Fall is here in its red and gold glory. What a popular time to decorate your home with gourds, Halloween decorations, and good-looking pumpkins! However, few people realize that their jack o' lantern is much more than just a “pretty” (or scary!) face. Consuming pumpkin and pumpkin seeds offers loads of health benefits as well. With so many delicious pumpkin recipes available and the super nutritional rewards, it is no wonder why pumpkin makes a great addition to your diet.
The First Pumpkins
The term pumpkin came from the Greek word pepon, which means “large melon,” although pumpkins are thought to have originated in Central America. When American colonists arrived in this country, they coined the word pumpkin from a combination of the French and English words pompon and pumpion. Native Americans have used pumpkins in countless ways for centuries, weaving dried pumpkin strips into mats, cooking pumpkin over fire, and incorporating pumpkin in folk medicines. The early American colonists found that they could remove the seeds of a pumpkin and fill the shell with milk, honey, and a variety of spices, and then use hot ashes to bake the tasty concoction.
Over time, pumpkin-based recipes have evolved to include pies, soups, breads, puddings, muffins, shakes, ice cream, and even pumpkin smoothies. With their ready availability in the fall and winter months, pumpkins make an appetizing and nourishing ingredient in the menus for those seasons.
Pumpkins are valuable sources of vitamins and minerals, including carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids are the reason for a pumpkin's orange, and occasionally yellowish, color. These free radical fighters have shown in some studies to help prevent cataracts, promote eye health, and reduce the risk of macular degeneration, which can cause blindness. The carotene in pumpkin helps reduce inflammation in the body, and several studies suggest pumpkin can even help slow the aging process. Pumpkin contains such essential minerals as zinc and iron. Lack of zinc in the diet can contribute to osteoporosis, and iron is an essential component of the red blood cells. Pumpkin is also rich in the minerals potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Besides being chock full of fiber, which aids in intestinal and bowel health, pumpkins are nutritionally rich in vitamins A, C, D, E, and K as well as B-complex.
For those trying to lose weight in a healthy way, the welcome news is that eating pumpkin is no problem, because pumpkin is naturally low in calories and fat content (a word of caution, though: your weight loss diet does require strictly limiting pumpkin in its delicious but calorific “dessert” and sugar-added forms!). Pumpkin's nutrients also assist in lowering the risk of heart disease and enhancing the immune system, and can be beneficial in managing bladder infections, kidney stones, and some parasitic/intestinal problems.
Wait, there's more good news… pumpkin seeds are rich in nutrients and make a delicious snack! In nature they are dark green in color and are often sold in jars or bags either raw or toasted. The seeds are a nice addition to salads and mixed vegetables, and pumpkin seed oil can be added to an assortment of salad dressings. Some studies suggest that eating pumpkin seeds promotes prostate health and stronger bones (an important Halloween note!); acts as an anti-inflammatory measure for various body joints; and introduces phytosterols, which have been shown to lower cholesterol.
Enjoy Them and Eat Them
Without a doubt, pumpkins are fun to use as decorations, great fun to carve, and are an excellent dietary addition. Along with being rich in essential vitamins and minerals, pumpkins and their seeds are enjoyable treats and can be featured in a wide variety of recipes. The next time you carve a pumpkin, consider holding onto its many seeds and innards. Make pumpkin pies… make cookies… make soup… and find new ways to be pumpkin-creative. But a word of advice: organic as they are, if you don't cook with the innards, be careful about tossing them into your backyard. You may discover you have a wildly spreading pumpkin patch the following year!