Experts from Rutgers University share their research and insights with science based, common sense guidance on healthy living.

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Why is Winter Squash so Healthy for You to Eat?

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS,   FCHS Educator

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

As we approach October and November, we start thinking about cooler temperatures, the trees turning vibrant colors of orange, yellow, bright red and touched with green.  Along with the cooler weather and autumn colors comes a host of “winter” vegetables.  We may be longing for some “comfort foods” including those traditional fall vegetables such as pumpkins and squash. 

roasted-squashModern day squash was developed from the wild squash that originated in an area between Guatemala and Mexico. While squash has been consumed for over 10,000 years, they were first cultivated specifically for their seeds since earlier squash did not contain much flesh, and what they did contain was very bitter and unpalatable. As time progressed, squash cultivation spread throughout the Americas, and varieties with a greater quantity of sweeter-tasting flesh were developed. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe from the New World, and like many other native American foods, their cultivation was introduced throughout the world by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Here are some types of common winter squash:

  • Butternut squash: Shaped like a large pear, this squash has cream-colored skin, deep orange-colored flesh and a sweet flavor.
  • Acorn squash: With harvest green skin speckled with orange patches and pale yellow-orange flesh, this squash has a unique flavor that is a combination of sweet, nutty and peppery.
  • Hubbard squash: A larger-sized squash that can be dark green, grey-blue or orange-red in color. The Hubbard’s flavor is less sweet than many other varieties.
  • Turban squash: Green in color and either speckled or striped, this winter squash has an orange-yellow flesh whose taste is reminiscent of hazelnuts.
  • Kabocha squash: A type of Japanese squash that is becoming more and more popular in the U.S.  Kabocha is very sweet in flavor. It has deep green skin and orange flesh.

Creating some dishes using these “healthy squash” comfort foods, beats such comfort foods as macaroni and cheese or chicken in the pot.  As you incorporate winter squash into your weekly meal plans, know you are giving yourself a nutritional boost as these vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, fiber and essential vitamins and minerals.  Squashes come in a variety types and flavors, and can be used as a main course or a side dish.

One popular type of squash is butternut squash which is easy to prepare and has a high nutrient content and nutty mild flavor.  It has a full-bodied flavor and plenty of fiber which aides your colon in elimination.  

Another healthy winter squash is spaghetti squash. This stringy, yellow squash can be used in place of spaghetti noodles, creating a cleaner, more nutrient-dense meal than traditional pasta. It also is full of potassium, which aids in cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure when eaten frequently. The folate (vitamin B6) in these nutritious “noodles” strengthens the walls of your blood vessels, which helps improve blood circulation.  Vitamin B 6 is also a critical vitamin for women of childbearing age, as folate is necessary in order to prevent neural tube defects.  In addition, spaghetti squash contains omega fatty acids adds which adds to its anti-inflammatory benefits, making it a powerhouse for reducing inflammation.

Kabocha squash is similar to butternut squash, but it has a bright orange flesh (a sign of high beta-carotene content) when its green skin is broken. Although similar in taste, kabocha squash has fewer calories and carbohydrates than butternut squash. It also contains iron and fiber. Try roasting a kabocha squash that has been cut in half and lightly seasoned or stuffed.  Unlike its squash cousins, the skin of this winter squash is edible.

Hubbard squash is an uncommon winter variety, but this squash is a sweet, orange variety that is rich in manganese, which is necessary in the process of blood metabolism and blood sugar regulation.

Seeds from winter squash make a great snack food, just like pumpkin seeds. If you scoop the pulp and seeds from inside the squash and separate out the seeds, you can place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and lightly roast them at 160-170°F (about 75°C) in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Roasting the seeds for a relatively short time at a low temperature will give them a delicious flavor. 

By shopping for produce at local farmers markets, you are likely to find the vendors sell what grows well for each season. As a whole, winter squashes are very high in fiber, and vitamin A, antioxidants and minerals. By incorporating all varieties of winter squash into your diet, you can reap the nutritious benefits of these seasonal fall vegetable while trying some new preparation methods that you will enjoy.  Our favorite way to prepare winter squash is to steam it as it takes such a short period of time. It’s best to steam 1-inch cubes of squash. For most types of squash you only need to steam it for 7 minutes. So you save time and enjoy a wonderful side or main dish that is healthy for you.

While we’ve become accustomed to thinking about leafy vegetables as an outstanding source of antioxidants, we’ve been slower to recognize the outstanding antioxidant benefits provided by other vegetables like winter squash. But we need to catch up with the times! Recent research has made it clear just how important winter squash is worldwide to antioxidant intake, especially so in the case of carotenoid antioxidants. From South America to Africa to India and Asia and even in some parts of the United States, no single food provides a greater percentage of certain carotenoids than winter squash. (In the United States, a recent study that has determined winter squash to be the number one source of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene among Hispanic men ages 60 and older living within the state off Massachusetts. The unique carotenoid content of the winter squashes is not their only claim to fame in the antioxidant department, however. There is a very good amount of vitamin C in winter squash (about one-third of the Daily Value in every cup) and a very good amount of the antioxidant mineral manganese as well. Most of the research to date on winter squash and inflammation has either been conducted using laboratory animals, or has been focused on laboratory studies of cell activity. Still, results in this area have been fascinating and also promising with respect to winter squash as an anti-inflammatory food.

Winter squash is easily prone to decay, so it is important to carefully inspect it before purchase. Choose ones that are firm, heavy for their size and have dull, not glossy, rinds. Avoid those with any signs of decay, which manifest as areas that are water-soaked or moldy.

Winter squash has a much longer storage life than summer squash. Depending upon the variety, it can be kept one week to six months. They should be kept away from direct exposure to light and should not be subject to extreme heat or cold. The ideal temperature for storing winter squash is between 50-60°F (about 10-15°C). Once it is cut, cover the pieces of winter squash in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for one or two days. The best way to freeze winter squash is to first cut it into pieces of suitable size for individual recipes. Then place in freezer bags or containers and freeze at 0 degrees.

Tips for Preparing Winter Squash

Rinse winter squash under cold running water before cutting. Use a vegetable brush to make sure it is clean.  All varieties of winter squash require peeling for steaming except Kabocha and butternut squash. You can peel winter squash with a potato peeler or knife.

Butternut squash has a unique shape that requires a special approach to cutting. To cut into cubes, it is best to first cut it in half between the neck and bulb. This makes peeling much easier. Cut bulb in half and scoop out seeds. Slice into 1-inch slices and make 1-inch cuts across slices for 1-inch cubes. This is the best size and shape for steaming.

If you are baking the squash you don’t have to peel it. Cut the ends off, cut the squash in half lengthwise down the middle, scoop out the seeds and bake. Alternatively you can leave the squash whole, pierce a few times with a fork or tip of a paring knife, bake and scoop out the seeds after it has been cooked. You can peel cooked squash easily with a knife and then cut into pieces of desired size.

Save those seeds that you scooped out! Seeds from winter squash can make a great snack food, and can be prepared in the same way as pumpkin seeds. Once scooped out from inside the squash and separated from the pulp, you can place the seeds in a single layer on a cookie sheet and lightly roast them at 160-170°F (about 75°C) in the oven for 15-20 minutes.  A few quick serving ideas include:  (1) Top puréed cooked winter squash with cinnamon, applesauce and maple syrup. (2) Steam cubes of winter squash and then dress with peanut oil, low-sodium soy sauce and toasted sliced almonds. (3) Top “strings” of spaghetti squash with pasta sauce. (4) Add cubes of winter squash to your favorite vegetable soup recipe.

This easy-to-prepare soup is flavorful and an excellent source of vitamin A. Enjoy……. Golden Squash Soup with preparation and cooking time of  30 minutes.

Golden Squash Soup (serves 4)

Ingredients: 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

1 large onion, chopped

3 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon curry powder

2-3/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

6 ounces canned coconut milk

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

  salt & white pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Chop onion and garlic.
  2. Peel and cut squash into ½ inch pieces.
  3. Heat 1 Tablespoon of broth in medium soup pot. Sauté onion in broth over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent.
  4. Add garlic and ginger, and continue to sauté for another minute. Add turmeric and curry powder, and mix well. Add squash to broth, and stir. Bring to a boil on high heat. Once it comes to a boil reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until squash is tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Place into blender and blend with coconut milk. Make sure you blend in batches filling blender only half full. Start on low speed, so hot soup does not erupt and burn you. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Thin with a little broth if needed. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Reheat, and add cilantro.

(Squash photo credit: 

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FAD DIETS:  Are You Hoping for a Magic Cure?

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

If a diet or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  There are no foods or pills that magically burn fat. No super foods will alter your genetic code. No products will miraculously melt fat while you watch TV or sleep. Some ingredients in supplements and herbal products can be dangerous and even deadly for some people.  Steer clear of any diet plans, pills and products that make the following claims:

Rapid Weight Loss:  Instead choose a meal plan that allows for slow, steady weight loss which will more likely last than dramatic weight changes. Healthy plans aim for a loss of no more than ½ pound to 1 pound per week. If you lose weight quickly, you’ll lose muscle, bone and water. You also will be more likely to regain the pounds quickly afterwards.

Quantities and Limitations:  Instead, ditch diets that allow unlimited quantities of any food, such as grapefruit and cabbage soup. It’s boring to eat the same thing over and over and hard to stick with monotonous plans. Avoid any diet that eliminates or severely restricts entire food groups, such as carbohydrates. Even if you take a multivitamin, you’ll still miss some critical nutrients.

Specific Food Combinations:  Instead of combining certain foods or eating foods at specific times of day,  will not help with weight loss. Eating the “wrong” combinations of food doesn’t cause them to turn to fat immediately or to produce toxins in your intestines, as some plans claim.

Rigid Menus:  Limiting food choices or following rigid meal plans can be an overwhelming, distasteful task. With any new diet, always ask yourself: “Can I eat this way for the rest of my life?” If the answer is no, the plan is not for you.

No Need to Exercise:  Regular physical activity is essential for good health and healthy weight management. The key to success is to find physical activities that you enjoy and then aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days of the week.

Losing weight is possible by following a lifestyle that includes healthy food, physical activity and enough sleep.  For a personalized plan tailored to your lifestyle and food preferences, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in weight management. An RDN can help you find a realistic, flexible eating style that helps you feel and be your best.  For more information see:  eatright.org.

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Celebrate National Nutrition Month with Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

A nutrition education and information campaign sponsored annually by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, National Nutrition Month®, held annually in March, focuses attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. The Academy’s National Nutrition Month® press releases feature information for the media on activities and messages that the Academy highlights every March, along with events and initiatives around Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day, also celebrated in March.

Practical Health Tips for 2016

Dedicate yourself to a healthy lifestyle in 2016 with these food, nutrition and exercise tips.

  1. Eat Breakfast: There’s no better way to start your morning than with a healthy breakfast. Include lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Try oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk, sliced almonds and berries, or top a toaster waffle with low-fat yogurt and fruit. Find more quick breakfast ideas at eatright.org/nutritiontipsheets.
  2. Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and veggies add color, flavor and texture plus vitamins, minerals and fiber to your plate. Make 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables your daily goal. Don’t let cost stop you from enjoying produce. Frozen and canned are great alternatives. See “20 Ways to Enjoy More Fruits and Vegetables” at eatright.org/nutritiontipsheets.
  3. Watch Portion Sizes: Do you know if you’re eating the proper portion size? Get out the measuring cups and see how close your portions are to the recommended serving size. Use half your plate for fruits and vegetables and the other half for grains and lean meat, poultry, seafood or beans. To complete the meal, add a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk or a serving of fat-free yogurt for dessert. Visit choosemyplate.gov
  1. Be Active: Regular physical activity lowers blood pressure and helps your body control stress and weight. Start by doing what exercise you can for at least 10 minutes at a time. Children and teens should get 60 or more minutes of physical activity per day, and adults should get two hours and 30 minutes per week. You don’t have to hit the gym—take a walk after dinner or play a game of catch or basketball.
  2. Fix Healthy Snacks: Healthy snacks can sustain your energy levels between meals. Whenever possible, make your snacks combination snacks. Choose from two or more of the MyPlate food groups: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy, lean protein or nuts. Try low-fat yogurt with fruit, or a small portion of nuts with an apple or banana. For more snack ideas, see “25 Healthy Snacks for Kids” and “Smart Snacking for Adults and Teens” at www.eatright.org/nutritiontipsheets.
  3. Get to Know Food Labels: Ever wonder about what the numbers in the Nutrition Facts panel really mean? Or, the difference between “reduced fat” and “low fat”? The Food and Drug Administration has strict guidelines on how food label terms can be used. To learn more about food labels, see “Shop Smart – Get the Facts on Food Labels” at www.eatright.org/nutritiontipsheets.
  4. Follow Food Safety Guidelines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly one in six Americans gets sick from foodborne disease each year. Reduce your chances of getting sick by practicing proper hand washing. Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from ready-to-eat foods like bread and vegetables. Use a food thermometer to make sure food is properly cooked. Refrigerate food quickly at a proper temperature to slow bacteria growth. Learn more about home food safety at http://homefoodsafety.org.
  5. Get Cooking: Cooking at home can be healthy, rewarding and cost-effective. Resolve to learn some cooking and kitchen basics, like how to dice an onion or how to store herbs and spices. The collection of How do I… videos at www.eatright.org/howdoi will get you started.
  6. Dine Out without Going Overboard: You can dine at a restaurant and stick to your healthy eating plan! The key is to plan ahead, ask questions and choose foods carefully. Think about nutritious items you can add to your plate—fruits, veggies, lean meat, poultry or fish—and look for grilled, baked, broiled or steamed items. See “Healthy Eating on the Run” at www.eatright.org/nutritiontipsheets.
  7. Enact Family Meal Time: Research shows that family meals promote healthier eating. Plan to eat as a family most days when possible in 2016. Set a regular mealtime. Turn off the TV, phones and other electronic devices to encourage mealtime talk. Get kids involved in meal planning and cooking and use this time to teach them about good nutrition. For more family mealtime tips, visit www.kidseatright.org.