This is the perfect time of year to talk about pumpkin, ‘cause we pretty much ignore it every month but October, November and December. So while it’s fresh in our minds, how about a little reappraisal of this underappreciated gem of a vegetable?
Let’s start with potassium. A cup of mashed pumpkin gives you a whopping 564 mg of potassium (about 33 percent more than a medium banana), and that’s all for a measly 49 calories.
Potassium works with sodium to maintain the body’s water balance, and that, in turn, impacts blood pressure. High blood pressure—unlike high total cholesterol—is a real risk for heart disease.
Lots of studies show that people who consume high amounts of potassium have lower blood pressure than people who don’t. In primitive cultures, salt intake is about seven times lower than potassium intake, but in Western industrialized cultures, salt intake is about three times higher than potassium intake. I believe that the “problems” with sodium in our diet are at least as much problems caused by low potassium as they are by high sodium.
Can Pumpkins Decrease Your Risk of Stroke?
Several large epidemiological studies have suggested that increased potassium intake is associated with decreased risk of stroke. A study of more than 43,000 men followed for 87 years found that men in the top 20 percent of potassium intake (averaging 4,300 mg per day) were only 62 percent as likely to have a stroke than those in the lowest 20 percent of potassium intake (averaging 2,400 mg per day). This inverse association was especially high in men with high blood pressure.
The Choice of Champions
Athletes may need more potassium to replace what’s lost from muscle during exercise. Low potassium can cause muscle cramping (and cardiovascular irregularities). When people tell me they have muscle cramps, the first thing I think of is that they’re low on minerals, especially potassium and magnesium, (and sometimes calcium as well).
Four large studies have reported significant positive associations between dietary potassium intake and bone mineral density. This isn’t really surprising if you think about it. When we eat a highly acid diet, the body has to buffer that acid, and it does this by mobilizing alkaline calcium salts from the bones in order to neutralize the acids consumed in the diet.
Increased consumption of high-potassium fruits and vegetables like pumpkin reduces the net acid content of the diet and may help preserve calcium in the bones, where it belongs.
Random note: This is why I tend to roll my eyes when I hear about expensive alkaline waters or alkalizing machines like Kangen. You want to “alkalize” your system, eat a cup of pumpkin or put some baking soda in your water and save the four grand. People, really!
Your Eyes Will Thank You
Pumpkin has more than 2,400 mcg of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, star nutrients in eye health and vision protection formulas. Pumpkin also has more than 12,000 IUs of vitamin A, plus a little bit of calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus just for good measure. And a cup of the stuff also provides more than 21/2 g of fiber.
Remember that the carotenoids need fat for absorption, which makes it all the easier to consume some pumpkin on a regular basis. Just cook it with some grass-fed butter or a healthy oil. If you like it sweet, try adding some stevia (I like Pyure brand, available everywhere).
Mashed pumpkin—with butter and salt—is a great substitute for mashed white potatoes; way healthier, and in my opinion, way more delicious.
The Fiber Connection
For decades, I’ve railed against the “conventional wisdom” that grains are an important source of fiber. (They’re not—just read the label on any cereal box). Pumpkin, however, is a whole different story.
An average slice of bread (or average portion of commercial cold cereal) has between 1-3 grams of fiber, and comes with a whole host of blood-sugar raising starch, not to mention gluten and (frequently) high-fructose corn syrup.
Pumpkin, on the other hand, has 49 calories per cup, and a whopping 7 grams of fiber. Bread is about 100 calories a slice, and—with few exceptions (like sourdough)– has virtually nothing of nutritional value to recommend it. And no bread on earth provides the amount of fiber that a cup of mashed pumpkin provides.
Every epidemiological dietary study ever done shows way better health outcomes for people who consume large amounts of fiber in their diet. Dr. Steven Masley and I presented a study at the annual conference of the American College of Nutrition showing that fiber intake was one of the best predictors of success on a weight loss program.
Fiber matters—it slows the entrance of sugar into the bloodstream (blunting its glycemic impact), helps with digestion, and provides “food” for bacteria in the gut. When bacteria in the gut dine on fiber, they produce critically important nutrients like butyric acid, which helps support the integrity of the gut wall and may have positive metabolic effects as well. Adding a cup of pumpkin to your daily intake is a great way to get about 20-25% of the fiber you should be getting daily.
Amazing (Vegan) Recipe for Mini Pumpkin Cheesecakes
On Thanksgiving, we had a vegan guest and Michelle wanted to make something special for her, so she made this amazing dessert—mini pumpkin cheesecakes— which ended up being my favorite!
1 cup raw cashews, soaked in water 4-8 hours and drained
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 very ripe banana
2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
(Stevia to taste: Optional)
1/2 cup Gingersnap Granola (by Oh My Goodness Granola)
1/2 cup raw pecans
1/3 cup packed organic brown sugar
1/4 cup Earths Balance vegan butter, melted (for non-vegan, feel free to use grass-fed butter like Kerrygold)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. For the crust, pulse the granola, pecans, and brown sugar in a food processor until it has a course sand texture. Add butter, and mix until well blended. Press into the bottom of muffin pan cups to form crust.
Place cashews in food processor bowl. Blend until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl as needed. Add pumpkin, banana, lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt to food processor bowl. Blend again until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl as needed.
Divide batter among muffin cups, placing a scant 1/4 cup full in each.
Bake 20 minutes. Cheesecakes will still be a bit soft when finished baking. Transfer to cooling rack. Allow to cool completely and then refrigerate several hours, until fully set.
Serve with coconut whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.