The cool, crisp air and the vibrant sea of red, orange, and yellow that decorate our landscapes are the inviting signs that fall has arrived. Among the most common symbols of fall is the pumpkin. At this time of year, this winter squash is usually adorned with a spooky face and potato ears—however, the jack-o-lantern is not the pumpkin’s only claim to fame. Pumpkins are nutrient packed and provide numerous health benefits. Therefore, it is time to move this jack-o-lantern from the porch to the kitchen.
Pumpkins are a nutrient powerhouse. They contain a variety of vitamins, including the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, B vitamins, and minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus.1 The high potassium content is beneficial in maintaining heart health and stable blood pressure. In contrast, there may be a need to limit the intake of pumpkin, because of its abundant potassium content (eg, in cases of end-stage renal disease or hyperkalemia). It is always important to review current medications and their possible dietary interactions to avoid any adverse outcome. Pumpkins are also a fiber-rich food. Fiber is important in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, glycemic control, weight management, and in the prevention of cancer, especially of the colon and rectum. Incorporating pumpkin into the diet is an excellent way to obtain a variety of nutrients from just one modest vegetable.
The pumpkin’s deep orange color comes from its high carotenoid content. Carotenoids, or plant pigments, are found in orange, yellow, red, and many dark green leafy vegetables. These carotenoids found in plant foods are converted by the body into vitamin A. Pumpkins contain a variety of carotenoids, such as beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and retinol. Beta carotene and these other carotenoids also act as antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants are dietary substances that slow or prevent oxidative damage from occurring and, therefore, protect cells and/or repair those that have been damaged. Foods high in beta carotene and other carotenoids act as functional foods in their ability to offer protection against heart disease, cancer, and age-related illnesses.2 The ideal way to consume these antioxidant-rich carotenoids is through diet. High-dose supplemental forms of beta carotene or vitamin A can be toxic and increase the risk of lung cancer.
Winter squash has a combination of antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties. Many research studies conducted on the functional aspects of winter squash have been done on a cellular level, but the outcomes are exciting and promising. Pumpkin belongs to the Cucurbita genus, and foods in this genus contain compounds called cucurbitacins. Cucurbitacins are glycoside molecules that are effective as antiviral, antibacterial, and antiinflammatory substances.3 An interesting study measured the antioxidative activity of specific components of pumpkins.4 The researchers found that the cell wall polysaccharides, the main source of fiber in pumpkins, have powerful antioxidant properties. They also found that, as the pumpkin ripens, the sugar content also changes, which may impact the degree of antioxidant activity. This study suggests that plant foods may contain many components that provide significant health benefits that have yet to be discovered.
A study examined the impact of a cucurbitacin compound, the glycoside molecule found in pumpkin and other types of winter squash, on the effectiveness of chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer.5 The re - searchers found that, based on in vivo and in vitro results, combined therapy with the cucurbitacin compound and the chemotherapy agent gemcitabine resulted in the inhibition of tumor growth. Pumpkins and their active components have also been the focus of studies on the prevention as well as management of cancers of the breast, colon, lung, and central nervous system.6 The result of this research is promising, but more human trials need to be conducted. Another important factor in translating research into practice is to determine how much of the actual whole food item is needed to produce the same results found in a study, which often utilizes isolated and concentrated forms of a particular dietary compound. These are the challenges health professionals face when communicating these exciting findings into practical advice for our clients and patients.
In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, it may not be convenient for some people to prepare and cook a fresh pumpkin. Therefore, it is just as beneficial to get your daily serving of pumpkin from a can. In fact, canned pumpkin is higher in certain nutrients than fresh, boiled pumpkin. Canned pumpkin is higher in vitamin A, iron, and carbohydrate. The higher carbohydrate content, possibly caused by varying degrees of ripening before canning or differences in water content, may impact glycemic control. The increased carotenoid content of canned pumpkin suggests that it also will have powerful antioxidant and antiinflammatory benefits. The canned version can also be easily substituted for fresh pumpkin in a recipe. Canned pumpkin does contain added sodium; therefore, be sure to factor this into your daily intake. A serving size of canned or fresh boiled pumpkin is one half cup. Add pumpkin to chili, baked goods, pancakes, shakes, and soups. The possibilities are endless.
Pumpkin can be very useful to patients on active cancer treatment. Because of its the high fiber content, pumpkin can help with maintaining bowel regularity, especially for those patients on opioids or who experience opioid-induced constipation. Often patients experience electrolyte abnormalities, and a serving of pumpkin mixed into a shake is a great way to increase the potassium and magnesium content of their diet. Fresh pumpkin does not have as intense a flavor as canned pumpkin, the sweetness is mild and the texture is smooth, which makes it a perfect food for those patients suffering from taste changes, nausea, mucositis, xerostomia, and stomatitis. Adding pumpkin to a variety of foods can help restore nutrients that have been depleted as a result of cancer treatment, lack of appetite, and poor oral intake. For just one-half-cup serving of pumpkin, patients can receive a variety of vitamins, minerals, safe levels of antioxidants, and cancer-fighting compounds. Adequate nutritional status during treatment as well as in survivorship is paramount in helping our patients improve the day-to-day quality of their lives. As health professionals, having the opportunity to guide patients toward the foods that will improve their overall health is priceless.
- Wolford R, Banks D; University of Illinois Extension. Pumpkin nutrition. http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/nutrition.cfm. Accessed October 7, 2011.
- Duyff RL. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2002:76-78, 87-88.
- Duangmano S, Dakeng S, Jiratchariyakul W, et al. Antiproliferative effects of cucurbitacin B in breast cancer cells: down-regulation of the c- Myc/hTERT/telomerase pathway and obstruction of cell cycle. Int J Mol Sci. 2010;11:5323-5338.
- Nara K, Yamaguchi A, Maeda N, Koga H. Antioxidative activity of water soluble polysaccharide in pumpkin fruits (Cucurbita maxima Duchesne). Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2009;73:1416-1418.
- Iwanski GB, Lee DH, En-Gal S, et al. Cucurbitacin B, a novel in vivo potentiator of gemcitabine with low toxicity in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Br J Pharmacol. 2010;160:998-1007.
- Jayaprakasam B, Seeram NP, Nair MG. Anticancer and antiinflamma tory activities of cucurbitacins from Cucurbita andreana. Cancer Lett. 2003;189:11-16.
Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Chowder
4 slices bacon, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup onion, diced
¼ cup celery, diced
¼ cup carrot, diced
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons flour
4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
3 cups sweet potatoes, diced
½ cup whole milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
1 cup canned pumpkin
1. Heat a medium saucepan, and add diced bacon. Cook for 5 minutes or until fully rendered. Add olive oil.
¼ cup canola oil
1 red pepper, diced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup onion, diced
2 cups cooked kidney beans
2 cups cooked white beans
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1 pound cooked pumpkin
2 quarts low-sodium vegetable stock
2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ chipotle pepper
1. Heat pan and add oil.
2. Cook onions, pepper, and garlic together until soft.
3. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
4. Simmer for 20 minutes to combine flavors.
Serves 16; serving size 8 ounces
130 calories; 4.5 g total fat,
0.5 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol;
240 mg sodium; 16 g total carbohydrate;
5 g dietary fiber; 2 g sugars; 7 g protein
2. Add onions, carrots, celery, and
garlic. Cook for 5 more minutes
or until soft.
3. Stir in flour.
4. Add in vegetable stock and
sweet potatoes. Simmer until
potatoes are tender.
5. Add milk, bay leaf, and thyme.
Simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Whisk in pumpkin and bring to
7. Can be garnished with toasted
Serving size 8 ounces
180 calories; 4.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat;
5 mg cholesterol; 540 mg sodium;
29 g total carbohydrate; 5 g dietary fiber;
9 g sugars; 6 g protein