Fall is in the air, and for many of us that means the resurgence of our favorite fall indulgence, which is pumpkin spiced everything. While pumpkin spiced coffee drinks are one of the quintessential flavors of fall, pumpkin spice flavor has made its way into some more adventurous concoctions (pumpkin spice toothpaste, anyone?). There is just something about these flavor components that makes you feel warm, cozy and ready to put on your softest sweater. Unfortunately, many pumpkin spiced treats leave plenty to be desired in the nutrition department, but that doesn’t mean that you should forgo these luscious flavors altogether. In fact, pumpkin itself is high on the list of nutritional foods. Instead of reaching for a sugary sweet latte, let’s look at some ways to get your pumpkin spice fix and reap all the healthy benefits at the same time.
First, let’s look at exactly what you would be missing out on by giving up your pumpkin spiced latte for a healthier pumpkin-y alternative. According to the nutritional information of one of the main creators of the Pumpkin Spiced Latte, a 16-ounce drink, made with 2% milk has 380 calories. I can think of plenty of healthier ways to spend nearly 400 calories, but really it is these next two numbers that are the most surprising. This same drink contains 40% of your recommended daily intake of saturated fat and fifty grams of sugar. Yes, fifty grams. It is recommended that the average woman take in no more than thirty grams of sugar in one day. With just one of these drinks, you are consuming nearly two days’ worth of sugar, even more if you go up in size. Sugar is one of the worst possible things for your health and your skin, so let’s look at some heathier alternatives that will satisfy your seasonal fall cravings.
Let’s begin by looking at the main flavor component, pumpkin. Pumpkins are members of the gourd family, Cucurbits. One interesting fact to file away in your trivia bank is that from a botanical perspective, the pumpkin is actually a fruit and not a vegetable, although it’s flavor profile usually means we classify it as a vegetable instead. Just thinking about silky pumpkin pie and fragrant pumpkin bread are enough to make your mouth water, but pumpkin can also be used in less sweet dishes such as risotto, ravioli or simply seasoned and baked. Pumpkin is backed with vitamins, nutrients and health benefits. Here are just a few:
- Pumpkin is a great food for weight loss. If you are carrying around a few extra pounds, losing even five percent of your body weight can help protect you from heart disease and diabetes. Plus, with the holidays coming up, a little extra help isn’t a bad thing. Pumpkin is an excellent source of fiber, with three grams per cup, which is about 10-15% of the recommended daily intake. People who eat high fiber diets not only have better digestive health, but also feel satiated after eating smaller amounts of food. Plus, that one cup serving only has about fifty calories, which means you could eat nearly 8 cups before you tally up to the same number of calories in that 16-ounce latte, so indulge until your hearts content!
- Pumpkin helps protect your skin and keep it youthful looking. The carotenoids that give pumpkin its harvest orange color is a powerful antioxidant. These antioxidants help to protect your skin from sun damage, prevent the deterioration of collagen that leads to fine lines and wrinkles, and possibly reduce your overall risk of developing skin cancer.
- Pumpkins are immune boosters. As much as I love fall, I don’t look forward to the beginning of cold and flu season. This year, amp up your immune system by including more pumpkin. Just one cup of cooked pumpkin has 20% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.
- Pumpkin is great for cardiovascular health. In addition to fiber and vitamin C, pumpkin is also loaded with potassium. This trio of nutrients helps to protect your heart, and including potassium in your diet has been shown to be nearly as effective in reducing hypertension as eliminating salt from your diet. By the way, that extra potassium is great for helping your muscles recover after a workout, which is even more important as the weather begins to turn cooler and muscles take longer to warm up.
- Pumpkin seeds can help regulate your internal sleep clock as the seasons change. For me, one of the most difficult things about the change in seasons is adjusting to shorter days and longer nighttime hours. It just seems to throw by whole body off. Pumpkin seeds are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which you might recognize as being the snooze inducing component in turkey. Not only can a handful of pumpkin seeds help you reset your internal clock, but tryptophan is also important in the production of serotonin. If you suffer at all from a change in mood with the change of seasons, regulating your serotonin is a very good thing.
I mentioned above that the carotenoids in pumpkin helps to prevent premature aging and possibly even skin cancer, however, pumpkin offers even more protective and nutritive effects for your skin. The zinc in pumpkin, found mostly in the seeds, is excellent for controlling hormone levels and reducing the likelihood of inflammatory acne breakouts, which are so common this time of year between the change in weather and the stress of the holidays. Additionally, pumpkin seeds are high in essential fatty acids and vitamin E, both of which help to maintain moisture and the protective barrier of your skin. Plus, if you have ever wondered if you can apply pumpkin topically as a skin care treatment, the answer is yes, you can, and with great results. The enzymes in pumpkin act as a mild exfoliant. When applied to your skin, pumpkin removes the top layer of dead skin cells, leaving your skin smooth and uncongested. The molecular structure of pumpkin is small, so the healing nutrients found in the fruit, such as vitamin A and C, can be easily absorbed through the skins surface.
With all this talk about pumpkin, I don’t want to forget that some of the other flavors in your favorite fall coffee drink, including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, have healing and nutritive properties of their own. Cinnamon is a known anti-inflammatory, rich in antioxidants and has shown to be useful in regulating insulin production and sensitivity. Nutmeg promotes digestive health, reduces pain and is a natural detoxifier. Last, but certainly not least, clove is an anti-inflammatory that boosts the immune system, fights headaches, and has shown promising results in slowing down certain cancers in the earliest stages. Could it be that our obsession with pumpkin spiced everything has as much to do with how it makes us feel as with how it tastes?
If all this talk about pumpkin spice goodness has you craving a trip to the local coffee house, you are not alone. However, why not try a healthier alternative to satisfy your craving. A pumpkin smoothie has all the delicious flavor components as your favorite coffee drink, but with none of the bad stuff, plus the added benefit of pumpkin. Here is a great smoothie recipe to try that will not only satisfy your craving, but leave you feeling naturally energized and invigorated.
Pumpkin Spiced Smoothie (serves two)
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- ½ cup brewed coffee
- 1 cup unsweetened pumpkin, cooked and mashed
- 1 banana, frozen and sliced
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- ½ teaspoon fresh grated ginger
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- Pinch ground cloves
- Ice, if desired
Place all the ingredients in a blender or smoothie maker and blend until smooth. Pour into well chilled glasses and serve immediately
Even being equipped with a great smoothie recipe, there might be times when a trip to the barista is too hard to resist. In this case, go ahead and treat yourself, but modify your order to make it a little more health friendly. Here are a few suggestions.
- Much of the sugar and calories in a pumpkin spice latte come from the flavored syrup that is added. Unfortunately, this is also where most of the flavor that you are craving comes from. Rather than skip it altogether, ask if they have a sugar free version, or request just one pump instead of the standard three.
- Pick your milk wisely. Some coffee shops automatically use skim milk, while others reach first for the whole milk. Then there are some that will reach for whatever is closest at hand. Make sure to request either skim milk or your preferred unsweetened milk substitute when placing your order and skip the whip altogether.
- Spice up plain old black coffee. Rather than ordering the traditional drink, request a pump of the syrup in a cup of black coffee. Then take it over to the condiment bar, add a touch of skim milk and sprinkle in some cinnamon. Just as delicious and a fraction of the calories, fat and sugar.
- Create a new spiced drink altogether. Choose a hot, spiced tea and add a sprinkle of cinnamon, a dash of creamer and a drizzle of honey, if you crave something a little sweeter. This drink is lighter, fresher and won’t keep you up into the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, whichever drink you choose, take the time to savor it. An indulgent treat is fine occasionally, just make sure you enjoy the experience fully. Fall is only here for a short time, so sit back and enjoy the colors, scent and flavors while you can.