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Dietitians Dish: Pumpkins are packed with Nutrients

By By Lindsay Adams
Oct. 30, 2012 at 5:30 a.m.

Lindsay Adams

After all the trick-or-treaters come and go this evening, many of you may be ready to throw out your pumpkins and jack-o'-lanterns. But before you do, remember you can carve your pumpkin and eat it, too. The fruit of the pumpkin - its seeds - and pumpkin oil are actually packed with nutrients and can be added to many recipes to make tasty, fall dishes.

So what exactly do pumpkins contain that makes them so good for us? First of all, they are high in the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are antioxidants. These nutrients help neutralize free radicals that can cause damage to the body's cells.

Pumpkins also contain significant amounts of iron, zinc and fiber. Iron is a vital nutrient for the production of red blood cells, and zinc participates in numerous body processes including immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis and cell division. Fiber is beneficial for good bowel function and also promotes a healthy heart. Pumpkin is also very low in calories; raw pumpkin provides only about 30 calories from one cup.

The seeds of the pumpkin also have many health benefits. They are very high in protein and have seven grams of protein per one ounce of pumpkin. They also contain copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, all vitamins involved in multiple body processes.

To roast pumpkin seeds, bring water to a boil, add seeds, reduce heat and boil gently for about 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry on a paper towel-lined tray. Next, toss the seeds lightly in olive oil and spread in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Roast the seeds at 250 degrees, stirring about every 10 minutes or so until crisp and golden brown. This process usually takes one hour, and they will become more crisp as they cool.

You can also add any spices you'd like. Two tablespoons of roasted pumpkin seeds contains approximately 130 calories. You can also eat the seeds raw or add whole seeds to steamed vegetables, salads, cereals and cookies. Ground seeds can even be used in burgers.

Don't forget about pumpkin seed oil, which is high in phytosterols, plant-based fatty acids that are chemically similar to cholesterol and can therefore replace cholesterol in the human body, reducing cholesterol levels.

The oil also contains high amounts of essential fatty acids that help maintain healthy blood vessels, nerves and all tissues. Pumpkin seed oil also contains vitamin A, which has a myriad of functions, but most notably helps keep our eyes healthy and boosts the immune system by stimulating T cells to fight off infection.

Vitamin E, which helps rid the body of free radicals, is also present in pumpkin seed oil. High temperatures can damage the structure of pumpkin seed oil, so it is not ideal in baking or frying. The oil works well as a salad dressing mixed with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and can be added to a number of items, such as soups and sauces to add flavor.

Now, before you get started on that pumpkin cheesecake, (which can contain about 340 calories and 20 grams of fat in one portion), here are some healthier ways to incorporate pumpkin into your diet.

Make a pumpkin smoothie by mixing pumpkin, skim milk, frozen vanilla yogurt, cinnamon and a dash of pumpkin pie spice in a blender.

Try pumpkin pizza by sauteing pumpkin and your other favorite vegetables to top a whole wheat pizza crust drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

You can add fresh, cooked or canned pumpkin to your morning oatmeal or add pumpkin to your favorite muffin batter. Also, check the Internet for healthier versions of some common pumpkin recipes, such as that pumpkin cheesecake.

So, think twice before you chunk your pumpkin. Get creative and make some yummy, healthy pumpkin treats for the fall season.

Lindsay Adams is a registered dietitian with DeTar Health Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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