In Season

How pumpkins can boost our health

Resident blogger Megan Mclean shares her fondness for Autumn and reveals why pumpkin is the ultimate seasonal creeper and not just a Halloween accessory

In Season: The pumpkin (Cucurbita)

Autumn is a spectacular season that should be cherished until it officially hands over to winter on December 21.

We are all guilty of rushing through Autumn, tempted by winter’s offerings of cosy Christmas mornings and a merry New Year’s Eve, but this is a truly magical time.

So many thoughts come to mind when we think of fall – crackling fires, fluffy socks, the crunch of leaves, whistling winds, candles and, of course,  pumpkins – the personification of Autumn.

The pumpkin derived its name from the Greek word “pepon” which means “large melon” and is a member of the cucurbitaceae family, along with cucumbers, melons and watermelons. Pumpkins are actually creeping herbs, which can grow up to an impressive 10 metres in length and are characterised by their slightly ribbed skin and deep orange colour.

Pumpkins begun their production in North America and still have deep roots in Mexico, where you will find market stalls piled high with all shapes and sizes, but mainly the Calabaza, or West-Indian pumpkin. This variety is a beige colour and often has green stripes running down its bumpy exterior.

The Calabaza is closer to the pumpkins of the past than the vibrant orange selection displayed next to supermarket entrances today. Originally this fruit was far smaller, harder and bitter-tasting, but extremely durable – meaning it had no problems surviving harsh winters.

What shines through when investigating the use of pumpkins as a food source in Mexico is their impressive creativity. Pumpkin flesh is cooked into curry sauces, tamales or crystallised into a sweet treat, for example. The seeds, or pepitas as they are also known, can be lightly fried with salt and then either used to garnish a multitude of dishes, or ground up into a powder.

How can pumpkins help boost our health?

Replenishing iron stores

One cup of cooked pumpkin (244g) contains approximately 3.5mg of iron, almost 20% of the recommended daily allowance for women of 14.8mg. Iron is the only vitamin that has a higher RDA for females than males, with 8.7mg a day recommended for men. Keeping hold of the seeds will add another protein supply into the diet, as well as being listed as one of the top food sources of iron.

Vitamin A

Pumpkins are incredibly rich in beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A which is converted to retinol (active form of vitamin A) in the small intestine. Beta-carotene is found in many plant sources and is responsible for the red-orange colour of some vegetables. It’s also an antioxidant, substances in our bodies fighting to prevent free radicals from causing us harm while they roam for free electrons.

They also remove toxins, reduce infection risks and are thought to aid in preventing certain types of cancers. The recommended intake of vitamin A is 900mg/day for men and 700mg/day for women to prevent deficiencies and positively affect immune function, promote healthy vision, growth and is essential for the development of a foetus in the mother’s womb.

Phytoestrogens

Pumpkin seeds contain phytoestrogens which occur naturally in plants and can be taken in through a diet containing fruit, vegtables, nuts, grains and legumes. They are also commonly referred to as dietary estrogens because of how they work, basically they are very similar in structure to the hormone estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, and are treated in the exact same way by receptors.

For this reason, they are a natural source of help for women who’s hormones levels are fluctuating as they approach, or go through menopause, a dietary supply of estrogens can help alleviate symptoms such as hot flashes, tiredness, irregular periods and mood swings.

As if this little green seed full of phytoestrogens wasn’t incredible enough as it is, various studies have proposed they may also contain useful properties for fighting breast cancer, inhibiting growth of breast cancer cells.

Zinc

After discussing how women can reap the benefits of the pumpkin it seems only fair to mention zinc, if there is one nutrient that men should be aware of in relation to their health, this is the one. Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, is a vital contributor towards bone mass, muscle building, red blood cell production and regulating libido.

It’s assumed by some that testosterone levels are very stable in most men, or will only falter in elderly gentlemen, however most men will experience low testosterone levels at least once in their lifetime. Several symptoms can accompany low levels of this hormone, for example – erectile dysfunction, decreased libido, reduced hair loss, reduced muscle mass and increased body fat.

One way of preventing these symptoms is to simply maintain a healthy balanced diet, ensuring adequate sources of zinc from foods such as pumpkin seeds, which can easily be sprinkled over meals or eaten as a snack.

Sadly, fresh pumpkin is quite often put on the back burner for 10 months of the year here in Scotland, waiting patiently for the dark nights to draw in, the temperatures to drop and for the Halloween planning to begin. Not only that, but once the time does finally come for pumpkins to emerge from the darkness, we celebrate by carving into the exterior and throwing away all the nutrient dense goodness that is the flesh and seeds.

This Autumn, take a minute to put aside your squishy carving leftovers or even make a few extra pumpkin purchases and get creative, you won’t be disappointed.

The versatility of the pumpkin is often underestimated, it can be enjoyed in sweet or savoury dishes alongside flavours such as cinnamon, apple, chocolate, ginger, cranberry, vanilla and walnut. A wonderful way to eat pumpkin is to fill the hollowed-out interior with risotto, dried fruit and nuts, then bake whole until heated through.

On the other hand, the scooped-out flesh can make for a deliciously moist caramel and pumpkin cake, filled with autumnal spices and pecans.

For more from Megan, visit Oats and Ends.

For easy pumpkin recipes, make sure you pick up a copy of the October/November issue of Holistic Scotland Magazine.

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