Pumpkins: top nutrition this Halloween

Pumpkins carved into lanterns

We hardly need reminding it’s Halloween this week!  And the star of the day is the wonderful vegetable, pumpkin.  It’s uses and nutritional benefits are far-reaching. 

Whilst it’s often glowing brightly on doorsteps around the world on the night of Halloween, the health benefits of pumpkins also have star status.

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares her five top reasons for including pumpkins in your diet.

Pumpkins are high in beta-carotene

With the season of bugs now upon us, we really need to be supporting the immune system as much as possible. Beta-carotene is a key member of the carotenoid family which is turned into vitamin A in the body as needed.  Vitamin A is important for keeping the immune system in good shape and helps us see in the dark – much needed now the clocks have gone back.

A range of pumpkins in a basket

Eating foods rich in beta-carotene, like pumpkin, is especially good for vegetarians and vegans since vitamin A itself is only found in animal foods.  Plus, vitamin A is an amazingly powerful antioxidant, further protecting the immune system.

Pumpkins have amazingly nutritious seeds

The seeds not only provide a wonderful transportable snack, they are rich in protein, to help stave hunger pangs, and loaded with many other nutrients.  Importantly, they are rich in the vegetarian source of essential omega-3 fats, needed for healthy eyes, joints and hormones, as well as bone-loving calcium and magnesium.

Roasted pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are also a great source of fibre so help keep everything moving when the body can often feel a little sluggish generally. As a bonus, they’re filled with the amino acid tryptophan which not only keeps you energised throughout the day, but helps boost levels of our happy hormone, serotonin.  Pumpkin seeds are delicious lightly roasted with a little soy sauce.

Pumpkins are great for eyes in more ways than one

Whilst we know pumpkins are loaded with pro-vitamin A carotenoids, they’re also rich in other flavonoids (plant compounds) that have great affinity for eye health.  They ‘re packed with lutein, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin which help protect the eyes from damaging blue light that we are all exposed to for too long every day.

Close up of woman's eyes

We often wonder why eyesight deteriorates the more we look at screens; it’s all because of the blue light emitted from computers and mobile phones. Thankfully these compounds can help protect the eyes – even more reasons for eating pumpkin.

Pumpkins are rich in lycopene

Lycopene is yet another carotenoid with wonderful health benefits.  When we hear lycopene, we often think of tomatoes as these are one of the best sources.  However, pumpkins certainly hold their own where it is concerned. This amazing antioxidant has been found to help support prostate health – one of the most common health issues affecting men.

a pumpkin cut into pieces

As with all carotenoids, their nutrient benefits are better absorbed from cooked sources, so roasted or mashed pumpkin is certainly the order of the day.

Pumpkins are amazingly versatile

Whilst we certainly love the warming glow pumpkins give off on Halloween night, their versatility in recipes can’t be overlooked.  Pumpkin soup, made with coconut cream, sage leaves, onion and vegetable stock is certainly an autumn favourite.  Pumpkin can also be roasted and served sprinkled with feta cheese and honey. It’s also great in a curry with other root vegetables and tomatoes, or in a risotto with spring onions, parmesan cheese, cumin and garlic.

A bowl of Pumpkin soup

But best of all is pumpkin pie!  You can use ready prepared sweet shortcrust pastry for speed.  The prepared pumpkin just needs to be mixed with brown sugar, eggs, cream and lots of spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg for a warming Halloween treat.

So, enjoy Halloween and make the most of your pumpkins – both as lanterns and as a nutritious vegetable to add to your diet.

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The five best nutrients for eye health

Close up of woman's eyes

What we eat can have a massive impact on the health of our eyes. In fact, so key is vitamin A to the health of the retina of the eye, it’s actually called retinol! Excessive exposure to the sun, without wearing sunglasses, smoking, alcohol and a diet high in refined foods can all adversely affect eyesight.

The good news is that there’s plenty of nutrients that love the eyes and can really help.

Clinical nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her top five eye nutrients.

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VITAMIN A

Top of the class has to be vitamin A because it’s so key for vision (especially night vision) and all-round good eye health. Vitamin A is only found in animal produce, with liver claiming the top spot. Full-fat dairy produce and eggs are also great sources. However, the body also makes vitamin A as it’s needed from the carotenoid, beta-carotene. It’s the yellow, orange and green pigment that gives fruits and vegetables their bright colours. Indeed, it’s also the reason for the old wives’ tale that ‘carrots help you to see in the dark’.

A selection of foods containing Vitamin A

The good news is that if you’re vegetarian, as long as you’re eating colourful fruits and vegetables such as peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, kale, melon and mango, for example, then you’ll be getting your daily dose of vitamin A.

LUTEIN

There are a number of other carotenoids, alongside beta-carotene, which are equally valuable for healthy eyes, one of these being lutein. Just like beta-carotene, it’s a powerful antioxidant, so it can protect the eyes from ageing and free radical damage generally.

A selection of green leafy vegetables

However, lutein, which is especially rich in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, helps protect the eyes from damaging blue light that’s emitted in large amounts from electronic devices. Have you found your eyesight deteriorating the more you sit at a computer? You need to make sure you’re eating something green every day to help protect your eyesight.

ANTHOCYANINS

What are they? In simple terms they’re a group of plant compounds that are very high in antioxidants, protecting the eye from free radical damage, primarily from sunlight, poor diet and smoking. Specifically, anthocyanins help maintain the health of the blood vessels and cornea in the eye.

A pile of blueberries with a pair of glasses on top

Anthocyanins are high in ‘blue’ fruits such as blueberries, blackberries and bilberries. Although bilberries are not eaten as much as other blue fruits, during the Second World War fighter pilots were made to eat bilberry jam because it was found that their eyesight (particularly night vision) improved enormously.

Certainly all these blue berries are a great ‘go-to’ snack or a fabulous asset to your morning porridge or muesli.

OMEGA-3 FATS

This group of fatty acids are essential within the diet as the body can’t make them. They’re part of our cellular make up and are also part of the eye structure. Indeed, so important are they for eye health that nature cleverly includes DHA (another omega-3 fat) in breast milk.

Omega-3s may also protect eyes from the very common condition of macular degeneration, which is a gradual condition that tends to affect older people. They can also help prevent dry eyes – another side-effect of looking at computer and other electronic screens.

A range of foods high in Omega 3 fats

Oily fish is the best source of omega-3s, but nuts and seeds (especially flaxseeds) are also rich sources. Try to make them a part of your daily diet and your eyes will shine brightly.

SEAWEED

Very much in favour right now, there are some good reasons for seaweed gaining so much in popularity. It’s a rich source of nutrients generally, but also those specifically involved with eye health such as zinc, vitamin A and the essential omegas.

Seaweed is a general name given to a huge number of algae and marine life. Indeed, most seaweed that you can now buy in supermarkets will likely contain a variety. Additionally, dried seaweed can easily be added to stews, soups, salads or munched on as a snack.

Close up of edible seaweed on a plate

As well as its impressive array of nutrients, it has an anti-inflammatory effect and has the potential to help prevent any complications that may occur after cataract surgery; a common operation, particularly in the elderly which helps restore good eyesight.

As you can see, nature has provided us with the wonderful power of sight but has also delivered amazing nutrients to help protect eyesight into old age.

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Eat your way to great hydration

Close up of woman on beach with a glass of water to represent hydration

You probably don’t need reminding that the heat is on right now! We all want to enjoy summer months to the full. However, the body needs to be properly hydrated for energy levels to be sustained and the brain to remain sharp. The body is around 70% water, so what’s the best way of keeping water levels right?

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her insights on hydration!

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Clearly, we lose more fluids when the weather it hot and steamy because, not to put too finer point on it, we sweat more! Plus, exercising during the hot weather is going to require more fluids to be replaced.

The best advice is to try to avoid dehydration. You can tell if you are properly hydrated because your urine should be almost clear. Generally, we need a minimum of the equivalent of eight glasses of water daily, and up to two litres during the really hot weather.   However, there’s lots of water in fruits and vegetables and they also count towards your fluid intake, plus they’ll deliver lots more besides!

The body naturally contains electrolytes, including sodium, and they all help to regulate water balance in the body. Therefore, we know that for effective hydration, water and other essential nutrients are all needed.

Here are five foods that will keep you hydrated all summer long!

CUCUMBER

This is probably the most watery of all vegetables. It contains some great immune-boosting nutrients such as vitamin C, but also provides plenty of electrolytes, so if you’re slightly dehydrated in the heat, it will help to get everything quickly back in balance.

Close up of cucumber

One of the great things about cucumber is that it makes a great snack and is particularly good dipped into hummus. Plus it’s so refreshing; keep a chilled jug of water handy with some sliced cucumber, mint and ginger. It makes drinking water much more interesting!

CELERY

Whilst many people find the taste of celery a little strange and over-powering, it’s certainly worth persevering. It contains plenty of vitamins A, C and K plus some fibre. Celery is also a must for helping to alkalise the body; the body prefers to be slightly alkaline rather than acidic. Over-acidity can cause muscle and joint pain, which is certainly not something you want when you’re out and about enjoying the summer.

Chopped celery and celery stalks on a wooden chopping board

Just like cucumber, celery makes a great summer snack or can be added to a smoothie or juice. In fact, having a vegetable juice after you’ve been exercising or sweating a lot in the heat is one of the best ways of re-hydrating the body.

WATERMELON

An obvious and delicious choice for summer! Watermelon needs no accompaniments – it’s just great simply sliced. It’s also perfect added to a jug of chilled water in the fridge and it’ll encourage you to drink more water! Watermelon is just over 90% water and its rich colour means that it’s also a great source of sun-protecting antioxidants.

Watermelon segments on a wooden board

Plus, if you’re planning a steamy night, then watermelon is the fruit to eat! It contain citrulline which stimulates the amino acid arginine that encourages blood flow to the sexual organs!

BERRIES

Strawberries actually contain the highest water content of all berry fruits and summer is the perfect time to be enjoying them all at their very best. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries and blackberries all make great fruit salads, smoothies, crumbles, pies or Eton mess. And because they’re so transportable, they make perfect post-exercise re-hydration snacks.

Blueberries and strawberries in a heart shape on a wooden board

All berries are packed with anthocyanins, which are plant compounds high in age-blocking antioxidants. So, you’ll skin will look fresh and plumped from being properly hydrated and nutrient-loaded.

SPINACH

Whilst it can be very frustrating when cooking with spinach, as it reduces down so dramatically, its high water content makes it an excellent summer vegetable. It’s best added to salads to enjoy all its nutrients, but most importantly, to keep the body super-hydrated.

A pile of spinach leaves

Additionally, spinach is high in lutein and zeaxanthin, both powerful carotenoids which are very protective of the eyes. Whilst you should always be diligent about wearing sun-glasses when the sun is strong, your eyes will be better protected from the blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices, particularly computers.

So, whilst you’re eating your way to optimal hydration, you’ll also be benefitting from a great nutrient boost at the same time.

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Pea power: discover the nutrients and health benefits

A bowl of fresh green peas and a pea pod

Peas are in season right now, so they’ll be tasting their very best and will deliver wonderfully healthy nutrients. They are a great summertime food and can be included in lots of different recipes. Moreover, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes as we’ll find out!

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, gives us the low-down on peas.

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VARIETIES OF PEA

From the family known as Fabaceae, we are all acquainted with the traditional green pea. However, they also come as mange tout (often known as snow peas) and sugar snap peas. Peas can also be dried and are then usually called split peas. Peas are legumes, which are plants that bear fruit in the form of pods. Of course sugar snap peas and mange tout contain edible pods, whereas green or garden peas have a much tougher outer pod which isn’t usually eaten.

Green peas are very often eaten from frozen and are a ‘staple’ vegetable that most of us have in the freezer. From the moment they are harvested, peas start to lose their vitamin C content and their natural sugar content starts to be converted into starch. As freezing usually takes place very quickly after the pods have been picked, their chemical changes will be minimal. Frozen peas still contain far more nutrients than tinned peas, providing plenty of fibre, folate (great for the heart) and the bone-loving mineral, phosphorus.

OTHER HEALTH BENEFITS OF PEAS

All richly coloured fruits and vegetables contain wonderful health benefits, in particular, a wealth of antioxidant nutrients to prevent disease and to help hold back the years. However, peas in particular also contain high concentrations of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These two nutrient jewels are known to protect eye health; they seem to block blue light from reaching the retina which can lead to macular degeneration. Moreover, these carotenoids promote good eye health generally and help maintain good eye sight long into old age.

Peas are also very low in fat, high in vitamin K (also good for the heart and bones), as well as energy-giving vitamin B1.

HOW TO ENJOY PEAS

Peas are most often eaten as a vegetable side dish, as are mange tout and sugar snaps, but they’re also great added to a summer frittata, which can be eaten hot or cold. Peas make wonderful soups either combined with ham or mint, and are an excellent addition to a summery seafood risotto. Sugar snaps are wonderful added to any green salad and mange tout is a great addition to stir-fries.

WHAT ABOUT SPLIT PEAS?

Split peas are actually dried peas; they split naturally once the skins are dried and removed and are often yellow in colour. They sometimes get forgotten when up against green peas, but they are still wonderfully nutritious. Clearly, enjoying fresh foods is certainly best but split peas provide really high amounts of fibre, so they help to keep the bowels moving.  Additionally, their high fibre content makes them very effective at reducing cholesterol levels. Furthermore, as with all legumes, they’re low on the glycaemic index meaning they keep blood sugar levels in check; this is especially helpful for those trying to lose some pounds.

Something about split peas which is not widely appreciated is that they are high in the trace mineral molybdenum, which helps detoxify sulphites. Unfortunately sulphites are widely used as preservatives in a variety of foods, particularly salads and prepared meats. People allergic to sulphites may suffer from headaches and other unpleasant ailments. However, having sufficient molybdenum stores in the body, will hopefully negate any of these problems.

WAYS WITH SPLIT PEAS

Split peas are great when used to make thick soups, stews, curries or broths containing strong flavoured foods such as chorizo. Importantly, as with other legumes, they are a very good vegetarian source of protein so can be used as a main meal in a dahl dish, for example.

Dahl can be made using tinned tomatoes, turmeric, onions, vegetable stock and curry leaves. It’s wonderful eaten on its own or as a side with some grilled fish or chicken.

So add more peas to your diet this season and enjoy the health benefits of this versatile vegetable.

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

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Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit Herbfacts