With fall in full swing and frosty nights befalling much of the country it’s a good time to reassess our fruit and vegetable intake and tweak our habitual selections to bring in the warming experiences and tastes of the season. When we begin to experiment and try out the fresh local fruits and vegetables of any season, we benefit our bodies with a variety of new vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients that help support our health in many ways.
Fall season brings us the bounty of butternut squash. It may come as a surprise, but just like it’s ‘squash cousin” the pumpkin, butternut squash is a fruit in botanical terms, not a vegetable. But in cooking, butternut squash is treated and acts more like a vegetable and offers a culinary experience just like its name implies- it has a buttery, nutty taste that provides a savory addition to any meal. The beauty of butternut squash is that you can indulge in a savory satisfying taste experience and at the same time nourish your body with some powerful nutrition. Butternut squash delivers a generous number of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can help with weight loss, prevent certain cancers, reduces heart disease risks, improve blood pressure. blood sugar levels, helps with eye health, bone health, immunity and cognitive health.
Butternut Squash Nutrients:
A cup of butternut squash has only about 82 calories, a bit of protein (2 grams), a very small amount of fat (.18 grams- not even a quarter of a gram of fat) and is mostly comprised of carbohydrates. It has about 22 grams of carbohydrates that includes a substantial amount of fiber (about 7 grams).
The vitamin and mineral content of butternut squash is considerable. With those vibrant orange and yellow colors one cup of butternut squash can deliver more than 450% of the recommended daily requirements of Vitamin A carotenoids, which include beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin and alpha-carotene. Vitamin A helps with eye health; especially for night vision. It helps to regulate normal cellular growth with the daily replacement of skin cells and other surface tissues such as the lining of the gut, the bladder, inner ear, eyes and the respiratory tract. Vitamin A is essential for immune function and for reproduction and fetal health.
One cup of butternut squash also provides over 50% of the daily recommended requirements for Vitamin C. Vitamin C is essential for good health and especially for immunity. It helps with the building of collagen throughout the body as well as tissue repair; keeping tendons, ligaments and connective tissue strong and healthy.
Other important nutrients include a large dose of Manganese, Potassium (more than a banana!), Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Thiamine, Niacin, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Copper and Phosphorus.
The high potassium level makes butternut squash a superhero for helping to regulate blood pressure. Manganese, Copper, and Magnesium all support bone health. Manganese helps the bones re-mineralize. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from oxidative stress and inflammation. Butternut squash contains a large array of B Vitamins like folate and B6 which are important for energy levels and red blood cell production
This wonderful assortment of nutrients helps support your body and your health in many ways.
Butternut Squash can help regulate Blood Pressure:
We all know that reducing our sodium intake is important in managing blood pressure levels, but many overlook the beneficial effects of getting enough potassium. One cup of butternut squash contains over 582 mg of potassium (more than a banana at 422 mg). Potassium is a mineral that performs thousands of functions in the body including regulating fluid balance and regulating muscle contractions and nerve impulses. Unfortunately, most people don’t get enough potassium. According to the World Health Organization adults need 3510 mg per day, while the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine recommend 4700 mg per day. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that less than 2% of people in the US get the recommended amount of potassium in their diets! Increasing our potassium reduces the risk of death from stroke and heart disease.
Butternut Squash can help lower risk of Cancer:
Butternut squash contains more than four times the daily requirement for Vitamin A in the form of carotenoids (beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin and alpha-carotene). These carotenoids along with the high amounts of Vitamin C and Vitamin E are very powerful antioxidants that can reduce your risk of cancers, especially lung cancer risks.
Butternut Squash lowers the risk of Heart Disease:
Besides the high levels of potassium that help to regulate your blood pressure, the carotenoids in butternut squash can also benefit heart health. The carotenoids are what give butternut squash its bright orange color. It has been found that heart disease risks fall 23% for every daily serving you eat of yellow-orange vegetables. This dynamic trio of antioxidants lowers inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the basis of most all chronic disease conditions. Carotenoids have also been linked to controlling the expression of specific genes that are related to heart disease. What that means is if heart disease is in your family history, you can help to not turn those genes ‘on’ by eating these carotenoids every day.
Butternut Squash and Brain Health:
The high antioxidant levels in butternut squash help prevent mental decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The combination of carotenoids and Vitamin E help improve memory, attention and verbal fluency declines which often happen with aging.
Butternut Squash for Weight Loss and Blood Sugar Control:
One cup of butternut squash has 7 grams of fiber and is low on the glycemic index (a measure of how rapidly something affects our blood sugar levels). It is recommended that we eat anywhere from 25 -30 grams of fiber every day. Fiber helps with weight loss in many ways. Studies have shown that for every (1) one gram of increase in fiber intake, (woman’s) weight decreased by .33 lbs. and body fat decreased by .25 of 1 percentage point. By increasing daily fiber intake, you ensure a slow steady weight loss and body fat loss and it has been shown to effectively keep the weight off. Fiber also has an advantageous effect on blood sugar. Fiber helps to slow down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream; giving a nice steady flow of energy to the body as opposed to skyrocketing blood sugar. This not only helps with reducing overall blood sugar levels, it also helps with that awful mood crash that follows a high carbohydrate/low fiber meal. So even though butternut squash may be primarily a carbohydrate, it is a slowly digested carb that has been shown to not spike blood sugar levels.
Butternut Squash and Immune Function:
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can do wonders for immune support and function. In particular, the high amounts of Vitamin A carotenoids, Vitamin E and healthy dose (more than 50%) of Vitamin C in butternut squash combine to give the immune system a nice boost, especially as the flu season comes upon us.
How to Prepare Butternut Squash:
Now that you can’t wait to incorporate butternut squash into your daily and weekly diet here are a few tips on how to prepare it. The skin is tough and needs to be removed. You can simply cut off the top and bottom and peel it with a knife; or if that proves too difficult, poke a few holes in it and microwave it for a short time to soften up the skin. You can also bake it in the oven; cut it in half and bake it to soften the skin. Once the skin is off, scoop the seeds out and set them aside (you can roast them for an additional healthy treat- they taste like pumpkin seeds when roasted and provide tons of nutrients). You can then roast, mash, air-fry, and/or puree the butternut squash.
Once you have the skin off, you can do some amazing things with your butternut squash; it is very versatile and works like a potato substitute and feels like a comfort food. Most people simply cube it, drizzle it with olive oil and roast it to a golden brown in the oven. But it can also be a fantastic potato substitute- mash it like you would potatoes or cut it up and air-fry it for a substitute French fry. Pureed butternut squash makes a delicious soup as well as being a wonderful addition to a hearty winter stew in your crock pot. You can also add it to chili, to salads, prepare and eat it as you would home fries giving a nutritious boost to your breakfast.
Recipe suggestion: Butternut Squash Soup:
Here’s a simple recipe from The Food Network that is easy to prepare ahead to take to work with you- whether you are at a desk or driving all day. Use low sodium chicken stock as a healthier option.
Butternut Squash Soup:
- One 2- to 3-pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 6 cups chicken stock
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut squash up into 1” cubes/chunks. Melt butter in a large pot; add the onions and cook until they are translucent (about 8 minutes). Add the chicken stock and the squash and simmer until squash is tender (about 15-20 minutes). Remove the squash with a slotted spoon and put in a blender to puree until smooth. Return the puree to the pot, season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy!
By Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach