Pumpkin seeds are a tasty snack and a versatile cooking ingredient, whether you buy your pepitas in a large bag from the local grocery or just roast your own after carving the annual Jack o'lantern. As tasty and beautiful as those little seeds are, they're even more impressive in their role as a health-promoting nutritional powerhouse. Whatever your personal health, there are plenty of reasons to make pumpkin seeds your snack of choice.
Protein is the "glamor girl" of nutrients at the moment, with manufacturers of everything from breakfast cereal to energy bars cheerfully promoting the extra protein content of their products. It's important to many body functions aside from muscle growth, and unlike fats, starches and sugars, protein has no immediately obvious downside. Pumpkin seeds are almost 1/3 protein by weight, at 8.46 grams of protein per ounce (28.35 grams). You can bump up your daily protein consumption by adding them to baked goods, cereal or smoothies, as well as eating them out of hand.
Most Americans don't get enough fiber in their diets — according to research conducted by the USDA, usually only about half of the recommended levels. That's a big deal for everyone's collective health, because a growing body of research shows that fiber may be more important than we'd ever realized. Recent studies show that fiber promotes a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn can reduce your risk of various health issues including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. A single ounce of pumpkin seeds, a quantity that's just about right for snacking in front of the TV, provides 1.84 grams of fiber when hulled or 5.22 grams when eaten in the shell.
Fats are an essential part of anyone's diet. You can't absorb fat-soluble vitamins without them, but not all fats are created equal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional body for Registered Dietitians, recommends avoiding saturated fats in favor of unsaturated fats like those found in pumpkin seeds. Of the 13.9 grams of total lipids found in an ounce of pumpkin seeds, 4.46 grams are monounsaturated and 5.63 grams are polyunsaturated. Pumpkin seeds are also high in heart-healthy essential fatty acids. So eat up, or maybe even splash out some cash for a bottle of pumpkin seed oil to use on your salads.
When you're trying to establish a healthy eating pattern, a big part of the puzzle is simply eating less. If your chosen dietary plan leaves you dealing with constant hunger pangs, or if nightly nibbling is consistently your downfall, pumpkin seeds can help. Their combination of protein, fiber and healthy fats promotes satiety, which is doctor-speak for, "they help keep you full for longer." Nibbling pumpkin seeds at night may leave you too full for less-healthy alternatives, while having them with or in salads and other light lunches can help keep you going until the next meal.
Aside from their protein and healthy fats, pumpkin seeds are high in a number of the crucial micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that play a large role in helping keep us healthy. Three of those micronutrients, iron, zinc and manganese, play an outsized role in keeping your immune system running smoothly. That doesn't mean bingeing out on pumpkin seeds can compensate for an otherwise-unhealthy lifestyle, but eating them regularly may help if you're fit and active but still catch every "bug" that comes around.
No single food can guarantee you better health all on its own, but pumpkin seeds and other healthy options can certainly help keep your heart working well. Studies have shown a correlation between seed consumption and cardiovascular health, and the American Heart Association recommends them as part of a heart-healthy diet. Why are they so healthy? Well, there are several possible answers to that question. Fiber is known to improve cardiovascular health, notably by lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. They're also high in magnesium, which seems to have a protective effect. The mere fact of eating pumpkin seeds, instead of something less healthy, probably helps too.
Most nuts and seeds are high in antioxidants, but that's especially the case with pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil. That's important for your overall health, as Vitamin E and other antioxidants are known to reduce inflammation and provide a protective effect against cardiovascular disease and many other chronic illnesses. You can double down on the protective effect by combining your pumpkin seeds with other foods high in natural antioxidants, including colorful fruits and berries or leafy greens.
You may remember magnesium primarily as a metal that burned impressively in high school chemical class, but in the body it has health benefits that go well beyond its role in heart health. It's important to the development of bone tissue, and a lack of magnesium in the diet may contribute to osteoporosis. Magnesium seems to also play a role in controlling high blood pressure and regulating insulin response in diabetics.
Nuts and seeds in general, and pumpkin seeds specifically, seem to provide both a protective effect against developing type 2 diabetes and tool for managing blood sugars and insulin response. Again, it's hard to know exactly which of the seeds' characteristics does the trick. Is it because they help lower your sugars after a meal? Is it because of their polyphenols and other antioxidants? Maybe it's just that their fiber content slows digestion and therefore the uptake of glucose from foods, or that people eating pumpkin seeds aren't eating less-healthy foods with a high glycemic index. In any case, the benefits of pumpkin seeds are clear.
The interesting thing about foods with a number of healthful properties like pumpkin seeds, is that it's sometimes hard to know which characteristics are responsible for a given effect. Some studies have shown, for example, that pumpkin seeds may reduce the likelihood of breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Is it because of their antioxidant content, their phytoestrogen content, or their lignans (a type of plant tissue)? It's hard to say, but it doesn't really matter as long as they help. For men, pumpkin seeds may protect against colon and prostate cancer and can also help reduce the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a less serious but still uncomfortable condition.