Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Nutrition and Health Coach
With Halloween right around the corner, nothing represents the fall season more than arrangements of colorful pumpkins, gourds, and favorite recipes utilizing the comforting and rich flavors of different squashes. While MySuperFoods has already covered the health benefits of pumpkins (which is technically a fruit that belongs to the gourd family) in an earlier post . I often find the plentiful health benefits and uses of squash to go unnoticed as much as they should. Most notable are the plentiful phytonutrient, fiber, mineral (such as copper, manganese, magnesium, and potassium), vitamin (namely vitamins A, C, B1, B3, B6, pantothenic acid, folate, and vitamin K), anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant (specifically carotenoids) quantities that give squash their vibrant color and hearty flavor.
Some of the squash shining stars to not overlook this season are: butternut squash, acorn squash, winter squash, delicata squash, and spaghetti squash. Delicata squash is absolutely delicious, but not easy to find in some places; if you do have the luxury of finding some, they roast deliciously with walnuts or pecans…and nothing else is needed because of their deep, rich flavor and natural buttery texture.
Below, I’ll highlight the health benefits of two of my favorite squashes – butternut and winter squash.
Low in fat (and the fat it does possess is the heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory type), this winter-season squash delivers tons of nutrients, namely dietary fiber, making it an exceptionally heart-friendly choice. Other health kudos to add to the list are significant amounts of potassium (important for bone health), and vitamin B6 (essential for the proper functioning of both the nervous and immune systems). The folate content adds yet another boost to its heart-healthy reputation and helps guard against brain and spinal-cord-related birth defects such as spina bifida, so pregnant moms – eat up!
When you cut into the dense flesh of butternut squash, one of the first thing you will notice is its bright orange color. This indicates the squash’s most noteworthy health perk – the abundance of powerhouse nutrients known as carotenoids, shown to protect against heart disease. Butternut squash boasts very high levels of the carotenoid beta-carotene (which your body automatically converts to vitamin A), helping to protect against different types of cancer and eye disease such as age-related macular degeneration. As if those are not enough reasons to want to eat butternut squash as often as possible, eating this if you are pregnant or breastfeeding will help support healthy lung development in fetuses and newborns. Butternut squash also makes a wonderful first food for babies (and it’s super easy to make! All you need to do is steam or roast and then mash up or puree). Who said citrus fruits are the only way to get vitamin C? With only a 1-cup serving of butternut squash, you get nearly half the recommended daily dose of antioxidant-rich vitamin C.
Try adding butternut squash into your family’s foods and recipes as much as possible, for this is one of the best foods for anti-inflammatory effects, high antioxidant content, and fiber content (so you feel fuller longer after eating a smaller amount compared to other foods). Individuals who suffer from inflammation-related disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma have reported an alleviation of symptoms from eating high doses of foods like butternut squash.
Nutrient Facts for Butternut Squash, per 1 cup cooked, approximately 205 grams (SOURCE: Wholeliving.com)
Vitamin A:1,144 mcg = 163 percent* of DRI**
Vitamin B6:0.3 mg = 20 percent of DRI
Vitamin C:31 mg = 41 percent of DRI
Folate:39 mcg = 10 percent of DRI
Potassium:582 mg = 12 percent of DRI
* Percentages are for women 31 to 50 years old who are not pregnant
** DRI, Dietary Reference Intake, is based on National Academy of Sciences’ Dietary Reference Intakes, 1997 to 2004
Some people often compare squash to that of a sweet potato or other starchy vegetable; in reality, about 90% of its total calories come from carbohydrate, and about half of this carbohydrate is starch-like in its composition. For those concerned about consuming starchy/carbohydrate-rich foods, it’s important to note that all starch is not the same, and the starch content of winter squash brings along with it some key health benefits. For example, many of the carbs in winter starch come from polysaccharides (“many sugars”…used for energy in the body) found in the cell walls. These polysaccharides include pectins (usually referred to as fruit sugars) —specially structured polysaccharides that in winter squash often include special chains of D-galacturonic acid called homogalacturonan. An increasing number of animal studies now show that these starch-related components in winter squash have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, as well as anti-diabetic and insulin-regulating properties.
Like butternut squash, winter squash has long been recognized as an important food source of carotenoids (key antioxidants). Recent studies have shown that for some groups of study participants, winter squash turns out to be the primary food source of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene in the entire diet. Additionally, winter squash tops the charts as one of the top three food sources for lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin (three other health-supportive carotenoids).
As mentioned with butternut squash, 1 cup of winter squash contains 15% of the recommended daily allowance of folate, which has been shown to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects and other birth defects when taken by women before and during pregnancy. An added health benefit from eating winter squash is that the high folate content also works to prevent heart attacks by working against elements that break down blood vessel structures in your body. There is also a correlation between folate intake and reduced incidences of colon cancer.
In utilizing every part of the squash, World’s Healthiest Foods has a great use of squash seeds:
“Seeds from winter squash make a great snack food, just like pumpkin seeds. If you scoop the pulp and seeds from inside the squash and separate out the seeds, you can place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and lightly roast them at 160-170°F (about 75°C) in the oven for 15-20 minutes. By roasting them for a relatively short time at a low temperature you can help minimize damage to their healthy oils. Linoleic acid (the polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid) and oleic acid (the same monounsaturated fatty acid that is plentiful in olive oil) account for about 75% of the fat found in the seeds.”
Something important to consider when buying any type of squash, especially winter squash is that winter squash is a vegetable that might be especially important for us to purchase organic. Interestingly, recent agricultural studies have shown that winter squash can be an effective agricultural “tool” for use in cleaning up contaminated soils (namely by chemicals referred to as Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or “PAHs”). Such chemicals in this family occur in oil, coal, and tar deposits, and are produced as byproducts of fuel burning (whether fossil fuel or biomass). As a pollutant, they are of concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic. These dangerous and unwanted contaminants can be effectively pulled up out of the soil by winter squash plants. When winter squash is planted as a food crop (as opposed to a non-food crop that is being planted between food crop seasons to help improve soil quality), the farmer’s goal is definitely not to transfer soil contaminants like PAHs up into the food. But some of that transfer seems likely to happen, given the effectiveness of winter squash in removing contaminants like PAHs from the soil, so you may definitely want to make a special point of purchasing certified organic winter squash. Soils used for the growing of in certified organic foods are far less likely to contain undesirable levels of contaminants like PAHs.
Be sure to check out former posts on squash and delicious recipes you can try:
World’s Healthiest Foods
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Nutrition and Health Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Nutrition & Health Coaching. Megan educates and empowers women, men, and children of all ages to learn the true ins-and-outs of “feeding the brain with knowledge about the best foods and habits for one’s body” in order to reach optimal health and wellness potentials. Visit her website today to learn more:http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us or feel free to send her an e-mail at:firstname.lastname@example.org.