Sure, pumpkin might be the *cool kid* of fall foods, but don’t forget about butternut squash. Known for its bright orange flesh and plump pear shape, the gourd is bursting with essential nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, and minerals. If you’re ready to fall in love with butternut squash’s health benefits (along with the many ways to use it), read on.
What Is Butternut Squash?
There’s one thing to get out of the way first, and it’s going to blow your mind: Butternut squash is a fruit. Yes, really! It’s typically used in recipes like you would a veggie (think: roasted, sautéed, puréed), so for ease, we’ll call it a “vegetable” from here on out.
As a variety of winter squash, butternut squash falls amongst the ranks of other odd-shaped eats native to South and Central America such as spaghetti squash, acorn squash, and pumpkin — all of which, despite their name, grow during the summer. They’re only called ‘winter squash’ because they mature in cold weather — at which point their skin hardens into a tough rind — and can be stored throughout winter, according to the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at the University of Maryland.
Butternut Squash Nutrition Facts
As a type of winter squash, butternut squash has flesh (interior) that’s packed with potassium, magnesium, calcium, copper, and phosphorous, according to research published in PLoS One. It’s also rich in beta-carotene, a carotenoid the body converts into vitamin A that supports immune system functions, skin and vision health, and more, according to the National Library of Medicine. Plus, ″beta-carotene gives butternut squash its beautiful orange color, and is the same pigment found in carrots,” says registered dietitian Megan Byrd, R.D., registered dietitian and founder of The Oregon Dietitian. (It’s also responsible for many of mango’s health benefits and iconic yellow hue.)
Here’s a nutritional breakdown for 1 cup (205 grams) of baked butternut squash without salt, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
- 82 calories
- 2 grams protein
- 22 grams carbohydrate
- 7 grams fiber
- 4 grams sugar
Butternut Squash Health Benefits
There’s no doubt butternut squash has an awesome nutrient profile, but what does that mean for you? Read on to learn about butternut squash’s health benefits, according to dietitians.
Promotes Healthy Digestion
“Fiber [adds] bulk to stool, which makes it easier to pass and keeps you regular,” explains Shannon Leininger, M.E.d., R.D., registered dietitian and owner of LiveWell Nutrition. There’s just one problem: Many Americans don’t eat enough fiber. A majority of Americans eat 15 grams a day, even though the daily recommended intake of fiber from food is 25 to 30 grams, according to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF Health).
Upping your intake of butternut squash can help. ″One cup of cubed butternut squash has [nearly] 7 grams of fiber,” says Leininger — or about 25 percent of the daily value (DV) of fiber, which is 28 grams on a 2,000 calorie daily diet, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (Related: These Benefits of Fiber Make It the Most Important Nutrient In Your Diet)
Controls Blood Sugar
When it comes to butternut squash health benefits, fiber is a standout star. It can slow down the absorption of foods, preventing your blood sugar from rapidly spiking, explains Leininger. And lower, more controlled blood sugar is especially important for keeping health issues such as diabetes and heart disease at bay.
Video: This Sweet Vegetable Is One of the Healthiest in the Produce Aisle (Real Simple)
Maintains Eye Health
When you were a kid, your parents might’ve told (or begged) you to eat carrots so you could have night vision like your fave superhero. Sound familiar? As it turns out, there’s some merit to the claim, according to Leininger. ″Dark orange vegetables such as carrots and butternut squash contain beta-carotene,” which your body turns into vitamin A. And vitamin A is crucial for healthy peepers, as it helps “prevent night blindness, dry eyes, and [potentially] macular degeneration,” she explains. “It also helps protect the surface of the eye — the cornea — which is essential for good vision. (BTW, did you know that your eyes can actually get sunburned?!)
Supports Immune Function
Your immune system works hard to keep you healthy, so why not help it out? Start by chowing down on vitamin C-rich foods, such as butternut squash, which contains an impressive 31 mg of vitamin C per cup. (That’s about 41 percent of the recommended dietary allowance or RDA (75 mg) for non-pregnant women 19-years-old or older, according to the National Institutes of Health or NIH). Vitamin C boosts the production of white blood cells, says Byrd, which are responsible for attacking viruses and bacteria.
Then there’s all that beta-carotene, which, as mentioned above, your body turns into vitamin A, a nutrient white blood cells need to properly function and fight pathogens. It also plays a key role in reducing inflammation and supporting the overall immune system.
Helps Prevent Heart Disease
When it comes to potassium, bananas tend to steal the spotlight. But with 582 mg per cup (which is more than that in an extra-large banana), butternut squash deserves all the attention. Why? The more potassium you eat, the more likely it is that you stave off heart disease. That’s because potassium can keep your blood pressure in check, according to Byrd. It works by relaxing the blood vessel walls, making it easier for blood to flow through and, she says. Potassium also helps your body get rid of excess sodium, a mineral that increases the volume of blood in your vessels (and therefore, blood pressure), according to the American Heart Association.
The carotenoids in butternut squash can also keep your heart healthy and strong. Many studies suggest that carotenoids — such as the beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin in butternut squash — have the power to promote cardiovascular health and prevent illness, due largely in part to their ability to lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. In fact, a study of 2,445 people found that by adding a daily serving of yellow-orange vegetables, the risk for heart disease fell by 23 percent.
Reduces Risk of Cancer
If you’re looking to up your intake of antioxidants, reach for this winter squash. ″Butternut squash contains vitamin C, [vitamin] E, and beta-carotene, all of which are strong antioxidants,” explains Byrd. In other words, they kick oxidative stress to the curb.
Here’s how it works: Antioxidants, such as those in butternut squash, attach to free radicals (aka unstable molecules from environmental pollutants), neutralizing and destroying them by changing their chemical structure, according to Byrd. This is crucial for top-notch health, as excess free radicals can lead to oxidative stress, a phenomenon linked to chronic conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart failure, according to a review published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Plus, beta-carotene in particular has been shown to promote communication between cells, which can quell the growth of cancer cells, according to a 2020 article in the journal Food Science & Nutrition.
Boosts Bone Health
Not only does butternut squash have calcium, but it also has manganese, an element that’s ″important for calcium absorption and bone growth,” says Byrd. One cup of baked butternut squash contains 0.35 mg of manganese. That’s about a fifth of the daily recommended intake (1.8 milligrams) for women 19 years or older. Butternut squash also contains an impressive amount of vitamin C, which aids in collagen formation, she adds. This is a pretty big deal because collagen helps heal wounds, strengthen bones, and plump skin, delivering benefits inside and out. (See also: Should You Be Adding Collagen to Your Diet?)
How to Cut and Eat Butternut Squash
″When selecting a fresh butternut squash, pick one with a firm, smooth rind without any major bruises or scratches,″ advises Leininger. The same goes for the stem; if it’s mushy or moldy, leave it behind. ″The squash should also feel fairly heavy, [which is] a good sign that it’s ripe and ready to eat.″ As for the color? Look for a deep beige color and no green spots, she adds. (Related: Chayote Squash Is the Super-Healthy Food You Haven’t Heard of but Need In Your Life)
The tough rind can be difficult to peel, so take a tip from Leininger and microwave the whole squash for two to three minutes to help soften the rind. From there, ″lay it on its side and cut off the ends, then remove the rind using a vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife.” Try: OXO Good Grips Y Peeler (Buy It, $10, amazon.com) or Victorinox 4-Inch Swiss Classic Paring Knife (Buy It, $9, amazon.com).
Next, cut it in half and use a spoon to remove the stringy insides and seeds — but don’t toss ’em just yet. The seeds are edible and nutritious, offering monounsaturated fatty acids (″good” fats) and vitamin E, according to research published in PLoS One. So, be sure to save the seeds if you want to roast them (just like pumpkin seeds) later on. And finally, cut the squash into cubes or slices, then cook ’em up.
If you don’t want to deal with peeling, you can roast the squash then scoop out the flesh. Simply slice the squash in half lengthwise, then remove the seeds and stringy pulp. Brush the flesh with oil and place in a baking dish, cut side down. Bake at 400° Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes, says Byrd, or until the flesh is tender and scoopable. Depending on the size of your squash, you might need to cook for shorter or longer, so keep an eye out the oven.
You can also find butternut squash frozen and canned in the grocery store. ″As long as the frozen squash isn’t in a sauce, it’s nutritionally equivalent to fresh squash,” says Leininger. Meanwhile, if you’re considering the canned stuff, she suggests steering clear of added sodium. You can get around this by draining the liquid and rinsing the squash, she explains. Butternut squash is also available in pre-prepared foods, such as boxed soups or jarred sauces. But as with all packaged products, you’ll want to avoid added sugar and sodium. When in doubt, look for products with the most whole ingredients and least additives — or opt for the real thing. (See also: 10 Creative Ways to Use Canned Pumpkin In All Your Recipes)
On that note, here’s how to enjoy butternut squash at home:
- With cinnamon and nutmeg: For ultimate autumn vibes, Byrd suggests roasting cubed squash with cinnamon and nutmeg, along with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Eat the cubes on their own or toss them into a fall salad.
- Mixed into hummus: Try making hummus with butternut squash in place of garbanzo beans, says Leininger, who recommends using it as a spread on a sandwich. You can also serve it as a dip with whole wheat crackers.
- In smoothies: Pumpkin who? Switch things up with a butternut squash smoothie, complete with almond milk and cinnamon for some serious fall feels. (Another great way to get those comfy cozy vibes? Whipping up a healthy winter soup — or two.)
- As breakfast hash: ″Beta carotene and vitamin A are fat-soluble, which means they’re best absorbed by the body when consumed with a little bit of healthy fat, [like] olive oil,” explains Leininger. And this dish does just that: sautéeing butternut squash with EVOO and onions for supercharged breakfast. “For extra flavor, add chopped apples and darky leafy greens, along with a little cinnamon. Add an egg or two and you’ve got a tasty breakfast,” she says.