People seldom talk about the butternut squash. Yet, this fairly plain looking gourd offers a variety of health benefits. Instead of looking at some new “exotic” superfood that may be difficult to get hold of, butternut squash is affordable and can be found at your local grocery store with ease.
Butternut squash has been around since the 1940s. It’s one of the most nutrient-dense members of the Cucurbita family. Compared to its close relative, the pumpkin, butternut squash has even more to offer than its famous counterpart.
Butternut Squash Nutrition Facts
All fruits from the Cucurbita family are naturally high in a lot of important nutrients and butternut squash is no exception. A fruit in nature but very veggie-like in terms of its properties and how it’s cooked, butternut squash has an awful lot to offer to your diet. Here’s what you can expect from a single serving of butternut squash (~205 grams):
- 22,869 IU vitamin A (457 percent DV) – a person’s four-day dose of Vitamin A in one serving
- Only 82 calories
- 1.2 milligrams iron (7 percent DV)
- 1.8 grams of protein
- 59.4 milligrams magnesium (15 percent DV)
- Only 0.2 grams of fat
- 0.3 milligrams vitamin B6 (13 percent DV)
- 31 milligrams vitamin C (52 percent DV)
- 55.4 milligrams phosphorus (6 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligrams manganese (18 percent DV)
- 21.5 grams carbohydrates
- 582 milligrams potassium (17 percent DV)
- 2.6 milligrams vitamin E (13 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams thiamine (10 percent DV)
- 2 milligrams niacin (10 percent DV)
- 38.9 micrograms folate (10 percent DV)
- 84 milligrams calcium (8 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams copper (7 percent DV)
You don’t need to know what every single one of these vitamins and minerals does to see how nutritious butternut squash is for your body. The overabundance of vitamin A alone is amazing, especially when you couple it with the significant amounts of vitamin C and several other key minerals. (1)
Health Benefits of Butternut Squash
Aside from simply listing some numbers, however, what are the exact benefits of eating butternut squash on a regular basis?
1. It’s very high in antioxidants
Being naturally high in antioxidants butternut squash can help fight oxidative stress in the body. (2) Antioxidants are used in your body to fight off free radicals, which are atoms or molecules that are highly reactive with other cellular structures. Free radicals can cause damage to parts of cells such as proteins, DNA, and cell membranes by stealing their electrons through a process called oxidation.
Free radicals are everywhere and are even produced within the body as byproduct of metabolic processes. Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as the following can aggravate the damage caused by free radicals (3):
- Eating a diet high in processed foods;
- Spending too much time in the sun without protection;
- Exposure to chemicals found in cosmetics and other endocrine disruptors.
Damage by oxidative stress is linked to a large number of diseases and strongly associated with cancer. However, as long as you consume a decent amount of antioxidants daily, you can offset most of the negative impacts free radicals have on your body.
Fortunately, butternut squash includes several different types of antioxidants, including three different types of carotenoids among them called beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. (4) These fat-soluble antioxidants are best absorbed in our bodies with the help of fat sources such as olive oil or avocado.
Last but not least, butternut squash is also contains manganese, which helps with the enzyme reactions of various antioxidants.
2. Lowers inflammation and boosts immune system
The abundant amounts of beta-carotene found in butternut squash helps strengthen our immune system and fight various diseases and illnesses. (5) Vitamin A also comes into play here as it has a lot of immune-boosting properties which can be helpful against anything from the common cold to autoimmune disorders and cancers. It also reduces inflammation, which is vital as chronic inflammation is often found at the root of most diseases.
3. Fights cancer
Both in terms of prevention and treatment, butternut squash can be extremely helpful. Like a lot of other “superfoods”, butternut squash is considered one of the best cancer-fighting foods.
This doesn’t mean that it can reverse cancer on its own but that it supplies our bodies with the necessary nutrients to prevent it, as well as to help our bodies combat the effects of both cancer and its treatment.
For example, one of the proteins that are present in butternut squash is known to inhibit the growth of skin cancer, i.e. melanoma. (6) Vitamin C, on the other hand, is very useful when combating lung and ovarian cancers.
4. Strengthens our bones and helps prevent osteoporosis
Another benefit of butternut squash is its high potassium content. This is very useful for stronger bones and the prevention/slowing down of conditions such as osteoporosis. The manganese in butternut squash also goes helps keep your bones healthy, especially for women that have gone through menopause.
5. Reduces fatigue and improves physical performance
An indirect but quite significant consequence of all that we’ve mentioned so far is that butternut squash can help reduce fatigue and improve overall physical performance. Research has been done on that with pumpkins (Cucurbita moschata) but the same is believed to apply for butternut squash as well. (7) A key factor for this effect is the amount of vitamin C found in members of the Cucurbita family. One of the main functions of vitamin C is to help us better absorb the oxygen from the air we breathe.
6. Reduces PMS symptoms
Curiously enough, butternut squash can help alleviate the symptoms of PMS. Consuming foods such as sugar, coffee, and alcohol can make things worse. The presence of manganese and potassium in butternut squash greatly reduces muscle cramps as a whole, even outside of PMS. Manganese has also been found to reduce overall pain and mood swings that come with PMS. (8)
7. Helps with weight loss
As with any other food that’s full of nutrients at the cost of very few calories (remember, butternut squash contains only 82 calories in a serving of 205 grams), butternut squash can be very helpful if you are trying to lose weight.
Not only that, but studies have also found that several of the minerals and vitamins in butternut squash have anti-obesity qualities, which can help prevent your body from storing additional fat. (9)
The history and some curious factoids of butternut squash
Developed by Charles A. Leggett in the 1940s, butternut squash’s origins point to Waltham, Massachusetts. Charles – an insurance agent by trade – had started farming because his doctor insisted that Charles needed to spend more time outdoors. At first, Charles intended to farm corn but found it too troublesome and financially inefficient so he started farming squash.
Not too long after he had started he decided to combine Hubbard squash and gooseneck squash in order to get more conveniently shaped produce. He called it butternut squash because it was “smooth as butter and sweet as a nut.”
How to choose and cook butternut squash?
In the U.S., butternut squash is available in September and October, but it’s also available year-round as imported fruit. When you’re choosing butternut squash make sure to pick ones that have a solid beige color and lack any bruises, marks or brown spots as these are common entry points for bacteria.
When storing butternut squash it’s important to keep it away from direct sunlight. Storing it in a fridge is fine but so is storing it in a dark lit space at room temperature for a few days.
The most common way to prepare butternut squash is to roast it but it can also be boiled, steam-baked or baked. Roasting typically yields the best taste but steam-baking it retains most of the vitamins and minerals in the squash.
Potential side effects of butternut squash
Of course, no food is “always good” and butternut squash is no exception. At the end of the day, even oxygen and water can be “bad” for you under certain circumstances.
Butternut squash can lead to unfortunate consequences if you’re allergic to it. These are typically mild, however, and are usually just limited to contact dermatitis or swelling around the hands and the mouth.
Another common reaction that most people experience after handling raw butternut squash is the peeling and drying of the skin of the hands. However, this is not an allergic reaction. It’s just the result of coming into contact with the internal sap in the squash’s crust. The sap’s purpose is actually a natural defense mechanism that’s intended to repair the squash’s crust when it’s damaged. This sap is usually only present in squash that’s not fully ripe yet. If you ever experience this just wash your hands thoroughly and use a strong moisturizing lotion afterward.
Aside from that, butternut squash doesn’t really have any significant side effects or drawbacks. It’s just an overall great food – extremely healthy, very versatile in terms of how it can be prepared, and quite delicious.