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Pumpkins: the good, the bad, and the ugly

This seasonal gourd can be healthy -- or not

Photo © istetiana - Fotolia
Fall is that time of year when chefs can't seem to help themselves. They tend to find more and more ways to use pumpkin flavor in food and beverages.

There's pumpkin donuts, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin spice cookies, pumpkin beer, pumpkin latte, and of course, pumpkin pie.

“If you believe the sales pitch, the pumpkin is the happiest, healthiest food ever,” said Suzy Weems, registered dietitian and professor of nutrition sciences in Baylor University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

But not everything with pumpkin in it is good for you. And some things might be fine, if consumed in moderation.

The good

Here are some of the good things pumpkin has going for it:

  • Fiber: it has plenty and that helps those watching their waistlines, since it promotes a feeling of being full.
  • Zeaxanthin: This common carotenoid alcohol is a powerful weapon against age-related macular degeneration and impaired eyesight.
  • Low in cholesterol and high in Vitamin A: this combination leads to healthy skin and eyes and also may help in fighting cancer.
  • Heart-healthy phytosterols: You get this benefit if you eat the seeds.
  • Magnesium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, protein, zinc, and iron: “On the USDA/FDA rating schedule, pumpkins are a good source of all those,” Weems said. The combination makes for a veritable "cocktail" for energy, growth, and a top-notch immune system.

The bad

Okay, that's the good -- now for the bad. The things you have to look out for are:

  • Pumpkin snacks: “Pumpkin-laced candy is still candy,” Weems said. “Pumpkin seeds are good for making you feel full, but the fat doesn’t disappear when you roast and eat them.”
  • Pumpkin desserts: “Be sure to notice how much pumpkin is really in it, that it’s not just the flavoring,” Weems said.
  • Pumpkin in coffee or for breakfast: “A pumpkin latte is not going to mean any fewer calories if it’s made with a full-fat milk or syrup,” she said. “And pumpkin doughnuts still have sugar.”

The ugly

In short, Weems says pumpkin can make the season more flavorful, but it can also be a Trojan Horse of calories. If you suffer from diabetes, look closely at the sugar and total carbohydrates.

“If you have cardiovascular disease, look at the fat,” she said. “Always be sure to read the container or the wrapper."

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