Norman Regional Health System

Monday, October 23, 2023

When the temperatures drop and leaves change color, many people respond by indulging in pumpkin spice or apple cinnamon recipes, but the fall-flavored superfood you might be missing out on this season is butternut squash.

This vibrant orange-fleshed gourd is celebrated for its sweet, nutty flavor and versatility in the kitchen. Though, it's not just delicious; it's also incredibly nutritious.

So, let's explore why Norman Regional registered dietitians recommend butternut squash for its health benefits over your more traditional fall food options.

A Brief History of Butternut Squash

First, let's take a step back to learn the history of butternut squash. Despite its association with autumn, it was first known as the winter squash and was discovered in Peru.

Its journey to becoming the butternut squash you see at your local grocery store or farmer’s market began when a man named Charles Legett in Massachusetts bred butternut squash in the mid-1940s. His intention was to create a hybrid of other common gourds that was tough and compact enough to be easily transported.

The butternut squash later became known in the United States as a Native American gourd, which was not commonly consumed until the 19th century. Today, it’s the most widely grown winter squash, with its peak season in October and November.

Nutrient-Rich and Low in Calories

Butternut squash is regarded as a superfood for its ability to boost immunity, support eye health, aid digestion and enhance cognitive function.

It’s a true nutritional powerhouse packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Yet, it still remains low in calories, making it a great addition to your next fall-flavored meal.

While it's often considered a vegetable, it's technically a fruit. By bringing this versatile superfood to the dinner table, you’re boosting you and your family’s intake of nutrients such as vitamins A, C, magnesium and potassium.

The Science Behind Butternut Squash's Health Benefits

Butternut squash is an excellent source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. These antioxidants play a crucial role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases by slowing cellular damage and reducing inflammation.

Studies suggest increasing your intake of beta-carotene and vitamin C may lower the risk of developing lung cancer. A review of 18 studies found that individuals with high beta-carotene intake had a 24% lower risk of developing lung cancer compared to those with lower intake.

According to a meta-analysis of 13 studies, high blood levels of beta-carotene have also been associated with a significantly lower risk of death from all causes, including cancer.

Butternut squash belongs to the group of yellow-orange vegetables and fruits that are rich in carotenoids. In a study of 2,445 participants, heart disease risk decreased by 23% for every additional daily serving of yellow-orange veggies. The carotenoids in these veggies/fruits, such as butternut squash, help support heart health by reducing blood pressure, inflammation, and the expression of genes linked to heart disease.

Versatility in the Kitchen

Besides its health benefits, butternut squash is known for its flavor and versatility. It can be boiled, roasted, baked, mashed or even fried, allowing you to experiment with a variety of dishes.

Some popular meals include butternut squash mac and cheese, roasted butternut squash soup, butternut squash curry, butternut squash pie, and butternut squash hummus.

In many recipes, it can even be used in place of pumpkin, adding a unique and delicious twist, or a healthier alternative to your Halloween and Thanksgiving staples. This year, you could try carving a butternut squash or bake a butternut squash pie!

Incorporating nutrient-rich butternut squash into your autumn menu not only introduces a burst of flavor but also promises a delicious way to boost your health and savor this season's best.