The Health Benefits of Winter Squash

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Squash Nutrition

Winter squash is versatile in flavor, pairs well with other ingredients, and is pretty enough for a tablescape. It’s also well regarded for its health benefits. But what exactly are those merits? We are taking a deeper delve into the nutritional side of winter squash along with a variety of recipes that will put it to good use

When I think of fall, I think of squash. How could I not?

The stores are freshly stocked with butternut squash-filled pastas, pumpkin-flavored sweets, and a variety of colorful gourds. I see social media posts of friends sipping pumpkin lattes or digging into a bowl of saucy spaghetti squash.It’s everywhere!

This is also the time when those obligatory facts on winter squash start to pop up –how the flesh is rich in vitamin A & C and the seeds are a good source of zinc; that squash is actually a fruit but is commonly referred to as a vegetable; and that there are more than 30 squash varieties.

These details serve as fun points of interest, but they are not particularly meaningful for our daily food choices. So, here’s a twist on the familiar. Let’s examine the impact that these nutritional facts have on real-life cooking and eating. Specifically, how winter squash fits into diets for certain medical conditions.

And of course, Ann has a new recipe to boot!

Just like families share much of the same genetic coding, the winter squash family members have a similar nutritional makeup.

In saying that, there are more than 30 varietals, so depending on how the squash are cooked and which parts are eaten (skin, seeds, and flesh have different nutritional profiles), there will be some differences in nutritional content.

Accordingly, unless you have a specific medical condition (more on that below), or work in a research lab, the exact amounts of vitamins and minerals aren’t particularly significant.

Squash Nutrition Vertical

Why does everyone get excited about the health benefits of winter squash? If the vitamin A, C, and zinc content is as important as it is often made out to be, how exactly does eating it translate into health benefits? And what are those benefits?

Let’s review.

The American Cancer Society recommends that we eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of all colors. This includes all the colors of the rainbow – such as the oranges, greens, and yellows we see in winter squash varietals.

There is no conclusive research to show that one particular fruit or vegetable is more protective for overall health than another based on nutrient content. As far as we know, the protective element is eating a wide variety of them.

Common Cold
Squash may be known for its vitamin C content, but that may not need to drive your decision to eat it. Only 7% of Americans suffer from vitamin C deficiency (often referred to as scurvy) and the majority of this group is also deficient in other nutrients or concurrently suffers from malnutrition. Suffice it to say, you would know if you had a vitamin C deficiency.

Despite what popular advertisements would have you believe about vitamin C, more is not better. Extra vitamin C won’t help ward off colds or boost your immune system. When vitamin C is consumed in excess (typically this only happens when taken in supplements form but is worth mentioning), the body will simply excrete it, not save it for later.

Additionally, zinc (which is a frequently noted mineral in squash seeds) has been popular to help reduce the symptoms and severity of colds. Studies have shown conflicting results, but eating squash seeds certainly adds to an overall healthy mix of nutrients in our diet.

In the US, less than 1% of people over 6 years old are deficient in vitamin A. This deficiency is largely a problem for children in developing countries. Despite this, we’ve all been told to eat more orange vegetables to improve our eyesight.

Unfortunately, trying to boost vitamin A intake through food or with supplements won’t cure nearsightedness – Ann will tell you this firsthand, because as an extremely nearsighted 10-year-old she tried it!

Most fruits and vegetables, like squash, have a high water content. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help maintain adequate hydration. Accordingly, including squash in our diets can help meet fluid needs.

For those who are extra careful about what they eat because of certain medical conditions, following are some ways to safely include winter squash into your diet.

Kidney Disease
Monitoring potassium intake is fundamental for those with hyperkalemia (elevated levels of potassium). One cup of winter squash has 400-500mg of potassium, which is quite high for such a small amount.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat squash. Try incorporating it in recipes where squash isn’t the main ingredient, as in this Pumpkin Maple Vinaigrette or Roasted Pumpkin Seeds. (Seeds are lower in potassium than the flesh.) Or opt for lower potassium foods at other meals and snacks during the day.

Heart Failure and Heart Disease
Monitoring sodium and fluid intake are the two biggest dietary considerations for heart failure.

Winter squash contains very little sodium naturally, but when used within a recipe salt is typically added. Ann’s Classic Butternut Squash Soup can be a very low sodium choice by making and using her no sodium-added Homemade Chicken Stock. You may be surprised by how flavorful this stock is without any salt. The soup recipe also allows for adjustments in the amount of stock used, which can help moderate fluid intake.

Though we don’t have a definitive answer, on exactly how much saturated fat, and which types, we should incorporate into our diets – we may never know – we do know that many recipes for butternut squash soup in restaurants are made with butter, cream, and salt. In this case, a small portion can be filling. Alternatively, don’t hesitate to ask your server about the ingredients if that helps to inform your dining choices.

For a lighter meal or a side dish, you might also enjoy Ann’s Roasted Delicata Squash & Pomegranate Salad. For a heartier alternative that incorporates squash, consider Chicken, Butternut Squash, and White Bean Soup, which includes a non-dairy option.

Less starchy varieties like spaghetti squash typically have less carbohydrate. One cup of cooked spaghetti squash provides half a serving of carbohydrate, while the same amount of butternut squash provides double to triple that amount. However, both varieties have a low glycemic index because the starchier varieties are higher in fiber. 

Depending on how you count carbs or manage your carbohydrate intake, remember that carbohydrate estimations will need to be adjusted when squash is mixed with other foods.

Try starting with How to Roast a Spaghetti Squash and then branch out to Spaghetti Squash Pizza Boats, in which Ann gives options to add protein, vegetables and fresh herbs per your preferences and dietary needs.

Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) flares or post-gastrointestinal surgery
When it comes to sensitive bellies and recovery from surgery, it is typically recommended to follow a low fiber diet. This would mean cooking vegetables until very well done, and avoiding outer skins, stems, and seeds.

Roasted Pumpkin Butter may be a gentle way to reintroduce vegetables. Try stirring a tablespoon or two into plain yogurt for a twist on the familiar. Though pumpkin has fiber, a small, pureed portion is an appropriate place to start.

Dysphagia or difficulty chewing and swallowing
Depending on the level of chewing or swallowing, well-cooked winter squash can be a great choice. If puree consistency is required, make sure to blend until very smooth—no seeds, no skins, and no stringy parts—as with this So Easy Fresh Pumpkin Puree.

Conveniently, the pumpkin puree will also work as baby food. A dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or even curry powder can be added to give babies exposure to a variety of spices, smells, and flavors.

If you have decided to approach first foods with baby-led weaning, try Roasted Winter Squash cut into a ring or crescent moon. Ensure it’s soft and mushy but that the child is still able to grab it. Avoid tough skins, seeds, and stringy parts.

Iron deficiency
Eating iron-rich foods (steak, seafood, lentils, and spinach, for example) with vitamin C-rich foods (like squash) can increase the absorption of iron. Curried Butternut Squash and Red Lentil Soup and the Slow Cooker Turkey Tenderloin With Wild Rice And Butternut Squash are two of Ann’s recipes that effectively combine the two.

Food Allergies
Winter squash is not a common food allergen, but for those who are allergic or who have a skin reaction while preparing it, speak with a physician before trying any of the recipes.

Oh, and butternut squash is nut-free!

Please feel free to ask us follow-up questions about our nutrition perspective and the recipes we post. We enjoy engaging in thoughtful dialogue and appreciate that there isn’t one correct nutritional path for everyone to follow.

For those with specific medical conditions, I recommend meeting with a dietitian who can work with you individually based on your labs and medical history. My informational posts are not intended to replace one-on-one counseling.

Included in all of Ann’s recipes are tips on buying, storing, cutting, and prepping. I especially like her Squash 101 tucked in her post on How To Roast a Spaghetti Squash!

*NEW Pumpkin Spice Roasted Delicata Squash (air fryer or oven method)
Caramelized Apple Salad With Butternut Squash
Ricotta and Spinach Stuffed Butternut Squash
Butternut Squash, Chickpea & Pita Salad With Lemon Tahini Dressing
Roasted Butternut Squash With Feta
Pumpkin and Black Bean Soup
Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin Pie Cake
Healthy Pumpkin Snack Cake
Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Muffins
Pumpkin Pie Breakfast Bars With Easy Granola Crumb Crust
Pumpkin Bran Muffins
Maple Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Ginger Cookies
Whole-Can-Of-Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal
Pumpkin Pie Overnight Oats
Coconut Pumpkin Granola
Pumpkin Peanut Butter Skillet Cookie
Nutty Coconut Pumpkin Smoothie
Baked Pumpkin Pancakes
No-Bake Pumpkin Spice Energy Bites
Crunchy Top Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

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