Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.
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Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDE, CPT is a New York City-based telehealth registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communications expert.
Butternut squash is a type of winter squash native to the Americas. Technically a fruit, it has long been utilized as a complete source of vegan protein by native populations when also paired with corn and beans. Together, the three are referred to as “The Three Sisters” and are a common sight in autumn.
Butternut squash makes a great addition to many sweet and savory dishes. It is a potent source of vitamin A and other nutrients. Even though it is a high-carbohydrate food, it has a low glycemic index, making it a smart addition to most healthy meal plans.
Butternut Squash Nutrition Facts
The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for 1 cup (205g) of cubed, cooked butternut squash without fat or salt.
A 1-cup serving of cooked butternut squash provides only 82 calories, most of which comes from the 21.5 grams of carbohydrate. Butternut squash is a good source of dietary fiber, providing you with up to 24% of your daily needs. The USDA recommends that adults consume between 22–34 grams of fiber depending on age and sex. However, the daily value set by the FDA (and used for food labels) recommends 28 grams of fiber.
This squash is full of healthy carbohydrates and when it is boiled, it has a low glycemic index of 51, making it a filling option that most people can regularly incorporate into meals.
Butternut squash provides 1.8 grams per serving. You would need to supplement with other protein sources to meet your daily protein needs. The squash seeds, dried or roasted, also contain protein and can serve as a very filling, nutrient-dense snack.
Vitamins and Minerals
Butternut squash is an excellent source of vitamin A, with a single serving providing more than the daily requirement for adult men and women. Vitamin A is essential for proper organ function and optimal vision. It is also an excellent source of vitamin C, and a good source of thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, and pantothenic acid.
Minerals in butternut squash include calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese.
Including butternut squash in your meal plan may provide certain health benefits because of the nutrients it provides.
May Help Prevent Vision Loss
Vitamin A is essential in the body for the maintenance of normal vision. Butternut squash contains beta carotine, a type of vitamin A that is especially important for eye health.
Studies have shown that consuming foods or supplements with beta carotene may help prevent age-related macular degeneration—a form of vision loss that becomes more common as people age. Research has found that an above-average intake of vitamin C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc was associated with a 35% decrease in age-related macular degeneration. Butternut squash also contains high levels of vitamin C, some vitamin E, and a very small amount of zinc.
May Reduce Risk of Some Cancers
The vitamin A in butternut squash may also play a role in the prevention of certain cancers. The vitamin is important for regulating cell growth and differentiation. The National Institutes of Health reports that some studies have examined the association between beta carotene (a form of vitamin A) and a lower risk for prostate and lung cancers.
For example, the relationship between beta-carotene and lung cancer in people who smoke has been studied with mixed results. And there is some evidence that higher vitamin A intake may lead to a lower risk of prostate cancer. However, the relationship between vitamin A and cancer risk is still unclear, and there is a possibility that taking too much vitamin A may be detrimental.
May Reduce Risk of Measles
While measles is no longer common in the United States, it is still a cause of death in some developing countries. Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk for severe measles. Consuming foods that are very high in vitamin A or taking a vitamin A supplement can help reduce the risk of vitamin A deficiency.
Reduced Chronic Disease Risk
Researchers have identified certain foods that they identify as powerhouse fruits and vegetables. These are foods most strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk. These foods provide higher levels of bioavailable nutrients such as vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, and others. Winter squash, including butternut squash and other types such as acorn squash, made the list, although it was not in the top half.
The vitamin C in butternut squash is also involved in the production of certain neurotransmitters. Vitamin C may have a therapeutic role to play against neurodegenerative diseases involving high levels of oxidative stress.
Squash has been found to be helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease and hypertension because of the anti-inflammatory actions of its polyphenolic compounds.
Aids Skin Health
Butternut squash is an excellent source of vitamin C, containing up to 34% of the recommended daily amount in just 1 cup. Vitamin C is necessary for the production of collagen, the main protein in your skin. It also assists in antioxidant protection against UV-induced photodamage.
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Vitamin C is sometimes applied topically to the skin but authors of one study noted that healthy skin is positively associated with fruit and vegetable intake in a number of well-executed intervention studies. Although they note that the active component in the fruit and vegetables responsible for the observed benefit can’t be identified, vitamin C availability may be a factor.
There is a known butternut squash allergy leading to contact dermatitis of the hands that affects some people when they peel and cut up the squash. If you know you have this sensitivity, wear gloves during preparation.
A higher than normal intake of vitamin A is associated with adverse effects, The tolerable upper limit for pre-formed vitamin A is about 3,000mcg per day. However, adverse effects are associated with preformed vitamin A, primarily found in meat and dairy products.
The beta-carotene and provitamin A carotenoids found in plant-based foods like butternut squash are not associated with major adverse effects. The only adverse effect of higher-than-normal intakes of plant-based vitamin A (excess beta-carotene) is carotenoderma, a harmless condition in which the skin takes on a yellow-orange color. The condition can be reversed by discontinuing the food or supplement containing high levels of beta carotene.
There are many different varieties of winter squash, but just one kind of butternut squash. This squash is the sweetest of the winter squashes and one of the easiest to find.
When It’s Best
Butternut is a winter squash. You’ll probably see butternut squash year-round in your store, but it is best in season, which runs through the fall and winter.
To pick a good butternut squash, look for a creamy, pear-shaped squash that feels heavy for its size. It should have a thick skin. Avoid butternut squash with blemishes or soft spots.
Storage and Food Safety
Place your squash in a cool dark place, such as a pantry, for up to a month. Do not refrigerate uncooked squash. If you peel or prepare butternut squash, however, it should be refrigerated for 5–7 days.
You can freeze butternut squash after it has been peeled. Simply cube or slice the raw squash and place in air-tight freezer bags for up to a year. You can also freeze cooked squash.
You can also eat it raw, but cooking the squash softens the flesh, making it easier to consume and digest, and because squash takes on many different flavors, it is tastier when cooked. Some people wonder if they can also eat the skin of the squash, but it is better not to eat the skin, as it is hard and unpleasant.
How to Prepare
Butternut squash can be roasted, baked, puréed, or sautéed. You can also mash or steam it and add it to soups, stews, and chili, or stuff squash with whole grains or legumes for a nutrient- and protein-packed vegetarian meal option.
Butternut squash can be a pain to peel, so many people opt to cook it with the skin on. The squash meat will more easily fall away afterward.
Baking butternut squash with some unsaturated fat, such as grapeseed or canola oil (they have higher smoke points than other options), can enhance the absorption of vitamin A. This roasting technique will also caramelize butternut squash’s natural sugar for better flavor.
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