A group of mini pumpkins
Ah, the fall harvest. The autumn bounty is both colorful and nutritious. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Nothing says autumn quite like pumpkins.

They add bursts of color to country landscapes and table decorations. And every Halloween, they grin and glow on front porches.

But pumpkins are much more than a pretty (or scary) face.

They are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.

“It’s a cool fruit,” said Holly Dykstra, RD, a Spectrum Health dietitian. “For some reason, people only turn to it in the fall, and then they go nuts for it.”

A fruit?

Yes, as a seed-bearing structure of a flowering plant, a pumpkin is classified as a fruit.

It also is a type of winter squash and part of the cucurbit family, which includes squash, gourds, melons and cucumbers.

And its nutrition extends beyond the flesh of the pumpkin. The flower, seeds and shell all are edible, too.

Dykstra provided reasons to add pumpkin to your diet—and suggestions for delicious ways to enjoy it.

An A+ bonus

Pumpkins deliver a whopping dose of vitamin A—a cup contains 245% of the recommended daily allowance.

“That is really important for healthy vision,” Dykstra said.

Pumpkin is high in vitamin C as well.

“Both vitamins A and C are important in keeping our immune system going,” Dykstra said.

It contains several B vitamins, including folate, which has been shown to help reproductive health.

“Pumpkin also has a lot of potassium, which is great for blood pressure reduction and good muscle function,” Dykstra added.

And reducing blood pressure can reduce risk of heart disease and stroke.

The fiber in pumpkin—7 grams per cup—delivers significant health benefits.

“That is great for anybody looking for digestive health, blood sugar management and cholesterol management,” Dykstra said.

Most people should strive for 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, but Americans average only about 12 grams, she said.

With 7 grams of fiber per cup, pumpkin can help boost your fiber intake.

Pumpkin also contains antioxidants, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. They have been shown to neutralize free radicals, protect the skin against sun damage and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and eye diseases.

Even with all those health benefits, pumpkin is low in calories: A cup of pumpkin contains 50 calories.

“It’s really nutrient dense,” Dykstra said. “It offers a ton of nutrition for the amount of calories it has.”

Puree, sauté, roast and bake

If you are shopping for pumpkin, you can buy canned or fresh.

For the fresh pumpkins, look for the small round ones. They typically are known as pie pumpkins—or sugar or sweet pumpkins.

Dykstra offered options to add pumpkin to your meals.

  • Slice pumpkin and roast it in the oven or sauté it in a pan.
  • Use pureed pumpkin to make pumpkin soup. Or add chunks of pumpkin to vegetable soup.
  • Add it to waffles, pancakes, muffins and cookies. It is especially good paired with pecans, Dykstra said.
  • If you are looking to cut fat from baked goods, substitute pureed pumpkin for oil or butter.
  • Make a pasta sauce from pumpkin.
  • Serve mashed pumpkin as a side dish, as an alternative to potatoes. Or mix it with mashed sweet potatoes.

The best known pumpkin dish, of course, is the favorite fall dessert—pumpkin pie.

“Even though pumpkin pie is not the most nutrient-dense food available doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat it,” Dykstra said. “If you choose to eat it, enjoy it. And make sure you are eating healthful foods and balanced meals the rest of the day.”

Don’t forget the seeds

The large pumpkins we turn into jack-o-lanterns have their own nutritional benefit: They are a great source of pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin seeds are high in protein and in antioxidants. They are a good source of iron, magnesium and zinc.

Traditionally, the roasted seeds are salted. But if you want to reduce sodium intake, Dykstra suggests trying different herb and spice combinations.

“A lot of people like to roast the seeds when they are carving pumpkins,” she said. “It’s fun, it reduces food waste, and it’s a really nutritious practice.”