Exploring the health benefits of one of America’s oldest-known crops
The fall season often connotes visions of Halloween, the changing colors of the leaves and our clocks, but it also brings forth warm feelings of comfort found in traditional fall foods like winter squash. The season is upon us so head to the farmer’s market and find your favorite squash for the next few months.
Did you know that “squash,” which apparently comes from the Narragansett Native American word “askutasquash,” is a “superfood” chock-full of health benefits? It’s no surprise that our country’s original natives counted on this ancient American fruit to sustain them through the long and cold winter months.
Squashes are one of America’s oldest known crops. Some believe that they may be over 10,000 years old. According to The Library of Congress, the flesh and seed interior became part of the pre-Colombian Indian diet throughout the Americas. The original gourds most likely functioned as containers because of their hard shells.
Winter squash is an annual fruit that grows on a vine. There are several different species of winter squash, which is different from summer squash in that it is harvested late summer through fall and picked when the fruit is mature. Their thick, hard rind allows them to be stored in a cool, dark place for many months.
The most popular winter squash varieties are Acorn, Autumn, Banana, Butternut, Spaghetti, Turban and last but not the least, the fairytale Pumpkin squash. They are grown all over the United States but in particular California, New York and Michigan.
Top Six Health Benefits
While we all envision a bowl of creamy butternut squash soup let’s peel back the skin and see what nutrients lay within these quintessential fall and winter-time favorites.
- Feel full longer
Squash is low in calories and high in fiber, which helps the digestive tract not only feel full for longer, but also helps to rid itself of cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.
- Vision Enhancement
Squash contains very high levels of Vitamin A and beta-carotene, both of which help vision, especially in low lighting. According to the National Institute of Health one cup of cubed pumpkin contains almost twice the recommended daily serving of Vitamin A. Butternut squash contains the highest level among the winter varietals.
- Blood Pressure Reduction
We have been told to decrease our sodium intake to reduce high blood pressure, but why not try some butternut squash, which contains a considerable amount of potassium (a mineral which can contribute to the reduction of high blood pressure). According to Medical News Today, one cup of cubed butternut squash contains 582 milligrams of potassium, which is more than the average sized banana.
And of course, let’s not forget the beneficial effects of potassium ions in muscle health and recovery from muscle stress.
- Sleep Enhancement
Your Thanksgiving turkey is not the only food that contains the sleep-inducing amino acid, tryptophan (or Trp). Squash also contains significant levels of Trp, which helps promote serotonin production and thus contributes to the feeling of increased relaxation. Squash is also rich in magnesium and according to Lauren Weiler (Assistant Editor of The Cheat Sheet – cheatsheet.com); squash can help regulate cortisol and melatonin, which further help improve quality of sleep.
Of course, one needs to mention that by virtue of its effects on the cortisol (a hormone that regulates stress – also known as the “stress hormone”) squash may reduce stress levels and help relaxation and improve mood.
- Cardiovascular Health Improvement
Squash, and in particular Spaghetti Squash, boasts high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, strong anti-inflammatory agents that promote cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure. Acorn squash contains high levels of cucurbitacin, which is also a natural anti-inflammatory. Additionally, squash contains vitamin B, beta-carotene and folate, all of which contribute to good heart health.
Of course, given their high omega-3 content, squash can have a number of beneficial effects related to these critical fatty acids such as lowering triglyceride levels, improve brain function, aid neonatal development, while generally provide strong anti-inflammatory support.
- Skin and Hair Enrichment
During the fall and winter months our skin tends to feel dryer. Sometimes the skin feels itchy, eczema is known to flair and dry scalp is usually in the mix too. Squash’s beta-carotene and omega 3 fatty acids can both benefit the skin and hair.
Squash Fun Facts
- Apparently the first pumpkin pie was a hollowed out gourd filled with sugar, spices, apples and milk and was baked with the stem on top.
- Pumpkin Seeds are packed with high levels of dietary fiber and zinc, which makes for a healthy roasted snack.
- Americans consume approximately fifty million pumpkin pies on Thanksgiving