Fall Foods That Love You Back

Pumpkins, spice, and everything nice. Your favorite fall foods aren’t just cozy and delicious, they’re good for you too. Read all about the healthy benefits of these seasonal cooking staples and discover even more reasons to love fall.

Pumpkins

This iconic fall food is native to North America and has been featured in autumn traditions like Halloween and Thanksgiving for generations. Pumpkins are surprisingly versatile for cooking and work well in both sweet and savory recipes, from pies and breads to soups and curries. Once cooked, you can eat every part of the pumpkin, from the flesh and skin to the seeds.

Pumpkins are actual superfoods that come packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, especially carotenoids. They are particularly high in beta carotene (pro-vitamin A), with one cup delivering over 200% of the recommended daily intake for vitamin A. They are also one of the best sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, two other carotenoids known for their eye health benefits.

Beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin are all crucial for maintaining healthy vision. Vitamin A is required by the retina to detect light, while lutein and zeaxanthin help protect eyes from damaging blue light and other forms of oxidative stress that can damage vision over time. All three carotenoids also act as natural sunblock to help protect skin from harmful UV light.[1][2]

Pumpkins are also good for your digestive health, which makes them especially welcome at indulgent feasts such as Thanksgiving. They are high in fiber, including pectin, a type of soluble fiber that acts as a prebiotic, helping to feed your friendly gut bacteria. Fiber is also helpful for supporting healthy cholesterol and blood sugar management.

There are a hundred ways to enjoy pumpkin – and yes, canned pumpkin counts. Look up some recipes and get cooking!

See also: Butternut Squash

Butternut squash tastes similar to pumpkin and has similar health benefits, too, including over 100% of your daily requirement for vitamin A, plus nearly 40% of your daily requirement for vitamin C.

Apples

Apple-picking and apple pie baking are favorite fall traditions. Apples taste best in the fall, when their sugar content is highest. They can be eaten raw, juiced into cider, cooked or baked into savory dishes and desserts. Widespread and versatile, they are the most widely consumed fruit in the world. And yes, they’ve got healthy benefits to help keep the proverbial doctor away.

One of the healthiest things about apples is their fiber content. Only about 5% of Americans eat the recommended amount of fiber,[3] so this is important. Apples are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which is great for your digestive health as well as heart health. Insoluble fiber keeps things moving through the digestive system, while soluble fiber also helps manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels.[4] A recent study found that eating two apples a day improved cholesterol levels.[5]

Apples are especially high in pectin, a particular type of soluble fiber that acts as a prebiotic, helping to feed the friendly bacteria in your gut and promote a healthy gut microbiome. This is important for your gut health, and your gut health affects many other areas of health, including your immune function. Studies have found that apple pectin can improve healthy gut barrier function, which plays a key role in your supporting your immune health and managing healthy inflammation levels.[6][7]

Apples also contain flavonoid antioxidants that can help protect against oxidative stress, including a high amount of quercetin. Quercetin has been getting a lot of buzz for its potential immune health, brain health, and heart health benefits, including supporting healthy blood vessel function and healthy brain aging.[8][9]

Keep in mind that many of the health benefits of apples are in the peel, including all the quercetin and half the fiber, so don’t remove the peels if you want to maximize the benefits.

See also: Pears

Pears are also a great source of fiber, including prebiotics, and a rich source of flavonoid antioxidants. They complement apples well – try adding some to an apple pie or crumble!

Cinnamon

Spicy, sweet, and fragrant, cinnamon is one of our favorite fall spices, perfect for cozy hot drinks and essential for baking with pumpkins and apples. Cinnamon has been prized for thousands of years, both as a culinary spice and as an herbal medicine traditionally used to support digestive and respiratory health. Today, it’s being studied for a number of potential health benefits.

The essential oil cinnamaldehyde gives cinnamon its intense flavor and aroma, and is also thought to be responsible for many of its health benefits. It has antimicrobial activity, which can help support respiratory and oral health. It’s also a potent antioxidant and may help manage inflammation and oxidative stress.[10] This is important for heart health and healthy aging.

One of the most interesting potential benefits of cinnamon is its effects on blood sugar management. Cinnamon seems to mimic the effects of insulin, helping to improve glucose uptake into cells and support insulin sensitivity, which supports the body's ability to manage blood sugar.[11][12] It may also help reduce post-meal blood sugar spikes by slowing the digestion of starches.[13] These effects may help maintain blood sugar already within the normal range.

Cinnamon tastes great in many desserts, and may also help your body manage the extra sugar in the dish. That’s a win-win.

See also: Ginger

Another popular warming spice, ginger is a well known digestive aid and also has potent antioxidant compounds that may help support a healthy inflammation response. 

Brussels sprouts

Though not universally loved, brussels sprouts have emerged in recent years as one of the stars of the fall cooking season. The trick is that they have to be cooked just right. Overcooking these mini cabbages leaves them mushy and bitter. But roasting or pan-frying them with some olive oil and salt brings out their natural nutty sweetness while leaving them brown and crisp.

The bitterness in brussels sprouts comes from sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which are found in all cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale. These compounds are released through the cooking process and give the veggies a distinctive odor. But they are also thought to have unique protective health benefits, including powerful antioxidant activity that can help protect cells and DNA from damage.[15][16]

Brussels sprouts are packed with nutrients, including high amounts of vitamin C and vitamin K, carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin to support your eye health, plant-based omega-3s (ALA), and even some plant protein. They are also high in fiber, which supports digestive health and cholesterol and blood sugar management. Eating more cruciferous veggies is linked with reduced blood sugar and heart health risks.[17][18]

Brussel sprouts taste great with something a little salty (pancetta, aged cheese, bacon) and/or something a little sweet and tangy (balsamic vinegar, honey mustard, cranberries). There are a ton of great recipes out there to get you inspired.

See also: Kale

Although not the sexiest vegetable, kale has a well-earned reputation as one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, with high amounts of vitamin C and vitamin K, lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants like quercetin, protective sulfur compounds, and a ton of fiber. It holds up well under heat and can be added to soups, pasta bakes, and braised meat dishes.

Note: Some people have trouble digesting cruciferous veggies because of a complex carb called raffinose, which ferments in the gut, producing gas. Taking digestive enzymes can help break down these veggies more comfortably. 

References:

[1] Wilhelm Stahl, Helmut Sies, β-Carotene and other carotenoids in protection from sunlight, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 96, Issue 5, November 2012, Pages 1179S–1184S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.034819

[2] Roberts RL, Green J, Lewis B. Lutein and zeaxanthin in eye and skin health. Clin Dermatol. 2009 Mar-Apr;27(2):195-201. doi: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2008.01.011. PMID: 19168000.

[3] Quagliani D, Felt-Gunderson P. Closing America's Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies From a Food and Fiber Summit. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Jul 7;11(1):80-85. doi: 10.1177/1559827615588079. PMID: 30202317; PMCID: PMC6124841.

[4] Fiber. The Nutrition Source. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

[5] Koutsos A, Riccadonna S, Ulaszewska MM, Franceschi P, Trošt K, Galvin A, Braune T, Fava F, Perenzoni D, Mattivi F, Tuohy KM, Lovegrove JA. Two apples a day lower serum cholesterol and improve cardiometabolic biomarkers in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020 Feb 1;111(2):307-318. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz282. PMID: 31840162; PMCID: PMC6997084.

[6] Jiang T, Gao X, Wu C, Tian F, Lei Q, Bi J, Xie B, Wang HY, Chen S, Wang X. Apple-Derived Pectin Modulates Gut Microbiota, Improves Gut Barrier Function, and Attenuates Metabolic Endotoxemia in Rats with Diet-Induced Obesity. Nutrients. 2016 Feb 29;8(3):126. doi: 10.3390/nu8030126. PMID: 26938554; PMCID: PMC4808856.

[7] Beukema, M., Faas, M.M. & de Vos, P. The effects of different dietary fiber pectin structures on the gastrointestinal immune barrier: impact via gut microbiota and direct effects on immune cells. Exp Mol Med 52, 1364–1376 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s12276-020-0449-2

[8] Li Y, Yao J, Han C, Yang J, Chaudhry MT, Wang S, Liu H, Yin Y. Quercetin, Inflammation and Immunity. Nutrients. 2016 Mar 15;8(3):167. doi: 10.3390/nu8030167. PMID: 26999194; PMCID: PMC4808895.

[9] Healthy Foods High in Quercetin. Nourish by WebMD.

[10] Zhu C, Yan H, Zheng Y, Santos HO, Macit MS, Zhao K. Impact of Cinnamon Supplementation on cardiometabolic Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Complement Ther Med. 2020 Sep;53:102517. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102517. Epub 2020 Jul 18. PMID: 33066854.

[11] Silva ML, Bernardo MA, Singh J, de Mesquita MF. Cinnamon as a Complementary Therapeutic Approach for Dysglycemia and Dyslipidemia Control in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Its Molecular Mechanism of Action: A Review. Nutrients. 2022 Jul 5;14(13):2773. doi: 10.3390/nu14132773. PMID: 35807953; PMCID: PMC9269353.

[12] Hajimonfarednejad M, Nimrouzi M, Heydari M, Zarshenas MM, Raee MJ, Jahromi BN. Insulin resistance improvement by cinnamon powder in polycystic ovary syndrome: A randomized double-blind placebo controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2018 Feb;32(2):276-283. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5970. Epub 2017 Dec 18. PMID: 29250843.

[13] Hayward NJ, McDougall GJ, Farag S, Allwood JW, Austin C, Campbell F, Horgan G, Ranawana V. Cinnamon Shows Antidiabetic Properties that Are Species-Specific: Effects on Enzyme Activity Inhibition and Starch Digestion. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2019 Dec;74(4):544-552. doi: 10.1007/s11130-019-00760-8. PMID: 31372918; PMCID: PMC6900266.

[14] Khandouzi N, Shidfar F, Rajab A, Rahideh T, Hosseini P, Mir Taheri M. The effects of ginger on fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin a1c, apolipoprotein B, apolipoprotein a-I and malondialdehyde in type 2 diabetic patients. Iran J Pharm Res. 2015 Winter;14(1):131-40. PMID: 25561919; PMCID: PMC4277626.

[15] Verhagen H, Poulsen HE, Loft S, van Poppel G, Willems MI, van Bladeren PJ. Reduction of oxidative DNA-damage in humans by brussels sprouts. Carcinogenesis. 1995 Apr;16(4):969-70. doi: 10.1093/carcin/16.4.969. PMID: 7728983.

[16] Hoelzl C, Glatt H, Meinl W, Sontag G, Haidinger G, Kundi M, Simic T, Chakraborty A, Bichler J, Ferk F, Angelis K, Nersesyan A, Knasmüller S. Consumption of Brussels sprouts protects peripheral human lymphocytes against 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) and oxidative DNA-damage: results of a controlled human intervention trial. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008 Mar;52(3):330-41. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.200700406. PMID: 18293303.

[17] Jia X, Zhong L, Song Y, Hu Y, Wang G, Sun S. Consumption of citrus and cruciferous vegetables with incident type 2 diabetes mellitus based on a meta-analysis of prospective study. Prim Care Diabetes. 2016 Aug;10(4):272-80. doi: 10.1016/j.pcd.2015.12.004. Epub 2016 Jan 6. PMID: 26778708.

[18] Zhang X, Shu XO, Xiang YB, Yang G, Li H, Gao J, Cai H, Gao YT, Zheng W. Cruciferous vegetable consumption is associated with a reduced risk of total and cardiovascular disease mortality. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jul;94(1):240-6. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.009340. Epub 2011 May 18. PMID: 21593509; PMCID: PMC3127519.