The next time you’re at the grocery store, make sure to grab an entire pumpkin or two on the way out. Like the changing leaves and weather, this is the perfect opportunity to add some variety to your diet. And what’s more in season now than pumpkins?
“Seasonal eating is really powerful in that the earth controls the type of foods our bodies need at specific seasons of the year,” says Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition physiology instructor at the University of California, Irvine. “Pumpkin is one of the top foods with essential minerals and nutrients to support our mental health and immune system as we shift from summer to fall.”
Not only does pumpkin spice up your diet, but the vibrant flavors can turn a bland meal into a festive one for you and the family. But it all depends on how you’re using pumpkin in your meals.
A nutrient-rich food
As fall and winter approach, the cold weather and lack of sunlight can weaken our immune system. It’s also the time when flu, RSV, and other seasonal viruses come into circulation. Even COVID cases seem to increase in the winter with everyone huddled indoors. As part of the gourd family, pumpkins are chock-full of nutrients that support immune function, including maintaining the cells used as your body’s natural defenses.
Take the iconic orange color of the fruit—it isn’t just for show. The hue is evidence of high amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for vision, immunity, and keeping organs working properly. As a fat-soluble vitamin, Murphy Richter says it also helps the body better absorb other nutrients we eat from food.
Pumpkins are also rich in vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help neutralize oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body that can damage cells and DNA. “These antioxidants help protect the body against free radicals, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and certain cancers,” says Omaira Ferreira, a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and founder of Ferreira Functional Health. While still evolving, wider research on antioxidants has largely found the same benefits.
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Another immune benefit of pumpkins is the high dietary fiber content. Murphy Richter says that 70 percent of our immune system is held within our gut, so keeping the gut running smoothly with high-fiber and prebiotic foods like pumpkin ultimately supports our immune health.
Fits with many diets
The end-of-the-year holidays can be a tough time for people who are on specialized diets to manage their health. Fortunately, pumpkin is a great option to add to any meal without worrying about excess cholesterol or blood sugar spikes.
For people with diabetes, Murphy Richter says the main macronutrient to be careful of are carbohydrates. Not only are pumpkins low in carbs, “they’re a great source of dietary fiber, which aids in digestion and helps maintain a healthy weight,” explains Ferreira. “Fiber also helps regulate blood sugar levels and promotes a feeling of fullness, which can prevent overeating.”
Pumpkin is also considered a heart-healthy food for its high potassium content, Murphy Richter says. Potassium is important in regulating blood pressure and keeping a steady heart rhythm.
Think outside the pie box
Not all pumpkin products are created equal. Just because it has the word pumpkin in it, doesn’t mean it carries the same benefits. (I’m looking at you, pumpkin spice latte). Unfortunately, pumpkin pies fall into this category. It’s not so much the pumpkin content, but all the delicious additions for baking purposes. “While pumpkin puree itself is nutritious, the addition of sweeteners and a pastry crust increases the calorie and sugar content. Moderation is key when enjoying pumpkin pie,” advises Ferreira.
Pumpkin candy corn might be an even worse worst offender. Despite the name, these bite-sized sweets have no actual fruit and are instead filled with artificial flavoring and sugars.
If you’re in a time crunch or don’t want to deal with a lot leftovers and scraps, Murphy Richter says there’s nothing wrong with using canned pumpkin puree. It’s a cheaper and more shelf-stable alternative for when you want to add pumpkin to a meal.
The only caveat, warns Murphy Richter, is that canned pumpkin is not going to be as nutritious as a fresh one. That’s because purees usually come from sugar pumpkins, which are smaller and less fibrous alternatives to the big ones you pick at a farm. They’re bred to be denser and sweeter, which makes them easier to use when making baked goods. That said, “the general nutrient profile is still quite good in canned pumpkin,” explains Murphy Richter.
Easy ways to add pumpkin to your diet
The great thing about pumpkin is that it doesn’t take much to incorporate it into your fall diet. Ferreira recommends whipping up a pumpkin soup by blending roasted pumpkin with vegetable broth. For added richness and flavor, try adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and a touch of coconut milk.
Pumpkin smoothies are another tasty and heart-healthy food. Mix the fruit with bananas, apples, and some almond milk or yogurt for a creamy and nutritious fall drink to start the day. A second breakfast option is adding a bit of pumpkin puree when making oatmeal on the stove. Top it off with cinnamon or maple syrup and it’ll taste “like a little delicious pumpkin pie,” says Murphy Richter.
[Related: Is corn a fruit, vegetable, or grain?]
If you’re looking for a side dish, roasted pumpkin is the way to go. Ferreira says to cut the gourds into cubes and season them with olive oil, salt, or other spices such as cumin or rosemary. Throw them in the oven and cook until tender. “Roasted pumpkin makes a delicious side dish or a colorful addition to salads.”
Finally, when you’re carving out a pumpkin, don’t throw out the seeds. Pumpkin seeds have a host of nutrients with high amounts of zinc and phosphorus. “I’m a huge pumpkin seed fan and I always roast several batches of them throughout the season,” says Murphy Richter. If you’re going for a savory taste, she recommends adding garlic, olive oil, and rosemary. For people with a sweet tooth, a dash of cinnamon and sugar can make for a healthy snack to eat throughout the day. A traditional salsa recipe could be fun to try too.
The options are endless. So whether you’re roasting pumpkin seeds or turning a jack-o’-lantern into the centerpiece of your dinner, make this season a delicious one.