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posted: 10/24/2012 6:33 AM

Ask the nutritionist Canned pumpkin a nutrient-rich option

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Q. Is there a nutritional advantage to choosing fresh versus canned pumpkin?

A. No. Both fresh and canned pumpkin are excellent choices, as long as the canned pumpkin you choose is plain, solid pack pumpkin and not sugar-laden pumpkin pie mix.

Pumpkin is loaded with carotenoids, including both beta- and alpha-carotene, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, the antioxidants linked to protecting the lens and retina of our eyes.

Beta- and alpha-carotene may play a role in reducing our risk of cancer, because in lab studies, these compounds seem part of processes that help control cell growth, and they are both converted to retinol (vitamin A), important for immune function and possibly for activation of carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes. A report from the American Institute for Cancer Research/World Cancer Research Fund links foods high in carotenoids to lower risk of mouth, larynx and lunch cancers.

While pumpkin is inexpensive and abundant at farmers markets and your grocery store, you might head toward fresh. Choose smaller cooking or sweet pumpkins. Peel and cut in cubes for stir-fries, chili and stew, and experiment with adding it to pasta dishes and enchiladas. Cut pieces will keep in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for about two days. You can also freeze it in uncooked chunks or as cooked purée.

For those times when you want a smooth pumpkin purée to stir into soup or pasta sauce, canned versions are super-quick and nutritious. Canned pumpkin is not salted, so it's about the same near-zero sodium as fresh pumpkin.

Q. How long will it take to see my blood cholesterol go down after I change my eating habits?

A. It usually takes about four to six weeks after you settle into your new eating habits for your body to break down currently circulating cholesterol and show lower blood levels. This may vary with the specific changes you've made in your eating habits, how high your cholesterol was to start with, and your genetics.

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program's treatment guidelines, blood cholesterol levels should be checked after six weeks. If your levels aren't on target, talk with your doctor about whether to continue what you've been doing or add additional dietary steps. Check cholesterol levels in another six weeks. If you and your doctor decided to continue your original changes and your LDL ("bad") cholesterol is still not where your doctor suggests it should be, try a more comprehensive approach to dietary steps that can lower blood cholesterol before beginning medication.

If you are overweight, losing weight is an important part of the picture. Healthy weight loss is gradual, so it may take several months to see its full impact. Reducing saturated and trans fat can usually lower blood cholesterol about 10 to 15 percent. A reasonable target for many people is to limit the total of these two fats to below 18 to 25 grams a day, but people with hard-to-budge cholesterol may need to keep below 12 to 15 grams.

Overall, your diet should contain foods rich in fiber -- plenty of vegetables and fruit, and daily dried beans, oatmeal or barley -- along with nuts, soy foods, and weight loss if you are overweight. These dietary changes can reduce LDL cholesterol 13 to 30 percent. Part of your diet strategy may also include plant sterols, which are added to certain margarines.

If your blood cholesterol remains high, you may need medication, but many people give up on dietary changes too easily. See a registered dietitian to help you create changes that will work for you if you need help. To locate an RD, ask your doctor for a referral, or check the website and click on Find a Registered Dietitian.

•Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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