Pumpkins are widely grown and are a commonly used vegetable. Yet, despite this, the nutritional benefits of pumpkin tend to be largely overlooked.
It does seem a pity that people don’t pay enough attention to the benefits of pumpkin, because it really is a healthy vegetable.
Interestingly, pumpkins are actually a cultivar of squash, which come from the Cucurbita family. Most frequently, they are cultivars of the species Cucurbita pepo, although other species are sometimes used (1).
This can make things a little confusing, because it means that pumpkins may actually belong to multiple different species.
To make matters worse, the usage of the term pumpkin also varies.
In the United Kingdom and North America, the term pumpkin only refers to the round, orange forms of winter squash, such as those that are used to make Jack o’ lanterns during Halloween.
However, in Australia and some other parts of the world, the term pumpkin applies to winter squash in general, regardless of what the fruit happens to look like.
In this post, I’m specifically focusing on the American use of the word pumpkin – although it is worth noting that many species of winter squash do have similar potential benefits for health.
Benefits of Pumpkin
Some of the compounds in pumpkin have been specifically associated with the prevention of cancer and there has even been some indication of a role in cancer treatment. Indeed, pumpkin has been associated with the prevention of a range of diseases (2).
One key protein in pumpkin, known as cucurmosin has been linked to the ability to fight cancer.
One study noted that the protein was able to inhibit the proliferation of a specific type of cell associated with cancer (3).
Pumpkins have also been linked to fighting cancer as the result of phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are a controversial set of compounds that are often referred to as dietary estrogens. These compounds can have similar impacts to estrogen or can act in an antiestrogenic manner in the body.
In general, phytoestrogens are not considered to be nutrients, because they do not perform an essential role in the body.
Nevertheless, they may play a role in combating cancer, specifically in relation to hormone-dependent tumors.
One study considered this role by looking at pumpkin seed extract and the role that this had on the estrogen receptor and on estradiol production.
The authors found favorable outcomes that suggested compounds of pumpkin seed could be significant in the treatment or prevention of breast cancer (4).
Pumpkin benefits are particularly important in controlling outcomes for patients with diabetes, as the oil, protein from seeds and the pulp of the fruit all have hypoglycemic properties (5).
As such, pumpkin can potentially help patients to maintain their glycemic control.
Two compounds in pumpkin that play this role are nicotinic acid and trigonelline (6).
These compounds also have the ability to improve glucose tolerance in animal models and may play a role in suppressing diabetes progression (7).
One research study considered the use of a milled seed mixture (sesame, pumpkin and flax seeds) on health outcomes. 30 participants consumed the seed mixture in addition to their normal diet.
The authors found that the consumption of the seeds was able to improve glycemic control, lower levels of triglycerides and improve the overall fatty acid profile in patients (8).
Research has also indicated that pumpkin seeds themselves can improve glycemic outcomes for patients with diabetes (9).
This suggests that pumpkin seeds may be an important approach for improving glycemic control.
Indeed, seeds from the Curcubitaceae family (of which pumpkin is a member) have been traditionally used as treatment against diabetes in Africa. They also have significant potential for improving glycemic outcomes (10).
Outcomes of research suggest that the use of combinations of different foods, including pumpkin, may provide an important dietary strategy that helps manage the symptoms of diabetes, lower oxidative stress and decrease the risk of hypertension (11).
Other Health Benefits
Extract from pumpkin seeds has also been linked to improvements in outcomes for men with symptoms of lower urinary tract infections.
A randomized controlled trial on the topic used a sample size of 1,431 men.
These participants were randomly assigned into one of two groups. The first of those groups received capsules containing pumpkin seed extract while the second group received a placebo.
After twelve months, the authors found that the pumpkin seed group had an increase in the quality of life that was clinically relevant (although the increase was not statistically significant).
The authors suggested that these outcomes indicate the potential of pumpkin seed for the treatment of urinary tract symptoms (12).
Another study considered the role of pumpkin seed oil in patients with an overactive bladder disorder.
45 participants took part in the study across a period of 12 weeks.
During the study, participants received 10g of pumpkin seed oil per day.
The authors found that the use of pumpkin seed oil was able to significantly decrease the level of overactive bladder symptoms that the participants experienced (13).
Pumpkin has also been linked to improved sleep because of the amino acid tryptophan.
Tryptophan promotes sleep and helps the body to produce serotonin, which helps people to relax and can improve mood (14).
This makes pumpkin a great snack a little bit before bed to help you sleep well.
A final surprising pumpkin benefit is related to parasites.
Pumpkin seeds have actually been associated with helping to get rid of intestinal parasites.
A compound in the seeds helps to paralyze any parasites that you might have. This prevents them from hanging onto the intestine wall – and means that a bowel movement is able to flush them out.
Science Behind Pumpkin Benefits for Health
Most people think of pumpkin as nutritious simply because it is a vegetable, but this makes it easy to overlook the actual benefits of pumpkin for your health.
Pumpkins actually vary considerably in their nutritional content depending on the specific cultivation environment, part of the vegetable being consumed or the species (16).
Nevertheless, many of the nutritional elements of pumpkins do remain the same across different varieties, and these contribute strongly to the health benefits that pumpkin offers.
For example, pumpkin is particularly high in vitamin A.
A single cup of mashed pumpkin (roughly 245 g) has more than 200% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin A.
Vitamin A is a particularly important nutrient and is associated with improved eye health, as well as in the maintenance of healthy teeth, skin and soft tissue (17).
Pumpkin is also a good source of fiber.
A cup of mashed pumpkin contains a little under 3 g of fiber (18). That’s quite a lot of fiber for not much pumpkin.
Fiber is important for helping you to feel full and this can help people who are trying to lose weight.
In general, people who eat high fiber diets tend to lose weight faster and eat less overall.
Yet, despite this, the average fiber intake in the United States is less than half of the recommended amount (19).
This means that most people need to increase their daily fiber consumption – and pumpkin is a fantastic way of doing just this.
Another important nutrient in pumpkin is potassium.
Often, bananas are referred to as an energy food, perfect as a pick-me-up after exercise.
One of the reasons for this is that bananas are high in potassium. Potassium helps to balance out the electrolytes in the body and helps promote healthy functioning of the muscles.
This makes pumpkin a good choice following a workout – such as in smoothie.
Finally, pumpkin is also a good course of vitamin C and contains close to 20% of the recommended daily value (20).
The first indication of the health benefits of the vegetable comes from its flesh.
The bright yellow-orange of pumpkin flesh comes from having high levels of carotenoids.
Carotenoids are pigments that are found in many different plants. In contrast, animals are not able to produce these compounds.
There are upwards of 600 different carotenoids and high levels of carotenoid consumption have been linked to protection against some chronic diseases (21) and to improved health outcomes overall (22).
Carotenoids have also been linked to reducing the amount of wrinkles in the skin by fighting some of the impacts of aging. This is one reason why carotenoids are included in some cosmetic products (23).
Additionally, pumpkin contains a wide range of other chemicals that contribute to its health benefits.
One important compound that is present in pumpkin is trigonelline, which has been associated with a wide range of health benefits, including in relation to diabetes and the central nervous system.
The compound is most strongly associated with fenugreek, which is a Chinese herb, but trigonelline also is significant in pumpkin (24).
Likewise, pumpkin is also a significant source of lutin and zeaxanthin, both of which have been associated with health benefits (25).
Over the years, pumpkin has been associated with a number of medical properties, including acting as an antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory agent (26).
One controversial class of compounds in pumpkin are the phytosterols.
Phytosterols are steroid compounds and are similar to cholesterol.
Generally speaking, phytosterols are considered to be good for health and research has consistently shown their ability to reduce LDL cholesterol (27).
Yet, the evidence for the role that phytosterols have on cardiovascular risk is much less clear.
Indeed, one comprehensive meta-analysis considered the outcomes of 17 different studies on cardiovascular disease and phytosterols.
The authors found no significant relationship between concentrations of phytosterols and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The controversy with phytosterols comes from the way that they are added to foods.
Because of their perceived benefits to health, phytosterols are added to many products, including dairy products, vegetable oils and margarine.
It’s difficult to know what the health outcomes of this practice are, but the practice does mean that people are taking in phytosterols in an entirely different way than our bodies have developed.
Some people argue that this practice may have negative impacts on health, particularly on the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The meta-analysis I talked about above suggests that this may not be the case.
However, the meta-analysis alone is only part of the picture, because each of the studies it considered would have used different methods and different types of samples.
This means that the meta-analysis may not have accurately considered the amount of phytosterols that people get from products like vegetable oil and margarine.
This doesn’t mean that phytosterols are bad for health.
Nevertheless, the controversy is an indication of the risks of processed foods that contain added chemicals.
The best way to get the benefits from any nutrient is to get it from the whole natural plant (or animal) that they come from, rather than from a processed derivative.
By doing this you avoid any negative consequences of the chemical processes and you also get all of the other nutrients that the plant contains.
In the case of pumpkin, the phytosterols are just one set of compounds that can contribute to health.
Phytosterols have also been associated with a decrease in the risk of cancer.
The research for this area is still in its early stages, so it is difficult to know how strong this impact is and whether it exists at all.
This means that the jury is still out on whether phytosterols can decrease the risk of cancer or not.
Either way, it makes sense to get your phytosterols through healthy whole foods like pumpkin, rather than through heavily processed and chemically altered products like margarine.
Parts of the Pumpkin
The flesh of the pumpkin is the part that most people eat and it is where most of the flavor of the pumpkin comes from.
I talked about the nutritional information for pumpkin flesh earlier, but in general, the flesh of pumpkin is a high source of many nutrients and important biological compounds.
There is also a large amount of different ways to prepare the flesh of pumpkin and many different recipes that take advantage of this part of the vegetable.
I will be discussing some of these later on in the article.
Pumpkin seeds are the most commonly wasted parts of pumpkin. That’s a pity, because pumpkin seeds are very nutritious, particularly because of the amount of magnesium they contain (32).
Many of the studies that I talked about earlier showed health benefits from pumpkin seeds or from some of the compounds in the seeds.
It seems a pity to waste the part of the vegetable that contains such potential for health benefits.
Dried pumpkin seeds are a high source of protein, with one cup containing upwards of 33 g of protein.
The seeds are also high in vitamin K, riboflavin, folate and thiamin – all of which are relatively uncommon and important nutrients (33).
Likewise, the same serving size of pumpkin seeds contains more than the recommended daily intake for iron, magnesium, phosphorous and manganese (34).
This is an amazing amount of nutrients, especially for a part of the vegetable that is so often thrown away.
Manganese is a particularly important one of these, as it plays an important role in antioxidant action and in protecting the body from free radicals. It may also help to decrease the risk of prostate cancer (35).
The one downside of pumpkin seeds is that they are calorie rich and are high in total fats.
Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the fats in pumpkin seeds are monounsaturated fats, including oleic acid.
This type of fat can actually decrease the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood and increase the level of good cholesterol (HDL).
This is actually the type of fat prevalent in olive oil, and is one of the reasons that olive oil is so good for health.
Oleic acid has also been associated with decreasing markers of inflammation (36).
Roasting Pumpkin Seeds
The best way to eat pumpkin shells is whole. This includes the shells of the seeds as the shells offer extra fiber.
Admittedly, the idea of eating pumpkin seeds as-is isn’t particularly appealing and honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it.
However, it is actually very easy to roast your own pumpkin seeds – which is a much better way of eating them.
Now, you can buy roasted pumpkin seeds on their own if you want to, but that seems like a bit of a waste if you are buying and using a whole pumpkin anyway.
Additionally, most companies tend to majorly overseason their seeds and charge far too much for them.
Another advantage of roasting your own seeds is that you can create a flavor that you find appealing.
The first step for roasting seeds is simply to separate them out from the pumpkin flesh and then rinse them.
Following this, you season the seeds and preheat your oven (to 375°F).
The best place to start with seasoning is to toss the seeds in olive oil, salt and pepper. This creates a good flavor base, and you can build out from there. The olive oil is particularly important, as it is a healthy oil and stops the seeds from burning when they are in the oven.
The best approach is to pick at least one other flavor to add to the seeds, as salt and pepper aren’t particularly appealing on their own.
One of my favorites is smoked paprika and combinations of chopped herbs also work quite well.
However, you can really try just about anything. With some experimenting, you may well find a flavor unique to you that works really well.
Once you have your seeds seasoned you simply place them on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven.
You are trying to get a golden brown color, and this normally takes between 15 and 20 minutes. You will also have to give the seeds a stir every so often.
That is all there is to it, and once the seeds are cooled they are ready to eat.
Pumpkin seeds make for a fantastic snack and they are much healthier than potato chips.
Pumpkin Seed Oil
A final part of the pumpkin I want to talk about is pumpkin seed oil (okay, technically it’s not part of the pumpkin – but close enough).
This oil is created by pressing pumpkin seeds that have been roasted and hulled.
The oil can vary from dark green to dark red and has a nutty taste. It is sometimes combined with olive oil or honey to create a salad dressing.
Additionally, pumpkin seed oil is sometimes added to desserts and other dishes.
However, it cannot be effectively used as a cooking oil, as cooking with it destroys the fatty acids present.
The fatty acid profile of the oil varies considerably depending on the specific cultivar used and the processes used to create the oil.
Nevertheless, some of the key fatty acids present include (with most prevalent fatty acids first):
- Linoleic acid
- Oleic acid
- Palmitic acid
- Stearic acid
While most studies have focused on pumpkin seeds or pumpkin itself, there are some indications that pumpkin seed oil may also offer significant health benefits.
Pumpkin seed oil is a little bit controversial, largely because it has been overhyped and over-promoted in the past.
This is a product that Dr. Oz has raved on about in the past, and he does have a tendency to exaggerate the potential health benefits of specific products.
The effects might be similar in humans, but more research needs to be done.
In reality, the amount of research that has been conducted on pumpkin seed oil is limited, and much more needs to be conducted.
Nevertheless, the fats present in the oil and the nutrients present in pumpkin seeds are a strong indication that the oil will offer some potentially significant health benefits.
Research has also indicated that the oil has a high amount of carotenoids and fat-soluble vitamins, which contribute to its potential to offer health benefits (40).
As such, pumpkin oil can act as an easier way to get some of the health benefits from pumpkin into your diet, but it isn’t a substitute for pumpkin and pumpkin seeds themselves.
How it is Made
Companies vary in their approaches to creating pumpkin seed oil, and these variations can have an influence on the potential health benefits of the oil.
One of the most common modern approaches is called a screw press.
This process involves seeds being inserted at the top of the press, being squeezed in the middle and then the waste being extracted from the end.
While this approach can be efficient, it is also problematic as it has the potential to produce significant amounts of heat.
Heat can influence the flavor of the end product and can also change the chemical composition.
The traditional approach is known as the single press.
This approach involves first roasting the pumpkin seeds gently while controlling the temperature.
After this step, the seeds are transferred to a cylinder with a sieve and are pressed.
This process creates the oil. Because hardly any movement is involved in the pressing stage there is little potential for heat development, which helps to protect the final product.
A final approach is cold pressed. This involves keeping the oil at a low temperature throughout the pressing process, something that the single press approach can achieve.
How to Use Pumpkin
Most of us use pumpkin either roasted or in pumpkin pie.
However, pumpkin is actually a very versatile food and you can get pumpkin benefits from using the food in a wide range of different ways. In fact, there is a wide range of amazing pumpkin recipes that let you get much more out of pumpkin, regardless of your taste preferences.
For example, many people choose to can pumpkin to keep it for a later date. Often canned pumpkin is used as the base for pumpkin pie fillings, but Greatist actually offers a comprehensive list other things that it can be used for.
The site also offers a fantastic list of ways to use leftover pumpkin and I guarantee that you won’t be familiar with all of the methods on the list.
One of my favorite uses is in drinks, such as a protein shake, a cocktail or a smoothie.
This is a use most people don’t really think about, but it can work really well.
The taste of pumpkin complements a smoothie really well, especially when you add in other spices.
Because pumpkin is high in fiber (41), food and drink with pumpkin can help you to feel full for longer.
This also makes pumpkin fantastic for weight loss, as long as you are including the pumpkin in food that is relatively healthy anyway.
Juicing versus Blending
With many types of food, one key debate is whether you juice or blend it.
Both approaches have their advantages, and which you choose may well depend on how you are going to use the liquid you make.
One major issue with blending pumpkin is that it can be too starchy, and this can make it difficult to digest for some people.
However, you can reduce the starchiness by soaking the pumpkin in water in the fridge overnight. The water should also contain fresh lemon juice, but it doesn’t need to have anything else.
Alternatively, you can either cook or steam the pumpkin then blend it once it is cool.
One nice taste combination for blended pumpkin is to blend with banana as well as allspice or cinnamon. This creates a nice seasonal drink for the fall.
Blended pumpkin can also be used as a base for green smoothies.
With green smoothies, the taste of the pumpkin often ends up being largely drowned out by some of the other ingredients, as many of them tend to have a strong taste.
Juicing the pumpkin tends to take more work, and involves cooking and then straining the flesh of the pumpkin. However, you don’t have to deal with the end product being too starchy as you are straining the flesh away.
Of the two approaches, blending pumpkin will create a more healthy liquid.
Much of the nutrients of pumpkin come from the pulp itself, so when you juice the pumpkin you leave many of these nutrients behind.
Pumpkin Soup Bowls with Lids
A cool use of pumpkins is to create pumpkin soup bowls.
You can choose to make small bowls for single servings using mini pumpkins or create a serving bowl using larger pumpkins.
This is an ideal way to serve pumpkin soup, but you can use the bowls for other types of soups and stews as well.
To make a pumpkin bowl, you need to wash and dry the pumpkins and then cut around the top, like you would if you were making a jack o’ lantern.
You then pull the tops out and proceed to scoop the insides out.
Some people also choose to use a knife or spoon to make the opening to the pumpkin a bit larger, because you want it to act like a bowl.
The insides of the pumpkin can be use used for other recipes.
Once the pumpkin is sufficiently hollowed out, you can brush their insides with olive oil and add some salt and pepper.
Finally, you bake the bowls at 350°F for between 20 and 30 minutes (for small pumpkin bowls).
If you are making larger bowls you may need to bake them at 400°F.
Pumpkin bowls work like bread bowls in that the insides of the bowl are edible.
Your options for what you put in the bowls are pretty much endless and there is a lot of room for experimentation and creative flair.
Selection and Storage
Picking a good pumpkin for cooking can seem a little overwhelming because there are so many variations.
For cooking, you generally want to look for pumpkins that are sweet and that have a creamy texture.
In general, this involves picking smaller varieties, ideally ones that are between four and eight pounds.
Some cooking pumpkin varieties also have very obvious names, such as ‘New England Pie Pumpkin’, although other ones may take longer to figure out.
It’s worth checking the variety name online before you select it if possible, as this will give you an indication of whether the pumpkin is what you are looking for or not.
Pumpkins can be stored for three months without much issue while some varieties will store even longer than that.
However, you do need to store them outside. Additionally, pumpkins should be stored on a surface that can breathe, like cardboard, straw or wood (as opposed to concrete).
Pumpkins should also be stored away from direct sunlight.
You can store pumpkins indoors for shorter periods of time, like a few weeks.
If your pumpkin is indoors, make sure it isn’t on wood or on the carpet as this can soften the pumpkin. Likewise, placing the pumpkin on a hard surface can make it age faster than it should.
One way around this is to place the pumpkin on a circle of fabric and then on the desired surface.
You can buy pumpkin seeds on their own at any point of the year.
If you are buying seeds on their own, it is best to look for whole seeds that are either light yellow or cream-white. They should be uniform and you need to check that there are no cracks, mold or spots on them.
Avoid seeds that are small, thin or appear shriveled, as these do not have a good kernel and will not offer the same nutritional benefits (they also won’t taste as good).
You can buy pumpkin seeds already roasted and seasoned, but I would recommend avoiding this.
Most of the time pre-roasted and/or seasoned pumpkin seeds will have additives and they may have far too much salt on them.
Additionally, the taste of the pumpkin seeds may not suit what you plan on using them for.
Whole seeds stay fresh for a few months if you store them in a cool and dry place.
Are Pumpkins Vegetables?
Culturally speaking, pumpkins tend to be considered vegetables, along with a range of other foods.
In general, the cultural definition tends to define fruits as being sweet and used as desserts and vegetables as being used in savory dishes or in salads – although there are exceptions to this rule.
The cultural distinction between fruits and vegetables is somewhat arbitrary and tends to be more based on history and cultural perspectives, instead of actual differences.
Biologically, pumpkin is actually a fruit.
Fruits are the way that plants spread their seeds and the presence of seeds in pumpkin is one of the indications that it is actually a fruit.
However, whether you classify pumpkin as a vegetable or a fruit the outcome is the same. Pumpkin does have a range of nutritional benefits can promote positive health outcomes.
Can I Be Allergic to Pumpkin Seeds?
An allergic reaction to pumpkin seeds themselves is rare.
However, some people experience some allergic symptoms as a result of antigen cross-reactions with other fruits, seeds and nuts.
This means that people who are allergic to seeds and nuts should be careful in having pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkins are fantastic sources of vitamins and nutrients and they offer significant health benefits – yet they are a vegetable that we take for granted far too often.
There are so many different things that you can do with pumpkin and different ways to cook the vegetable that preserve its health benefits.
It really is worth taking the time, getting into the kitchen and finding out about pumpkin benefits first hand.