Pumpkin is a favorite autumn ingredient. But is it healthy?
As it turns out, pumpkin is very nutritious and low in calories. Plus, it’s more versatile than you may know. It can be cooked into savory dishes, as well as sweet ones.
This article reviews the nutritional properties of pumpkin and its various uses and benefits.
What Is Pumpkin?
Pumpkin is a type of winter squash that’s in the same plant family as cucumbers and melons.
It’s technically a fruit since it contains seeds. But in terms of nutrition, it’s more like a vegetable.
Pumpkins are usually round and orange, although the size, shape and color can vary depending on the variety. They have a thick outer rind that’s smooth and ribbed, as well as a stem that connects the pumpkin to its leafy plant.
Inside they are hollow, except for ivory-colored seeds coated with stringy flesh.
These squash are native to North America and play a big role in two holidays. They are carved into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween and cooked into pies for Thanksgiving dessert in the US and Canada.
However, they’re also grown around the world in every continent except Antarctica.
Their seeds, leaves and flesh are all edible, and they feature in recipes from global cuisines.
Bottom Line: Pumpkin is a type of winter squash that’s technically a fruit, but it has the nutritional profile of a vegetable.
There are many different varieties of pumpkins, including:
- Jack-o’-lantern: Usually a large variety that’s used for carving.
- Pie pumpkins: A smaller, sweeter variety.
- Miniature: These are both decorative and edible.
- White: Some can be cooked with, while others are better for decoration or carving.
- Giant: Mostly grown for contests. Technically edible, but less flavorful than smaller varieties.
Most of the pumpkin that’s sold in the US is canned.
Interestingly, the variety of pumpkin that’s most typically canned looks more similar to a butternut squash than a jack-o’-lantern.
The distinction between pumpkin and other types of squash can be a bit fuzzy, as there are many varieties in the same genus.
Bottom Line: Pumpkin comes in many varieties, although the most common varieties are the large ones used for carving jack-o’-lanterns and smaller, sweeter pie pumpkins.
Pumpkin is an incredibly nutritious food.
It is nutrient dense, meaning it has lots of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories.
One cup of cooked pumpkin provides (1):
- Calories: 49
- Carbs: 12 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Vitamin A: 245% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 49% of the RDI
- Vitamin C: 19% of the RDI
- Potassium: 16% of the RDI
- Copper, manganese and riboflavin: 11% of the RDI
- Vitamin E: 10% of the RDI
- Iron: 8% of the RDI
- Folate: 6% of the RDI
- Niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and thiamin: 5% of the RDI
It’s also exceptionally high in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant.
Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid that turns into vitamin A in the body.
Bottom Line: Pumpkins are loaded with a variety of nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Major Health Benefits
Most of a pumpkin’s health benefits come from its micronutrient content and the fact that it’s a fiber-filled, low-carb fruit.
While there aren’t many studies on pumpkin specifically, it is high in several nutrients that have established health benefits.
Recent research has shown that vitamin A is particularly important for keeping pathogens from entering the digestive tract (5).
There are a couple of ways in which pumpkin is good for your eyes.
First, it’s rich in vitamin A, which helps keep your vision sharp by helping the retina absorb light.
Second, the combination of other vitamins and minerals in pumpkin may protect against age-related macular degeneration.
One study found that people with age-related macular degeneration could slow its progression by taking a supplement containing zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and copper (7).
While that study used a supplement, you can find all of these nutrients in pumpkin, although in smaller amounts.
The antioxidants found in pumpkin are important for skin health. These include beta-carotene and vitamins C and E.
Eating foods with beta-carotene can also help improve the appearance and texture of skin.
Eating fruits and vegetables is generally heart-healthy. What’s more, pumpkin has specific nutrients that are good for heart health.
The fiber, vitamin C and potassium found in it can help improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Eating foods rich in beta-carotene, such as pumpkin, may help lower your risk of metabolic syndrome (10).
Metabolic syndrome is the cluster of factors that raise your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Bottom Line: Most of the health benefits of pumpkin relate to its micronutrients, including beta-carotene and vitamin A.
Ways to Eat Pumpkin
Pumpkin is popular in pancakes, custards and muffins, but it also works well in savory dishes.
You can cook it into a soup or roast it with other vegetables. Canned pumpkin can be combined with coconut milk and spices to make a creamy curry base.
You can also eat other parts of the pumpkin plant. Its seeds are roasted for a crunchy snack, while its flowers are often battered and fried.
But don’t bother cooking that jack-o’-lantern. The large pumpkins used for carving have a stringy texture and less flavor than pie pumpkins. Plus, for food safety reasons, you don’t want to eat something that has been cut open and sitting around.
Bottom Line: There are many ways to enjoy pumpkin. For the healthiest versions, try using it in savory dishes like soup or as a roasted vegetable.
What to Watch out For
Pumpkin is safe for most people to eat but could cause issues for those taking certain medications. Additionally, avoid pumpkin-flavored junk food.
Pumpkin is mildly diuretic and could be a problem for people who take certain medications, especially lithium.
If you were to eat a lot of pumpkin, it could make it harder for your body to clear lithium, which could lead to drug-related side effects.
Pumpkin-Flavored Junk Food
Just because something has pumpkin in its name, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Drinking pumpkin spice lattes, for instance, doesn’t have any of the health benefits of eating actual pumpkin.
Bottom Line: Pumpkin is generally a healthy food with no negative consequences if eaten in moderation. But steer clear of pumpkin-flavored junk foods.
Take Home Message
Pumpkin is an incredibly healthy vegetable that’s rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
However, to get the most benefits from pumpkin, you should eat it as a vegetable — not a dessert.