It’s hard to find a food that is more versatile and more misunderstood than squash. You might even call it the un-glamorous, ugly step-sister of the “Three Sisters” (the staples of corn, beans and squash) that sustained Native American people for a millennia before the advent of European explorers. In fact it is believed to be one of man’s oldest cultivated crops, with archaeological data tracing its origins back 10,000 years in Mesoamerica. But this sometimes maligned, long-serving multi-tasker combines great taste with some incredible health benefits that include: improving the quality of your sight; strengthening the immune system; helping to prevent cancer; managing diabetes, building strong bones; promoting heart health… and the list goes on and on.
Before we get into squash’s enviable list of beneficial vitamins, minerals and nutrients, we thought it would be fun to take a look at a few fun squash facts you may not know:
FACT: despite popular belief, the squash is not a vegetable. It’s considered a fruit because it contains the seeds of the plant.
FACT: The squash family has many cousins that are all a part of the same genetic family or genus – called cucurbita, including summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, melons and gourds.
FACT: Summer squash is not just available in summer. In our part of the country, “summer” squash is in season from early summer through late fall.
FACT: Winter squash is not grown in the winter. It is called that because it can be stored through the winter.
FACT: Summer squash varieties include zuchinni, crookneck, straightneck, patty-pan, and pumpkin. They have thin, edible skins and soft seeds.
FACT: Winter squash varieties include acorn, butternut, turban, banana and spaghetti. Winter squash have hard, thick, inedible skins.
FACT: True “gourds“ are inedible. They have extremely hard shells and when dried are used as decoration, for birdhouses, dippers for water, and to make musical instruments. However, the word gourd is often used to refer to all members of the genus cucurbita.
The sizable list of health benefits of squash comes from the organic compounds, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that they contain. The following is a breakdown of these elements and how they impact the body.
Immune System Health. Squash is an important source of vitamin C, magnesium and antioxidant compounds that boost the body’s immune response. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, that have been connected with a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and premature aging. Squash also contains very high levels of vitamin A, including carotenoid phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin.
Managing Diabetes. Squash is a great source of B-complex vitamins, essential to controlling blood sugar. Some types of squash contain healthy amounts of dietary fiber, including pectin, which also is essential to blood sugar regulation, helping keep glucose levels constant, reducing the dips and spikes that can make diabetic life so difficult.
Anti-Inflammatory Capacity. The anti-inflammatory properties of squash are the result of omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene, and homogalacturonan. Anti-inflammatory affects benefit symptoms of arthritis and gout, and studies have also been linked to a reduction of gastric and duodenal ulcers, and inflammation of the cardiovascular system.
Antiseptic, Antimicrobial, Antifungal Activity: The seeds of squash have been directly connected to antiparasitic, antimicrobial, and antifungal activity within the body, protecting us from a wide range of conditions, including intestinal parasites, like tapeworms.
Lung Health: The vitamin A in squash has been linked in studies to a reduction in emphysema. And, squash contain an important carotenoid called beta-cryptoxanthin that has been linked to a reduction in the occurrence of lung cancer.
Neural Tube Defects: Squash has significant levels of folate, an essential vitamin for pregnant women. Folic acid, or folate, is integral to healthy development of the fetus.
Cardiovascular Health: The magnesium and potassium in squash form an effective defense against heart disease. Potassium relaxes the tension of blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood flow and reducing stress on the heart. The fiber found in squash helps to remove excess cholesterol from arterial walls, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and stroke. And, the high levels of folate help neutralize harmful homocysteine that has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Asthmatic Conditions: The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of squash have been found to help reduce air passage inflammation brought on by an asthma attack.
Blood Circulation: Many varieties of squash have high levels of iron and copper, which are essential components of red blood cells, helping reduce the risk of anemia and improving circulation, brain function, and overall energy levels.
Eye Health: A single serving of squash can contain more than 400% of your daily requirement for vitamin A, due to the massive amounts of beta-carotene. High levels of beta-carotene have been connected with reduced risk of macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and other vision issues.
Bone Health: The high levels of essential vitamins found within squash make it important to building strong bones. Squash is a valuable source of zinc, calcium, manganese, and other important trace elements that help reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.
A Word of Caution: people who suffer from hypotension should avoid vegetables like squash, which might lower blood pressure to a dangerous level.
from Eating Well to Fight Arthritis cookbook
Presto! Sausage, squash, tomatoes and Italian seasonings create this remarkable recipe.
Makes 4 (1 ¼ cup) servings
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting any salt or oil. Drain and set aside. 2. In nonstick skillet, cook sausage over medium heat until browned, stirring. Add zucchini, squash, onion and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, cooking until liquid is almost reduced. 3. Add tomatoes, oregano and basil, and cook until tomatoes are tender. Serve over pasta.
Nutritional Information per serving: Calories 199, Calories from fat 32%, Fat 7 g, Saturated Fat 2 g, Cholesterol 66 mg, Sodium 479mg, Carbohydrate 17 g, Dietary Fiber 4 g, Protein 18 g, Diabetic Exchanges: 3 vegetable, 2 lean meat
Serving Suggestion: Serve with whole wheat penne pasta or pasta of choice.
Terrific Tidbit: 1 (28-ounce) can diced no-salt tomatoes, drained, may be substituted for fresh chopped tomatoes.
Want to turn up the nutritional volume on your Italian meat sauce? Add fresh squash and zucchini for this power-packed dish from Holly Clegg’s KITCHEN 101, that’s great on any pasta.
Makes 8 (1-cup) servings
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting any salt or oil. Drain and set aside. 2. In large nonstick skillet coated with nonstick cooking spray, sauté onion, squash, and zucchini about 5 minutes. Add meat and garlic and cook over medium heat until meat is done and vegetables are tender, 5-7 minutes. Drain excess grease. 3. Add marinara, basil, oregano and sugar. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes or time permitting. Season to taste. Serve over pasta.
Terrific Tip: Meat sauce freezes great so freeze in individual zip-top freezer bags to pull out for meals.
Food Facts: Calories 220; Calories from Fat 31%; Fat 8g; Saturated Fat 3g; Cholesterol 62mg; Sodium 438mg; Carbohydrates 12g; Dietary Fiber 3g; Total Sugars 3g; Protein 27g
Dietary Exchanges: 2 vegetable, 3 lean meat