pumpkin improved glucose control and had improved hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c, A1c) [source]. The Hemoglobin A1c test tells the average blood glucose level over the past 2 to 3 months. A high HbA1c means blood glucose has not been under good control. These anti-diabetic properties in pumpkin are promising, but more human clinical trials are needed.
Some people are concerned about eating pumpkin because it has a high glycemic index (GI). The GI is a scale used to evaluate the impact a particular food has on blood glucose. A food with a high GI indicates that food causes a spike in blood glucose [source]. This is a great system, but it does not tell you the whole story because the carbohydrate serving size is not measured. This is where the glycemic load (GL) is helpful.
GL is a system that also evaluates how a particular food affects blood glucose, but it takes into account the serving size. A GL of less than 10 means the food minimally raises blood glucose levels. About 2/3 cup (80 grams) of pumpkin has a GL of 3 [source]. Therefore, a ⅔ cup serving of pumpkin will only minimally raise blood glucose levels. However, a large amount can increase it a lot [source]. If you watch your portion size, pumpkin is unlikely to affect your blood glucose levels significantly.
5) Reduces benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)
As men age, they are at increased risk for an enlarged prostate, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH. As the prostate enlarges, it puts pressure on the urethra (the tube that carries urine out from the bladder). This leads to BPH symptoms, including a sensation that the bladder is not completely emptying after urinating and increased urination frequency, especially at night.
Pumpkin seed oil has been used historically for its effects on the prostate. Today, research, including randomized controlled clinical trials, has shown that pumpkin seeds help reduce BPH symptoms such as urinary urgency and frequency. Studies have used both pumpkin seeds and dietary supplements. Five grams (~2 teaspoons) of pumpkin seeds twice daily has been shown to reduce BPH symptoms [source].
The compounds in pumpkin seeds have a diuretic effect and appear to reduce inflammation. This helps the bladder empty and reduces prostate discomfort. Some of the improvements are thought to be due to the high amounts of linoleic acid (a type of fatty acid in pumpkin) and vitamin-E content in pumpkin seeds [source].
Adding pumpkin to your diet
There are no specific recommendations for pumpkin intake. To make things easy, you can follow the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) recommendations. The USDA guideline suggests women 19-50 years of age eat 5 ½ cups of red and orange colored vegetables per week [source].
This would be a little under a cup per day from this color group. One cup of mashed pumpkin is considered a one-cup serving. A variety of foods are suggested to meet this color group recommendation.
|Amount of Red & Orange Vegetables Per Week|
|2-3 yrs||2½ cups|
|4-8 yrs||3 cups|
|9-13 yrs||4 cups|
|14-18 yrs||5½ cups|
|9-13 yrs||5½ cups|
|14-18 yrs||6 cups|
|19-30 yrs||5½ cups|
|31-50 yrs||5½ cups|
|51+ yrs||4 cups|
|19-30 yrs||6 cups|
|31-50 yrs||6 cups|
|51+ yrs||5½ cups|
Cooking with Pumpkin
When cooking with fresh pumpkin, the smaller sugar pumpkins are recommended. They tend to be sweeter and less stringy compared to the larger “jack-o-lantern” variety [source].
Cooking pumpkin improves the availability of the carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene), but do not overcook it. Just like any other vegetable, overcooking will reduce nutrients and decrease flavor [source]. If you boil pumpkin and see orange color in the water, you can bet you have lost some of the valuable beta-carotene.
Ways to Use Pumpkin
Pumpkin is very versatile. It can be baked, boiled, stir-fried, roasted, steamed, and microwaved. After cooking, the flesh can be eaten right from the pumpkin’s shell. The firm flesh is excellent in soups, stews, and chili. You can roast pumpkin along with onions and other vegetables. Puree it in a blender or food processor and use it as a base in pasta sauces, lasagna, ravioli, pancakes, bread, muffins, and scones. You can freeze it or buy it frozen and add it to smoothies.
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, are delicious. They can be eaten husk (outer shell) and all. They make a wonderful snack. Toss them with olive oil and bake them. Eat them plain or season them with salt, chili powder, or cinnamon. Add the seed without the shell to granola, yogurt, hot or cold cereal, salads, or overnight oat.
You can also add pumpkin seed oil to recipes as a natural flavor enhancer. It has a rich nutty flavor similar to roasted pumpkin seeds. Try using it in salads and marinades. Add it to eggs, vegetables, and soups. Or dip your bread in it.
Canned Pumpkin Puree Versus Pumpkin Pie Mix
Using canned pumpkin puree is a great way to eat pumpkin all year. It is best to use unflavored canned pumpkin rather than pumpkin pie mix (filling). Canned pumpkin puree is much like the pumpkin you cook at home. It is basically mashed pumpkin. Pumpkin pie filling is often loaded with sugar, added salt, and higher calories. You would not want to add this to your savory dishes. Look for 100% pumpkin products without the added salt or sugar [source].
Speaking of added sugar, beware of pumpkin spice beverages. Many have little actual pumpkin, if any, and are typically loaded with sugar. A 16 oz. Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte has 52 grams of carbohydrate – 50 grams are from sugar! [source].
Are there any cons?
Pumpkin products are generally well-tolerated, and adverse effects to pumpkin seeds, or its oil are rare. However, there are a couple of potential risks. It is possible to over-consume beta-carotene. Large doses can turn the skin a yellow-orange color. This is not typically seen with food and is reversible once intake is reduced. High doses of beta-carotene from dietary supplements can increase the risk of lung cancer in at-risk people, like smokers [source].
People taking lithium should consult with their healthcare provider before adding a lot of pumpkin to their diet. Pumpkins can interact with lithium. Pumpkin might alter how the body eliminates lithium, which could lead to elevated levels in the body.
There is more to pumpkin than jack-o-lanterns and pie. Pumpkin is incredibly nutritious and can help you reduce the risk of disease. It is versatile and delicious. Get creative and make it a staple vegetable in your house all year long.