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posted: 12/10/2013 1:00 PM

Ask the nutritionist: Winter squash a great source of carotenoids

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  • Winter squash comes in a number of varieties and each is packed with nutrients and fiber.

      Winter squash comes in a number of varieties and each is packed with nutrients and fiber.
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Q. Do the various kinds of winter squash differ in nutrients or recommended preparation?

A. Winter squash comes in many sizes, shapes and varieties; almost all are great sources of compounds called carotenoids

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Two of these, alpha- and beta-carotene, promote cell-to-cell communication, reducing risk of uncontrolled cell growth that can lead to cancer. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two "cousin" carotenoid compounds that are concentrated in the lens and retina of our eyes. They protect eye health by filtering out high-energy UV rays, known as blue light, that can create damage.

Winter squash is also a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber, all with about 75 calories a serving, about a cup of cooked squash cubes. Spaghetti squash is a little lower in calories, fiber and the nutrients noted above. Its preparation is unique, too, since after cooking, you can pull its strands out with a fork to serve like spaghetti.

The other squash each have slightly distinctive flavors and textures, and all make savory additions to soup, stir-fries, stews, curries and mixed oven-roasted vegetables. Each can be baked, steamed or microwaved to serve stuffed, in chunks or puréed, often accompanied with sweet spices (cinnamon, ginger), fruits (such as apples or cranberries) or nuts.

Acorn squash are small with a very hard rind, so they are often cut in half and baked without peeling. Butternut squash is sweet and moist with a slight nutty flavor, and the skin is easy to peel, so they are great when you want chunks to roast or add to stews. Buttercup squash has a delicious sweet flavor, but because it can be a bit dry, use it in moist dishes like soups. Don't be afraid of large squash like Hubbard, because you can freeze the leftovers or any you don't use, either in raw slices or after cooking in cubes or puréed.

Q. How can I avoid overeating in response to people pushing food at me during family gatherings?

A. Family dynamics vary, so an approach that works in one family might not do well in another.

Is your family one in which eating rich foods in large amounts is seen as an essential part of gatherings, and not doing so is met with resistance? Rather than making a major statement that you don't want to eat that way, you might try to let your healthy eating quietly fly under the radar.

Especially if you are busy helping, or not sitting right next to the person most likely to push food at you, your lack of overeating may go undetected if you don't make a big deal of it. If people do urge you to take more than you are comfortable eating, try for responses that don't put them on the defensive. You might compliment the food and say that you are so full you'd like to wait until later for more. If you refuse in a way that makes others feel guilty by implying that they are eating excessively, or that the food they have served you is unhealthy, they may be offended and push further.

Remember that the health impact of a food varies with its portion. If you help with serving, you can choose the portion that's right for you. Try to find some vegetables or other healthful choices to savor slowly.

Don't let other people derail your efforts to take care of your health. Nevertheless, try to be sensitive when you are dealing with people for whom you know refusing food feels like you are refusing their love.

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