Gourd for You

Take a cue from nature’s changing palette and add some fall color to your diet. Freshly harvested winter-squash varieties are as rich in nutrients as they are in flavor
Photograph by Joe Vaughn

Squash, the giant-size vegetables of autumn, pack a large dose of dietary benefits. On the vitamin report card, you might say they rank an A-plus.

“All squash is an excellent source of vitamin A, an antioxidant that may help prevent cancer and heart disease,” says Susanne Consiglio, a registered dietitian with Nutrition Balance in St. Clair Shores. “Squash is high in potassium; a tennis ball-size serving has about 400-550 milligrams, which helps regulate heartbeat.” That’s good news for consumers of produce who, about this time in the season, are lamenting the decline of locally grown blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, and melon.

Winter squash, which includes butternut, acorn, hubbard, turban, and spaghetti varieties, also has a high fiber content, Consiglio says, which makes it filling and an excellent side dish. “Fiber helps regulate the digestive tract and may prevent colon problems, including cancer, she says. “And while not as high as its other nutrients, squash also contains vitamin C, as well as fluid.”

Cooks eager to return to hearty, cool-weather recipes should note, however, that typical squash preparations with lots of butter and brown sugar can detract from the vegetable’s natural health benefits, and add 200-300 calories. Consiglio recommends slicing and baking the squash, then adding a couple of teaspoons of olive oil or low-fat, trans fat-free margarine. For a sweeter flavor, a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or apple juice can go a long way without a lot of calories. If sweet’s not your thing, experiment with spices. “I like garlic powder, oregano, thyme, or even a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese,” she says.

According to Maple Creek Farms, which grows organic produce in Yale, Mich., and sells locally, spaghetti squash is ready for harvest in late summer with the rest of the winter-squash varieties available beginning in mid-September. Pumpkins show up in the beginning of October, just in time for Halloween carving as well as cooking and baking.

Pumpkins offer a nutritious byproduct. According to theworldshealthiestfoods.com, pumpkin seeds promote prostate health and bone mineral density. They also may relieve arthritis symptoms. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds provides 46 percent of the daily value for magnesium, the Web site reports. They’re also rich in iron, copper, protein, and zinc, and may help lower cholesterol.