When you think of beta-carotene – which can become vitamin A in the body – you might think of the vegetable it sounds like – carrot, which has an enormous amount of this nutrient. But fall brings other beta-carotene-rich produce into play, namely a wealth of winter squash.
Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that prevents cell damage from oxidation that occurs with aging and long-time exposure to environmental pollutants. Studies show that eating orange-colored vegetables and fruits daily may help fend off cancer and heart disease while protecting your vision, immune system and skin.
Your body only uses beta-carotene to form as much vitamin A as it needs. Additional beta-carotene can, however, perform important functions as an antioxidant and in supporting cell-to-cell communication that controls normal cell growth. Note that it’s diets high in beta-carotene rich foods that are linked with cancer protection, however. High doses of beta-carotene from supplements do not protect against heart disease or cancer, and some studies show they can even be harmful, especially in smokers.
Go for bright orange vegetables and fruits – that’s usually the signal of high beta-carotene content. Besides winter squash, choose sweet potatoes, carrots, red bell peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, papayas and mangos. (Oranges are an exception to this rule-of-thumb.) Despite being green, broccoli also contains lots of beta-carotene – it’s just that lutein, another healthful phytochemical appears green, overshadowing broccoli’s beta-carotene. It’s best to eat a little healthy fat – such as olive or canola oil – with your beta-carotene foods because this vitamin is fat-soluble.
Along with beta-carotene, orange-fleshed winter squash are a good source of vitamin C, iron and fiber, too – but happily aren’t high in calories.
Winter squash are most abundant in early fall through winter – just when cool weather is turning appetites toward heartier fare. Farmers’ markets usually have all shapes and sizes of squash. The season’s varieties include pumpkin, acorn, butternut, pattypan, delicata, hubbard, spaghetti and turban.
Choose squash heavy for their size and with smooth, blemish-free skin. You might find already peeled and cut butternut squash, frozen or fresh, in the supermarket.
Microwaving: Pierce the squash and place it whole in a microwave and cook on high for 5-8 minutes. Let it cool, then cut, remove seeds, stem and rind.
Baking: Cut squash in half, remove stem and seeds, put it in a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Add a half-inch of water, and baste the squash with sweet coating of maple syrup and cinnamon, brown sugar and walnut oil, or dried fruits and orange juice. Or fill it with a savory stuffing like brown rice or whole-wheat croutons, sautéed onions and herbs. Then bake it at 375 degrees for about an hour, checking occasionally, until it is tender when pierced with a fork. Spaghetti squash can be baked with just a light coating of olive oil; when cool, use a fork to separate the spaghetti-like strands and top with tomato sauce for a lower-calorie dish than pasta.
Steaming: Cut squash in half, remove stem and seeds, then dice and place on steamer in large pot with a cup of water. Cover, bring to low boil and steam for 15 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Let squash cool and cut off rind. In pot, mash and blend with reduced-sodium, fat-free chicken or vegetable broth and spices for a delicious fall soup; or just mash with spices or herbs, sprinkle with a few chopped nuts and serve as a side-dish.
Here’s a delicious recipe for Butternut Squash Enchiladas with Salsa.
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