Well, we’ve reached the last of the food groups: fats! The “fats” food group consists of more than just butter and oil. For example, nuts, seeds, salad dressing, olives, and avocados are all included in this category. I’ve written about many of the oils in previous postings, so I’ll focus on some other foods in the “fats” group this week. (See last week’s entry, “Food Group Superfoods: Protein Foods (Part 9)” for information about soybeans and soy products.)
What they offer: Halloween is several months away, but it’s still a good time to talk about these highly nutritious seeds. Pumpkin seeds come from, of course, pumpkins, which are related to squash, cantaloupe, and cucumbers — all members of the gourd family.
Pumpkin seeds, also called pepitas, were used in Mexico dating back as far as 7500 years ago. They have also been a staple in Native American diets for both food and medicinal purposes. While pumpkin itself is highly nutritious, containing vitamin A, carotenoids (healthful pigments found in certain plants), fiber, and potassium, the seeds are full of their own nutrients: manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, copper, B vitamins, vitamin K, zinc, protein, phytosterols (plant-derived chemical compounds that may have health benefits such as lowering LDL ["bad"] cholesterol), and omega-3 fatty acids.
Pumpkin seeds are thought to help promote prostate health through a combination of their zinc, caroteinoid, and omega-3 fatty acid content. These seeds seem to have anti-inflammatory properties, which have compared favorably to anti-inflammatory medicine in animal studies. Because of their high phytosterol content (265 milligrams per 100 grams of seeds), pumpkin seeds can be part of a heart-healthy diet targeted towards lowering blood cholesterol. And if your travels take you to exotic places, you might be interested to know that pumpkin seeds have been used in some cultures to protect against tapeworm and other equally pleasant parasites (wouldn’t hurt to keep some seeds with you on your next trip!).
Nutrition info: One quarter-cup of whole pumpkin seeds contains 71 calories, 9 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat.
What to look for/how to use: Fall is probably the best time of year to indulge in pumpkin seeds, since that’s when pumpkins are harvested. But although fresh seeds straight from the pumpkin are the best, you can purchase packaged pumpkin seeds any time of year. When buying seeds, make sure that no moisture has seeped into the package or container; there should be no evidence of insects, either. Try to smell the seeds, if possible, to ensure that they’re not rancid.
If you decide to harvest the seeds straight from the pumpkin, wipe any pumpkin pulp off them and spread them out on a paper towel to dry overnight. Then, lightly roast the seeds on a cookie sheet at a low temperature (about 170°F) for 15–20 minutes (this helps preserve the seeds’ healthy oils). Store pumpkin seeds in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for 1–2 months. Pumpkin seeds make a great snack and are good in trail mix. They can be added to salads, stir-fry dishes, cereal, and muffin and cookie batter, too.
What it offers: OK, an avocado (also known as an alligator pear) is technically a fruit. But because of its high fat content, it’s lumped in with the fats. The name “avocado” comes from the Aztec word ahuacuatl, meaning “testicle tree” (due to its shape and its supposed aphrodisiac properties!).
There are many varieties of avocado; the Hass variety is usually available year-round. Hass avocados are named after Rudolph Hass, who began planting them in California back in the early 1900s.
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat, which we know to be a heart-healthy fat that helps to lower LDL cholesterol. And like pumpkin seeds, avocados contain phytosterols, which also can keep LDL levels down. Avocados are additionally a good source of potassium, a mineral needed for blood pressure control.
Beyond heart health, avocados have been shown to help people with diabetes control blood glucose and triglyceride levels, and they contain carotenoids which may play a role in preventing eye problems and possibly breast and prostate cancer.
Nutrition info: One quarter-cup of avocado contains 96 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, and 9 grams of fat.
What to look for/how to use: Choose an avocado that is slightly soft. Avoid those with sunken spots or cracks. Hard avocados can be ripened at home by placing them in a paper bag. Hass avocados will be black when ripe, while other varieties may be a brighter green. Keep ripe avocados in the refrigerator, and sprinkle lemon juice on any cut surfaces to keep them from browning. Slice an avocado in half and insert a knife in the pit; twist and lift the pit out. Avocados are great in salads, sliced on sandwiches, and, of course, made into guacamole. Use chopped avocado as a garnish for black bean soup. Spread soft avocado on crackers or on bread, instead of mayonnaise. Just remember that avocados are high in fat and calories!