Pumpkins don’t just belong on your porch — they belong on your plate. (Photo by Westend 61/Getty Images)
‘Tis the season for pumpkin. By now, you’ve probably already indulged in at least one pumpkin spice latte — or at least sipped on a bottle of pumpkin ale. How do we know? Because America is obsessed — still — with the orange-colored squash.
Clearly, pumpkins have become more than Halloween decorations—in fact, they just might be the ultimate fall super-food. And that’s not only because they taste amazing: “Pumpkins give you bang for your buck,” said Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University. “It’s a nutrient-dense food.”
Pumpkin is low in calories and packed with the good stuff: fiber, vitamins (A, C, E), minerals (copper, calcium, potassium), and antioxidants (beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin). And think twice before tossing the seeds: They’re an excellent source of protein, fiber, magnesium, and good-for-you monounsaturated fats.
Not surprisingly, recent research has revealed a handful of surprising health benefits from the seasonal staple — even beyond its incredible nutritional profile. (Keep in mind: To tap into the fall fruit’s power, you’ll need to eat the real deal, not pumpkin-flavored coffee or muffins). Luckily, we have easy, delicious ways to incorporate pumpkin into your dietary repertoire.
Superpower No. 1: Lowers your cholesterol
Pumpkins may look spooky when carved up and staring at passersby from your front porch. But when it comes to your heart, they’re a real treat: In a 2011 study, older women who consumed 2 grams of pumpkin seed oil per day for 12 weeks showed a significant increase in HDL “good” cholesterol and a drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number). Bonus: The pumpkin eaters also reported fewer headaches, less joint pain, and a decrease in the severity of their hot flashes. Credit the phytoestrogens in pumpkin oil, which may stave off the cardiovascular trouble associated with the drop in estrogen levels after menopause, according to the researchers.
Superpower No. 2: Combats hair loss
If your head is starting to resemble a pumpkin — smooth and shiny — it may be time to add the orange stuff to your plate: In a 2014 study from Korea, 76 balding men took either 400 milligrams of pumpkin seed oil per day or a placebo; after 24 weeks, the guys who had consumed the oil had 40 percent more hair than at the start of the study, compared to just a 10 percent increase in the placebo group.
One explanation: Pumpkin seed oil may block the action of 5-alpha reductase, a chemical involved in the production of testosterone, one of the key hormonal culprits behind male pattern baldness, the scientists say.
Superpower No. 3: Fights breast cancer
Snacking on pumpkin seeds may protect your breasts. In a 2012 study in Nutrition and Cancer, researchers found that older women who regularly munched on pumpkin or sunflower seeds had a significantly lower risk of developing breast cancer. Why the protective effect? Pumpkin seeds contain lignans (a type of plant-based estrogen), as well as alpha linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), both of which may help shield against breast cancer, the scientists said.
And it’s not just your chest that pumpkin protects: The autumn staple has also been linked to a reduced risk of gastric, lung, and colorectal cancers, according to an Indian study review.
Superpower No. 4: Tames your blood sugar
Overloaded on Halloween candy? Pick up a pumpkin. Around the world, local healers regularly prescribe pumpkin to treat diabetes — and research suggests they’re spot on: Pumpkin has been shown to lower the blood sugar of people with type 2 diabetes, according to a 2010 paper in Nutrition Research Reviews. One explanation: Pumpkin may encourage the release of insulin, although the mechanism of its magic still isn’t clear, the researchers say.
How to prepare pumpkin
Not sure how to make pumpkin palatable? “Pumpkins can be intimidating because they’re big and heavy,” acknowledged Allison Fishman Task, a chef and contributing editor at Cooking Light magazine. But with the right tools — a long chef’s knife or a serrated knife, plus a cutting board large enough to accommodate a pumpkin — you can easily conquer the fall fruit.
Start by cutting your pumpkin in half, and scraping out the insides with a spoon (remember, save the seeds!). Slice up the flesh up the way you would a watermelon, then cut the slices into cubes. Coat the pieces with olive oil, salt, and pepper then bake them at 450 degrees F for 40 minutes. Other ways to prepare them: grilling, steaming, mashing, or boiling.
One thing to consider: Although all pumpkins are edible, some are better than others for eating — Fishman Task likes to roast the tiny, desk-size pumpkins, since they’re usually sweeter than larger ones. (Check out this primer on the best pumpkin varieties for cooking.)
As for those seeds you saved? Rinse them in cold water, and after you’ve drained and dried them in a colander, toss ‘em with salt and extra virgin olive oil. Bake at 300 degrees F until they’re crisp and golden, about 20 to 30 minutes, said Fishman Task.