The Great (Sautéed) Pumpkin

The winter season makes me think about food a little more than usual. I feel like I prepare dishes and meals for one holiday event after another. Simultaneously, I worry a little more about the overabundance of simple carbs, sugar and the calories that come with the devilish duo. As a future doctor/nutritionist, it makes me cringe. (However, this does not stop me from making sugar cookies every December.)

Mashed potatoes, rolls, lefse, stuffing, candied yams, fudge, cakes, and pies in addition to the turkey and ham were all on the menu for Thanksgiving dinner this year. And my stomach ached thinking about it. A family member flippantly suggested we have green beans on the side as "the" vegetable, and I thought, only ONE vegetable? 

Everyone likes to talk about the obesity epidemic. I know too many people that hop around from diet and exercise plan to another. We are obsessed about our weight. Someone pointed out on social media that the weight loss resolution that so many make for the new year is only made necessary by all of the less than healthy food that we stuffed ourselves with for over a month. Like I said, I make sugar cookies every holiday season, but Otto and I try not gorge ourselves on them. We still eat our balanced omnivorous diet (and give away the cookies as gifts). 

In the spirit of making better food choices this holiday season, I had to change up the menu; and I think I created what might be the most versatile seasonal dish to bring to holiday events. 

Sautéed Pumpkin

Prep Time: 20-30 minutes

Cook Time: 10-20 minutes

1) What I love about about pie pumpkins is that they are super easy to cut up. I usually cut it in half vertically, then peel and dice the halves. One medium sized pumpkin feeds my husband and I well with one or two days of lunch leftovers for me. (Save the seeds to roast later!) I take my time peeling it because I use a large chef's knife and don't want to dice myself. I have found that you don't want to dice it any larger than 1" cubes. Otherwise the cooking time with increase. For Thanksgiving, I diced up a couple pumpkins two days in advance, and it kept well in the fridge. It was definitely a huge time saver.

2) Mise en place: get everything out that is needed to make the meal happen. This dish is a pretty quick cascade of events. I use Platinum Cookware's Grill Pan, so I make sure it has about 10 minutes to preheat. Even if using a regular skillet, give it time to heat up. My grill pan does not require oil, so I don't use it. However, when using a regular skillet, one to two tablespoons of olive or avocado oil should suffice.

3) Put the diced pumpkin in the heated pan and cover. With my special grill pan, the cubes will soften and be done in about 10 minutes. With a regular skillet, it may take 20 or so minutes. Stir occasionally.

4) Optional: At about halfway through the cooking time, toss in additional veggies. I think sliced bell peppers pair the best, but any kind of veggie would work well. Pumpkin has a pretty mild taste, and I've paired it with foods like broccoli and green onion. If you want to try bell peppers, slice an one medium sized bell pepper into long strips. 

5) Eat up! The pumpkin can be eaten by itself with a little salt. I love pairing it with mixed greens and feta cheese. Sometimes I'll add chicken or turkey. It's great with quinoa too! I feel like the possibilities are endless. It's the EASIEST meal, and I can make it happen in under 30 minutes. Plus, I'll have lunch for later! 

Now here's the breakdown (which makes me love it even more):

According to data from Cronometer and Self Nutrition Data, one cup cooked pumpkin has about 

  • 49 calories

  • 12 g carbohydrate

  • 12,231 IU vitamin A or 245% of the daily value (Cronometer indicates it has 604% of the daily value for someone like me i.e. small, young, female)

  • 564 mg of potassium or 16% of the daily value (compared to a 7" banana which only has about 422 mg of potassium)

  • A wide assortment of other vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium!

Note: I would link to Cronometer, but it is a personal account similar to an account for MyFitnessPal, so you wouldn't be able to see the details. 

When I think of the holidays, I think of trying not to get sick too, so why not boost the immune system with a nutritious food? Vitamin A participates in healthy immune function via maintaining the integrity of epithelial cells while battling infection and aiding anti-body mediated immunity. The medical community recognized decades ago that vitamin A is crucial for decreasing overall mortality in children in developing countries. Vitamin A is important for eye, skin and male reproductive health too. (Additionally, for people who choose not to eat animal products, are allergic to eggs, or cannot tolerate dairy, pumpkin can be a great source of provitamin A. I may no longer be a vegetarian, but I do try to think of my vegetarian and vegan friends!)

While true vitamin A deficiency is rare in the US, Americans, in general, do not get enough of it. And we can still benefit from making sure we get enough of it! It is important to realize too, that beta-carotene, aka provitamin A, a vitamin A precursor, is what is present in plant sources like pumpkin. Nutrition resources like Nutrition Self Data will report it as vitamin A, but do not take that at face value. The body has to go through more biochemical steps to turn provitamin A into active vitamin A. Animal sources (eggs, liver, milk, etc) of vitamin A, aka preformed vitamin A, are better bioavailable sources of vitamin A, requiring fewer biochemical steps to become the active vitamin. 

In light of the biochemistry of vitamin A, it is nice to know that vitamin A toxicity cannot be achieved through plant based sources alone; because the beta-carotenes in those sources are never converted 100% to active vitamin A. Can you turn yourself orange (aka Carotendodermia)? Absolutely! But it's not supposed to be harmful. Eat all of the orange produce you want! Levels of toxicity usually occur due to over-ingestion of vitamin A found in supplements. But I suppose if someone ate too many livers and kidneys, toxicity could be achieved that way too. 

So, I enjoy foods like sautéed pumpkin with greens and lean meats. I know I can get some vitamin A, a decent amount of potassium, many other vitamins, minerals and good protein all while keeping calories and carbohydrates from piling on the plate. Which means I can really enjoy that sugar cookie after dinner.

And one question from me: How do you approach holiday food?

As always, if you have concerns about your health please consult your health care provider.

References:

  • Gaby A. Vitamins: Vitamin A. In: Nutritional Medicine. 2nd ed. Concord, NH: Fritz Perlberg Publishing; 2017: 55-62.

  • Pazirandeh S and Burns D. Ed. Lipman T, Motil K, and Hoppin A. Overview of vitamin A. From UptoDate. Last updated May 30, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2017.

  • National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A: Fact sheet for health professionals. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/#h4. Accessed December 10, 2017.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed December 10, 2017.