By Dr. Mercola
Only the ghosts of our forebears know all the uses there have been for the humble pumpkin in the New World, or even worldwide.
At Halloween, of course, they promise a fun and inexpensive activity for kids (and adults) with a knife for carving, a spoon for scooping and a candle for illuminating the jack-o-lanterns that are such an iconic part of late October festivities.
But the most important use for this big orange veggie is for food. Native Americans cultivated it for millennia before they introduced it to the pilgrims, showing them how to harvest, prepare and store pumpkins.
They've been a useful, staple food with double value because they can last for weeks and even months of autumn and winter.
A tribe called the Catawbas ate pumpkin seeds for kidney health. The Yumas made a mixture from pumpkin and watermelon seeds for wound healing, and the Menominees drank a powdered squash and pumpkin seed concoction to encourage urination.
Other traditional preparations were said to release parasites and treat "female ills." MDidea supports several of these folk remedies made from pumpkin pulp:
"Pumpkin was used in folk medicine to treat kidney inflammation and intestinal parasites and was once listed as one of the Four Greater Cold Seeds in an 18th century list of medicines.
Today pumpkin is employed to treat irritable bladder and prostate complaints, namely benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). The fatty oil in pumpkin seeds is mildly diuretic, and the seeds' principal constituent, cucurbitacins, appears to inhibit the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotesterone."1
Fast forwarding a handful of centuries, we now know that adding pumpkin to foods provides a warm, satisfying "foodiness" that your body knows — and science proves — is more than just tasty but also health beneficial.
How Your Body Uses Pumpkins
You may be surprised to learn that nearly every part of the pumpkin plant is edible, including the leaves and flowers. Squash blossoms, for instance, are large, edible blooms that lend interesting flavor and elegance to many dishes.
While you're enjoying your soup made from pumpkin puree with sweet potatoes, celery, carrots, onions, a garlic clove and a few teaspoons of herbs, keep in mind that the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are at work in your system.
In fact, the ingredients in pumpkins make this hearty, fall-time food one of the staples for health. According to Research Gate:
"Pumpkin is one of the well-known edible plants and has substantial medicinal properties due to the presence of unique natural edible substances. It contains several phyto-constituents belonging to the categories of alkaloids, flavonoids, and palmitic, oleic and linoleic acids.
Various important medicinal properties including anti-diabetic, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and others have been well documented."2
So there's a reason why pumpkins earn such high marks on the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI).3 Pumpkins provide, in a 1-cup serving, 11 percent of the fiber you need on a daily basis to keep your system running smoothly.
Besides being incredibly rich in vitamin A, with 245 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), that same amount of pumpkin, cooked, contains 19 percent of the RDA in vitamin C and 16 percent of the RDA in potassium, as well as riboflavin, copper and manganese.
According to Self Nutrition Data,4 pumpkins also provide smaller but still significant amounts of:
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
Beta-carotenes are arguably one of the ingredients in this large veggie to deliver the most punch in the way of antioxidants. They provide the bright orange color, too. The most prominent beta-carotenes and their functions are:
- Carotenoids, which help keep your tissues shielded against oxidative damage, making you more impervious to disease. They improve your immune system and stave off signs of premature aging.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin can be found in your retina. They help protect your eyes from damage and improve your vision in several ways.
How Your Body Uses the Nutrients in Pumpkins
All combined, these vitamins, minerals and other nourishing qualities in pumpkins have a dramatic effect on your health. Huffington Post5 listed several, including:
• Heart health — Pumpkin seeds, like nuts, contain impressive amounts of heart-healthy phytosterols. About the seeds, Research Gate noted:
"From a nutritional standpoint, the high lipid content in the ready-to-eat snack is a potential source of polyunsaturated fatty acids such as oleic and linoleic acid, which have been shown to prevent cardiovascular disease."6
• Re-energizes after a workout — One cup of cooked pumpkin contains more potassium, a "refueling" mineral, than a banana, usually touted to have an impressive amount. In comparison, pumpkin contains 564 milligrams of potassium to a banana's 422.
• Skin protection — Health.com says carotenoids in pumpkins contain wrinkle-fighting pigments, which help hydrate and zap free radicals in your skin and help prevent them from causing damage. The vitamins as well as powerful enzymes help clean your skin.7
• Better eyesight — All that vitamin A mentioned earlier may help improve your night vision and sight in dim light, the National Institute of Health says.8
• Potentially lower cancer risk — The beta-carotenes help fight cancer, because they contain an immunostimulant to activate better immune system function. Antioxidant activity in pumpkins has been shown to inhibit breast cancer, one study reported.9
Further, Food For Breast Cancer noted:
"Pumpkins are good sources of micronutrients with suspected or demonstrated cancer fighting properties, including [alpha-carotene], beta-carotene, various cucurbitacins and the lignin enterolactone. Pumpkin polysaccharide has been shown to possess significant cytoprotective effect and antioxidative activity."10
Pumpkin Selection, Storage and Preparation
Pumpkins are a Cucurbitaceae veggie, along with squash, cucumbers and cantaloupes. They're grown on a large scale and are removed from trailing vines to create autumn displays with Indian corn and hay bales. Afterward they can be transported to the kitchen.
When buying pumpkins, they should be fully ripe; tapping on the outside should produce a dense, hollow "thump." Pass on the pumpkins that have cuts, blemishes or wrinkled surface skin.
Store your pumpkins in a cool, dry place, even if it's outdoors before a hard frost, and they should be good for weeks to come.
Make sure you wash the outside of pumpkins before cutting into them, because many growers and even mom-and-pop operations use pesticides and herbicides rather than growing them naturally.
To cut, place the pumpkin on a hard surface and use a sharp knife to cut around the stem for removal. Then cut the pumpkin in half, following the deep grooves and scrape out the pith to discard, setting aside the seeds, if desired. Once they're cut, portions should be covered and placed in the refrigerator.
Pumpkin Seeds: A Healthy Snack
Pumpkin seeds are a crunchy, delicious addition to salads or as a snack all by themselves. They also bring a separate set of nutrients: omega-3 fats and zinc, both of which may help support your skeletal health; calcium, iron and an array of beneficial phytochemicals help put them in the superfood category.
Tryptophan is the amino acid noted for encouraging afternoon naps after eating Thanksgiving turkey, but it's also present in pumpkin seeds. While it may make your body feel languid and relaxed due to the serotonin content, the same ingredient plays a big role in lifting your outlook and mood.11
One study revealed that pumpkin seeds, along with flax, poppy, sesame and sunflower seeds, several nuts, including cashews, pine nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios, plus chocolate and wheat germ, are foods that may play a part in stopping the trigger that causes cancer in men's prostate cells.12
To roast pumpkin seeds, wash them thoroughly in cold water after extracting them from the pithy core of the pumpkin. Spread them out on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake at 225 degrees F for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adding a sprinkle or two of natural salt helps bring out their nutty flavor.
A Pumpkin Recipe: Pumpkin Smoothie
The Epoch Times suggests this recipe for pumpkin smoothie:
"Pumpkin puree can be stirred into soups, stews or chilis. You can whip up a pumpkin smoothie by blending pumpkin puree with a banana, spinach or romaine lettuce, a few dates, some [non-dairy] milk and cinnamon and nutmeg."13