Newswise — SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA (Nov. 19, 2015) – With the holidays approaching, the humble pumpkin has taken its rightful place center stage. One of the most versatile of fruits, almost every part of the pumpkin is edible – flowers, leaves, meat, seeds and oil – and virtually all offer health benefits.

“Although we usually think of pumpkin only around the holidays, the many health benefits associated with it make it worth including in your diet year-round,” says Erin Morse, a registered dietitian and the chief clinical dietitian at UCLA Health.

Low in calories and high in fiber, pumpkin offers numerous health benefits, ranging from weight loss to sun protection to improved heart health, better vision and more.

COMMON-COLD FIGHTER – Although important year-round, immunity-boosters are especially vital during cold and flu season. “Pumpkin is chock full of nutrients – vitamins C and A, potassium and iron – that can help boost your immunity and keep you healthy,” says Morse.

SHARPER FOCUS – Loaded with vitamin A, pumpkin can help keep your eyesight sharp – a one-cup serving contains about 200 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Pumpkin also contains antioxidants that may help prevent cataracts and lower your risk for macular degeneration.

NATURAL CANCER FIGHTER – According to the National Institutes of Health, food sources that are rich in beta-carotene and other antioxidants may help fend off certain types of cancer. Pumpkin fits the mold.

Morse notes that studies have shown that people who eat a diet rich in beta-carotene may have a reduced risk of breast and prostate cancer. They also may enjoy some protection against harmful UV rays,” “The key word is diet,” she adds. “Taking beta-carotene supplements don’t appear to provide the same cancer-fighting benefits.”

BETTER THAN BANANAS – While bananas are often considered nature’s energy bar, the truth is that a cup of cooked pumpkin has 505 milligrams of potassium compared to a banana’s 422. Among other things, potassium is important for heart health and for restoring electrolytes after hard workouts. It can also play a role in treating high blood pressure and reducing stroke risk. Morse cautions, though, that high potassium levels may not be good for those with kidney problems.

HELP FOR HOLIDAY POUNDS – Surprisingly, eating pumpkin puree can aid with weight loss. With 8 grams of fiber per canned cup, pumpkin has more fiber than two slices of whole-grain bread.

“Foods that are high in fiber slow your digestion and make you feel full longer,” says Morse. “Plus, canned pumpkin is about 90 percent water, so it also helps keep you hydrated – important in any weight-loss program.”

PUMPKIN SUPER SEEDS – Also known as pepitas, pumpkin seeds are high in protein and packed with minerals. Their high magnesium levels help with your heart, blood vessels and proper bowel function. Morse suggests adding them to oatmeal, granola or healthy sautéed veggies, scattering them on top of mixed green salads or grinding them up to add to pesto.

Although pumpkin is definitely one of nature’s superstars, it’s important to be sure you’re getting the real thing, says Morse. When selecting canned pumpkin, read the ingredients and aim for no preservatives, sugar or additives. Look for labels that state ‘100 percent pumpkin,’ and when possible, choose organic. Be sure you’re getting plain pureed pumpkin and not pumpkin-pie filling – the cans often look alike.

As for those pumpkin-flavored drinks that are so popular at this time of year? “I would pass on them,” says Morse. “They don’t carry the same health benefits, and they’re loaded with sugar, fat and calories.”

She suggests adding pumpkin-pie spice to your coffee instead.

About UCLA Health UCLA Health has provided high quality healthcare and the most advanced treatment options to the people of the greater Los Angeles region and the world for more than 60 years. UCLA Health includes four hospitals on two campuses – Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center; UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica; Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA; and Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA – and more than 150 primary and specialty offices throughout Southern California. UCLA Health is consistently ranked as one of the top hospitals and the best in the western United States in the national rankings by U.S. News and World Report. For more information, visit http://www.uclahealth.org.

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