The nutrients in pumpkin are really phenomenal. Extremely high in fiber and low in calories, pumpkin packs an abundance of disease-fighting nutrients, including potassium, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and vitamins C and E. Even pumpkin seeds carry nutrition, like protein, potassium, magnesium and fiber. They also boost your mood.
The key nutrient that boosts pumpkin to the top of the SuperFoods list is the synergistic combination of carotenoids. Pumpkin contains one of the richest supplies of bioavailable carotenoids known to man. Indeed, a half-cup serving of pumpkin gives you more than two times the recommended daily dietary intake of alpha-carotene and 100 percent of the recommended daily dietary goal of beta-carotene. When you realize the tremendous benefits of these nutrients, you’ll see why pumpkin is such an extraordinary nutrition superstar.
Carotenoids are deep orange-, yellow-, or red-colored, fat-soluble compounds that occur in a variety of plants. They protect the plants from sun damage while they help them attract birds and insects for pollination. So far scientists have identified about 600 carotenoids, and more than 50 of them commonly occur in our diet. Not all dietary carotenoids are efficiently absorbed. As a result, only 34 carotenoids have currently been found in our blood and human breast milk.
Foods rich in carotenoids have been linked to a host of health- promoting and disease-fighting activities. They have been shown to decrease the risk of various cancers, including those of the lung, colon, bladder, cervical, breast and skin. In the landmark Nurses’ Health Study. Women with the highest concentrations of carotenes in their diets had the lowest risk of breast cancer.
Carotenoids have also shown great promise in their ability to lower rates of heart disease. In one 13-year-long study, researchers found a strong correlation between lower carotenoid concentrations in the blood and a higher rate of heart disease. As has frequently been found, the correlation between increased carotenoid consumption and decreased risk of heart disease was higher when all carotenoids, not just beta-carotene, were considered. Carotenoid consumption also decreases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
The two carotenoids that are richly present in pumpkin—beta- and alpha- carotene—are particularly potent phytonutrients.
Beta-carotene, which first came to attention in the 1980s, is one of the world’s most studied antioxidants. The word “carotenoid”—derived from “carrot”—comes from the yellow-orange color of these nutrients, which at first were linked primarily with carrots. Carrots (and sweet potatoes) also contain rich amounts of beta-carotene. It’s abundant in fruits and vegetables, and we’ve long known that the beta-carotene in foods helps prevent many diseases, including lung cancer. It was the connection between beta-carotene and lung-cancer prevention that led to some fascinating studies. These groundbreaking studies on beta-carotene were among the first indications that supplements were not the total answer in preventing disease and, indeed, it’s this finding that’s at the heart of SuperFoods: Whole foods are the answer to disease prevention and health promotion.
Scientists reasoned that if the beta-carotene in foods helped to prevent lung cancer, it followed that a beta-carotene supplement would do the same. Unfortunately, and shockingly, two important studies showed that, to the contrary, smokers who took beta-carotene supplements showed an increase in lung cancer.
Perhaps you recall those studies. They made front-page news around the world a few years ago:
• In 1996, a Finnish study on 29,000 male smokers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that those who smoked and took beta-carotene supplements were 18 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than those who had not taken supplements.
• In the United States, the Carotene and Retinal Efficacy Trial (CARET) study, which was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, was halted almost two years before expected completion because of the negative effects of the supplemental beta-carotene and vitamin A on smokers when compared with subjects taking a placebo.
The news of the surprising outcomes was stunning to those who follow health trends. They had become accustomed to regular positive reports that individual micronutrients help to prevent disease. What went wrong? In simplest terms, the beta-carotene found in foods, working synergistically with the other nutrients present in that food, have a very different effect on the body than a single nutrient isolated from its web of assisting and augmenting synergistic partners. The carotenoids, like many nutrients, work best as a team; break up the team and results can be unpredictable.
When derived from whole foods like pumpkin, the carotenoids are major players in the fight against disease. Higher blood levels of beta-carotene and alpha-carotene are associated with lower levels of certain chronic diseases. In laboratory studies, beta-carotene has been shown to
have very powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It prevents the oxidation of cholesterol in laboratory studies and. since oxidized cholesterol is the type that builds up in blood vessel walls and contributes to the risk of heart attack and stroke, getting extra beta-carotene in the diet may help to prevent the progression of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Beta-carotene along with other carotenoids may also prove to be helpful in preventing the free radical-caused complications of long-term diabetes and the increased risk for cardiovascular disease associated with this common illness.
Studies have also shown that a good intake of beta-carotene can help reduce the risk of colon cancer, possibly by protecting colon cells from the damaging effects of cancer-causing chemicals.
While beta-carotene has long been linked with health promotion, it’s the bounty of alpha-carotene in pumpkin that makes it a real nutritional standout. The exciting news about alpha-carotene is that its presence in the body along with other key nutrients is reportedly inversely related to biological aging. In other words, the more alpha-carotene you eat, the slower your body shows signs of age. Not only may alpha-carotene slow down the aging process, it also has been shown to protect against various cancers and cataracts. Moreover, the combination of carotenoids, potassium, magnesium and folate found in pumpkin offers protection against cardiovascular disease.
Pumpkin is also a terrific source of fiber. Most people aren’t aware of the fiber content of canned pumpkin because it seems so creamy. Just one full-cup serving provides 5 grams of fiber—more than you’re getting from most supermarket cereals.