Is Butternut Squash Good for You?

This fall favorite packs a nutritional punch

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Butternut squash Photo: iStock

Next to pumpkin, butternut squash is probably one of the most familiar fall veggies. But with its hard skin, long neck, and bulbous bottom, some people aren’t quite sure how to prepare it. And others dismiss it as being too sugary or starchy to be good for you. But neither concern is warranted.  

Once you know a few tricks, working with butternut squash is quite manageable. Plus, it’s a convenient veggie to stock up on. It keeps for several months if you store it in a cool spot, and it can be used in a variety of ways, from soups to casseroles to smoothies, sweet or savory. As for nutrition, a cup of cooked cubed butternut squash has just 80 calories, 22 grams of carbs, and 4 grams of sugars, and supplies an impressive array of nutrients.

An A+ for Vitamin A

“The orange flesh inside the squash is a dead giveaway that it is packed with beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, senior clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. You get 127 percent of the daily value for vitamin A in a 1-cup serving of butternut squash.

More on Healthy Eating

But as an antioxidant, beta carotene has other health benefits. “Beta carotene is essential for vision and many other biological functions,” says Walter Willett, MD, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “There’s strong evidence that these carotenoids help reduce the risk of breast cancer and also reduce the rate of memory loss in older adults.” Research shows that a diet rich in carotenoids may also help reduce chronic inflammation in the body, thereby possibly lowering the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and cancer.

A serving of butternut squash also contains more potassium—a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure—than a banana, along with about 30 percent of the daily value of vitamin C and small but significant amounts of calcium, iron, niacin, and vitamin E.

A Hearty Helping of Fiber

A cup of butternut squash cubes clocks in at about 7 grams of fiber—making a sizable contribution toward the 25 to 30 grams you need per day. “Fiber has many positive health effects, including limiting weight gain, lowering cholesterol levels, and reducing risk of type 2 diabetes,” Willett says.

The seeds you find inside the squash are also rich in fiber—5 grams in 1 ounce—as well as healthy fats. Butternut squash seeds can be roasted just like pumpkin seeds. Use them to add some crunch to salads or as a nutritious snack.

Prep Tips

Cutting into a veggie with such an uneven shape can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Following these steps will make the squash easier to handle:

• Wash the squash with a vegetable brush and dry it.
• Slice about a quarter-inch from each end. Then cut the squash in half crosswise. (Use the squash’s natural shape as a guide; cut where the neck ends and the bulb begins.)
• Remove the skin with a vegetable peeler. Stand the bulb portion on its bottom and slice down the middle from top to bottom. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds, then cut the squash into slices or cubes. The neck end is seedless and can be cut into the desired shape without first cutting from top to bottom.

Another approach is to microwave the squash for a few minutes to soften the tough skin, then slice it. Pierce the skin eight to 10 times, then place it in a baking dish and cook in the microwave on high for about 5 minutes. Once it has cooled enough to handle, you can slice and finish cooking it. “I sometimes microwave a whole butternut squash for 20 minutes,” Hunnes says. “That’s enough to fully cook it, so after I slice it I just roast it in the oven for a few more minutes to crisp it up.”

Buying peeled precut squash in the supermarket can save you time. But it’s more expensive, and there have been recalls of precut produce, including butternut squash, for possible contamination with bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Processing fresh produce into pieces increases the risk of bacterial growth and contamination, according to the Food and Drug Administration. If harmful bacteria are present, they can be transferred from the surface of the fruit or vegetable into the flesh. In your own home, with your one squash, the risk is pretty low. But in commercial facilities, many fruits and vegetables are processed in one place, creating opportunities for cross contamination.

Try Other Winter Squashes

Butternut squash isn’t the only winter squash worth eating. “It’s good to mix up the types of squash you eat—or vegetables in general, for that matter—because even similar types supply a different mix of nutrients,” says Amy Keating, RD, a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. For example:

Acorn squash: It has less vitamin A than butternut but provides even more fiber (9 grams per cup) and potassium (896 mg).

• Pumpkin: This squash has beta carotene and also contains more than twice as much alpha carotene as butternut squash. Alpha carotene is also converted to vitamin A, and some studies have linked it to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer, and a longer life overall.

Spaghetti squash: This yellow squash is lower in calories and carbohydrates than the denser winter squashes, but it’s also lower in fiber and carotenoids. Use it as a substitute for real spaghetti and you’ll get just 42 calories in a 1-cup serving instead of about 200 calories.

Healthy Ways to Serve Winter Squash

Acorn and butternut squash and pumpkin are delicious paired with sweeter spices—such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice—and roasted in the oven. For a savory take, try cumin, garlic powder, and a pinch of cayenne or rosemary and thyme. The recipes below offer a savory and a sweet take on winter squash.

Puréed butternut squash is very versatile. Cut the squash into cubes and steam it, then purée the flesh in a blender, a food processor, or an immersion blender. You can mix the puréed squash into sauces, soups, and even smoothies. Consider blending it with apples, a nut butter, a plant milk, and cinnamon. You can also blend some into mac and cheese. It adds a creamy texture and numerous nutrients, but children are unlikely to notice or taste it.

Spaghetti squash “noodles” can be turned into a main course replacing pasta. Soften the spaghetti squash in the microwave, then slice in half and bake for about 40 minutes before using the tines of a fork to scrape out the flesh into strands. You can top the spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and serve in the bowl that remains after you scoop the flesh out of the halved squash. Or you can serve it with garlic and olive oil, or tossed with sautéed kale and chickpeas.

Sage and Butternut Squash Polenta

squash potenta

Alexandra Grablewski Alexandra Grablewski

1 small butternut squash (about 1½ pounds)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups nonfat milk
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup instant polenta*
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

1. Preheat oven to 375° F.

2. Slice ends from squash and halve lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and discard them (or rinse and save to roast later).

3. Brush squash halves with oil and season with pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet, cut-side down. Roast until very soft, about 45 minutes. Let cool, scoop flesh into a bowl, and mash lightly.

4. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring milk, broth, and kosher salt to a simmer. Stirring constantly, add polenta in a slow, steady stream to avoid lumps. Stir over medium heat until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in squash, cheese, and sage. Serve warm.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 180 calories, 2 g fat, <1 g saturated fat, 35 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 6 g sugars (0 g added), 8 g protein, 170 mg sodium.

*You can use regular polenta, but that will increase the cooking time for the polenta to about 10 to 15 minutes.

Maple-Glazed Squash Slices

Butternut squash

Alexandra Grablewski Alexandra Grablewski

1 medium acorn squash (about 1½ pounds)
2 teaspoons unsalted butter}
2 tablespoons real maple syrup (not pancake syrup)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 425° F.

2. Slice ends from squash and halve lengthwise. Use a spoon to hollow out the center; discard seeds (or rinse and save to roast later).

3. Slice squash into ½-inch-thick slices. Transfer squash to a bowl.

4. In a small saucepan, melt butter. Stir in syrup, salt, and spices. Pour some of the mix over the squash and toss to coat.

5. Arrange squash on a baking sheet and pour remaining syrup mixture over the slices. Bake for 15 minutes. Flip slices and bake until squash is tender, about 5 minutes longer.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 24 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 6 g sugars (6 g added), 1 g protein, 125 mg sodium.

Top Immersion Blenders From CR's Tests

If you like to make soup, an immersion blender is a good investment. You can purée the ingredients right in the pot, which eliminates the risk of transferring hot food into a blender and also cuts down on the dishes you have to wash.

Sally Wadyka

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.