Winter squash is a nutrient-dense and delicious vegetable that is popular around the world. There are many different cultivars and each offering a unique nutrient profile, but if you want to boost your overall mineral and antioxidant intake, these vegetables should definitely be introduced to your diet.
What is Winter Squash?
Winter squash is actually a term that described a number of different cultivars of squash varieties, all of which belong to the Cucurbita genus. Unlike other popular forms of squash, such as summer squash, winter squash is harvested once the squash is fully mature. At this stage, the rind tends to be much harder, and it is typically removed before cooking/eating. Few types of winter squash are eaten raw, but they are a popular ingredient in many stews and as a side to savory dishes. Most winter squash varietals will be harvested in September or October, before the first major frosts of the year, but many farmers will harvest the squash as soon as the color becomes solid and consistent.
Most winter squash has round, elongated or even pear shaped, and the flesh tends to range from a light yellow to a vibrant orange. These fruits grow on the vine and tend to have hard, inedible seeds. When harvesting winter squash, it is important to choose those with hard outer rinds and no visible cuts or damage. The term winter squash has been applied to this group because they are able to be stored for months at a time without going bad. They also take longer to cultivate (roughly 3 months) than their summer squash cousins. In the past, winter squash was a critical staple food in many parts of the world, as it could sustain families through difficult winters. Before you start cooking with winter squash, it is important to understand the different types, the nutritional value and the potential health benefits.
Types of Winter Squash
Depending on what recipe you are trying to make, it may required either summer squash or winter squash, but it can be difficult to tell the two types apart. Some of the most popular varieties of winter squash are:
- Spaghetti Squash
- Buttercup Squash
- Banana Squash
- Butternut Squash
- Boston Marrow Squash
- Delicata Squash
- Winter Crookneck Squash
- Acorn Squash
- Fairytale Pumpkin Squash
- Hubbard Squash
- Turban Squash
- Sweet Dumpling Squash
Winter Squash Nutrition Facts
Winter squash contains an impressive amount of immune-supportive vitamin A and vitamin C, as well as dietary fiber, manganese, copper, potassium, folate, manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin K, vitamin B3 and omega-3 fatty acids. Although every winter squash is slightly different, and may have varying levels of carbohydrates, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and nutrients, the cultivars listed above tend to share many of the same nutritional components.
In the case of vitamin A, a single serving (1 cup) of winter squash contains up to 60% of your daily recommended intake. This is in addition to impressive levels of carotenoids and other phenolic compounds, which have antioxidant effects on the body. Although the calorie count is quite low, at only 76 calories per cup, roughly 90% of those calories come from carbohydrates, as winter squash has high levels of starch, including pectins.
Health Benefits of Winter Squash
Some of the top health benefits of winter squash include its ability to improve digestive efficiency, stimulate the immune system, boost vision, strengthen the bones, lower cholesterol levels, stimulate skin health, reduce blood pressure, regulate the metabolism, eliminate inflammation, aid sleep disorders, optimize blood sugar and prevent certain cancers.
With a healthy supply of carotenoids and other phenolic compounds, winter squash varieties can be excellent for improving the appearance of the skin. Antioxidants like those contained in these vegetables can help to reduce oxidative stress and minimize the appearance of wrinkles, age spots and blemishes, while also speeding the repair process and giving the skin a healthy glow.
Increases Bone Mineral Density
These squash varieties are rich in minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, manganese and copper, all of which contribute to bone mineral density and ensuring that the body remains strong and durable as we age. By increasing your intake of these critical minerals, you can lower your risk of developing osteoporosis.
A single serving of winter squash delivers more than 25% of your daily requirement of vitamin C, which is a critical immune system booster in the body. Vitamin C can stimulate the production of white blood cells, in addition to functioning as an antioxidant and neutralizing free radical activity wherever it is found in the body.
The range of B vitamins found in winter squash is impressive, to say the least, as these compounds are essential to metabolic processes throughout the body, including energy metabolism, repair and growth, hormonal fluctuations and enzymatic production. The high level of folate (10% of your daily requirement) can also help prevent neural tube defects in infants.
Controls Blood Sugar
For people with diabetes, eating food that is rich in carbohydrates can be dangerous, as this may cause a spike in blood sugar. However, winter squash contains unique types of carbohydrates, such as polysaccharides like pectin. Research has revealed that these compounds actually have anti-inflammatory and insulin-regulating properties, making moderate consumption of winter squash perfectly safe for diabetic patients.
Cucurbitacins are the unique compounds found in all squash varieties, as well as certain melons and other related foods, that are actually a part of the vegetable’s defensive mechanism. These unpleasant-tasting molecules will not only prevent pests and animals from eating the squash, but will also deliver anti-inflammatory benefits to the body, neutralizing symptoms of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, while also cutting down on overall oxidative stress.
There is a significant amount of dietary fiber found in winter squash (more than 20% of your daily recommended intake), which is known to scrape excess cholesterol from the body to protect heart health. Furthermore, there are omega-3 fatty acids found in winter squash that will help to balance cholesterol levels, lowering LDL and increasing HDL, which can help prevent coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis.
The starchy nature of winter squash, in addition to the significant level of dietary fiber, makes this vegetable an ideal component of good digestive health. Dietary fiber can help stimulate peristaltic motion and optimize nutrient uptake in the gut, while relieving symptoms of constipation, bloating and cramping, even lowering your risk of colorectal cancer and ulcers.
One cup of winter squash has roughly 60% of your daily recommendation for vitamin A, in addition to a number of beneficial carotenoids, all of which can boost the health of your eyes. These antioxidant substances can reduce oxidative stress on the retina and slow down the development of macular degeneration, as well as reduce the progression of cataracts.
With a rich supply of antioxidants, it is no surprise that a significant amount of research has been done on winter squash’s effect on cancer. When it comes to prostate and breast cancer, regular consumption of winter squash has been shown to reduce tumor formation and slow the spread of cancerous cells, thanks to the powerful effects of antioxidants.
The magnesium found in winter squash, in addition to other B vitamins and minerals, can help to regulate your sleep patterns by stimulating the production of neurotransmitters that induce relaxation and sleep. For people with insomnia, eating a bit of winter squash before bed can help prevent interruptions and ensure that you feel rested in the morning!
How to Prepare Winter Squash?
Winter squash can be prepared in a number of ways, but due to the mature nature of the squash, the flesh can often be quite tough, so cooking the squash in some way is commonly recommended. The 3 most popular ways to cook winter squash are roasting, baking and boiling.
Baking: One popular way to prepare winter squash is to cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and then add honey, brown sugar or cinnamon – as well as butter – to the inside of the halves. You can then place the two halves on a baking sheet and bake them at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes.
Roasting: Similar to the baking method, you can cut the squash in half, add the sweet flavorings, but be sure to rub the butter on the flesh thoroughly. Place the halves on a baking sheet and roast them in the over for 45 minutes at a high temperature (~400 degrees). The outside of the squash will begin to crack or blister, but the inner flesh will be soft and tender, making it ideal for mashing or any number of other culinary applications.
Boiling: As with the other methods, you begin by slicing the squash in half and scooping out the seeds. Then, slice off the outer rind and cut the remaining flesh into small cubes – about 1 inch on every side. Add the squash to a saucepan with water and bring the mixture to a boil. The flesh will then be tender and ideal for cooking a number of different dishes.