Q: How do pumpkin, winter squash and sweet potatoes compare nutritionally? What are healthy ways to prepare them?
A: Pumpkin and winter squash (including acorn, butternut and hubbard) are in the same plant family, and their nutrient content is similar. As with sweet potatoes, the deep orange color of pumpkin and winter squash signals that they are very high in compounds called carotenoids. In laboratory studies, carotenoids function as antioxidants and aid in controlling cell growth, which could mean they help reduce cancer risk. Human studies link higher consumption of foods containing carotenoids with lower risk of some cancers. All three vegetables are also packed with potassium, which seems to promote good blood pressure control. All are good sources of vitamin C, too, with sweet potatoes containing the highest amounts. Sweet potatoes are richer in natural sugars and starches than most vegetables, making them higher in calories. One-half cup of sweet potatoes has about 90 calories compared to 30 to 40 calories in one-half cup of pumpkin or winter squash.
Many recipes with these vegetables include so much butter, margarine, sugar or syrup, they become quite high in calories. However, those additions are not necessary to enjoy their wonderful flavor. For a quick-and-easy way to boost nutrients and color to your meal, add puréed frozen or canned winter squash or pumpkin to soup, stew or even smoothies. (Just be sure the canned pumpkin is pure, unsalted pumpkin and not sweetened pumpkin pie mix.) Cubes of fresh squash, pumpkin or sweet potatoes are delicious in stir-fries and stews, and mix well with many different flavor combinations. All three choices are also terrific roasted in the oven, either alone or with other vegetables, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil; and you can cook them by steaming as well.
For more information on the health benefits of winter squash, take a look at our Foods That Fight Cancer section.