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Health

Good Gourd! These Squash Varieties Offer Delicious Health Benefits

Acorn, butternut, pumpkin — these autumn offerings provide a bounty of nutritional good news

Reflecting all the brilliant colors of fall foliage, pumpkins, gourds and squash comprise the genus Cucurbita.

Though actually harvested in autumn, “winter” squash are so-called because their thick skins historically allowed for long storage, as opposed to the zucchini and yellow varieties of “summer” squash.

These hardy, hearty fruit — yes, technically, they’re fruit, not vegetables — sport a variety of whimsical shapes and surfaces. You can find them squat and round, fluted and ovoid, and gnarled and warty.

But while such showy exteriors garner all the attention, the inside story is just as exciting, with succulent, savory flesh providing a bounty of nutrition benefits.

Read on to learn the healthy highlights of your fall favorite (all values are per cup, cooked).

Acorn: This squash provides the most nutrition in a nutshell — literally — as it takes its name from its acorn shape.

Among squash varieties, acorn has concentrated nutrients that support heart health, providing 26 percent of potassium (for lower blood pressure), 36 percent of fiber (for lower cholesterol), 20 percent of vitamin B-6 (to help regulate homocysteine) and 20 percent of magnesium (to support proper dilation of blood vessels).

Butternut’s bonanza: It offers 460 percent of daily vitamin A as beta-carotene per delicious serving.

Acorn squash is also an excellent food for athletes, providing 20 percent of daily thiamine, low levels of which may impair sports performance.

Butternut: Provides a bevy of nutrients that help support skin and eye health, such as 460 percent of daily vitamin A as beta-carotene per serving.

“Beta-carotene is good because it’s the precursor to vitamin A — important for keen eyesight,” said Kathy Ferbas, a clinical nutritionist, professor and research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and Pepperdine University.

“Squash are also really high fiber vegetables,” she said, “and that’s good for your gut bacteria and your GI tract in general.”

That’s your inner skin, if you will, but butternut’s beta-carotene, plus its 50 percent of daily vitamin C — and a top source of anti-aging vitamin — makes it a superfood for your complexion. This supports healthy skin by stimulating collagen turnover and defending epithelial cells against the kind of free-radical damage from ultraviolet radiation that can lead to wrinkles and age spots.

Bonus: Butternut gets better with age. becoming sweeter and more flavorful after picking.

Pumpkin: Top squash source of beta-cryptoxanthin and alpha-carotene, high levels of which were linked to a 63 percent lower risk of lung cancer in one Harvard study. Pumpkin may also help you move easier. One British study found that people with the highest intake of beta-cryptoxanthin had half the risk of developing polyarthritis.

“Squash is great for anyone who’s gluten-free or simply avoiding processed carbs,” Ferbas said.

Bonus: Don’t skip the seeds. An ounce of dried pumpkin seeds provide a quarter of your daily iron needs, 40 percent of magnesium and 45 percent of manganese needs.

Spaghetti (squash, that is): Resembling a bright-yellow watermelon with stringy flesh and a mild flavor, it lends itself well to a variety of seasonings.While all varieties listed here are relatively non-fattening, dieters looking for rock-bottom calorie foods will want to scoop up more spaghetti squash, a cooked cup of which has only 40 calories (acorn, with 110 calories per cup cooked, is highest). In fact, savvy weight watchers often swap or supplement pasta noodles with spaghetti squash.

Bonus: Deeper color indicates more beta-carotene, the vitamin A pigment.

“Squash varieties are also great for anyone who’s gluten-free or simply avoiding processed carbs,” said Ferbas, who also counsels patients at Cure Concierge Medical in Malibu, California.

She tells her clients, “Fifty percent of your calories should come from carbs — because you get energy from carbs or fat only — but it’s much better if these carbs are vegetables and fruit, not processed foods.”

Squash has a natural sweetness that really caramelizes when roasted, or grilled.

Highly versatile, these foods can be mashed, whipped, baked, and pureed.