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Boost Your Immunity with Nutrient-Rich Winter Squash

By Monique Ryan | Oct. 21, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

With their tough exterior and strange shapes, winter squash may not be the most accessible looking vegetable at the market this month. But their colors tell the true story. With varied hues of orange, yellow, red and green, they provide truly impressive amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, all for only 100 calories per cup. Mother Nature has provided the most perfect sweet-flavored autumn and winter vegetable for your triathlon training diet.

Filler-up on winter squash
Providing 6 grams of fiber and a 90-percent water content, winter squash is the perfect fit for volumetric eating, or getting full on less calories—perfect for downtime when your calorie burning may have decreased.  In one recent study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers determined that increasing portions of vegetables and decreasing portions of grains not only encouraged greater vegetable consumption, but also decreased calorie intake at that meal by 14-percent. In fact eating more fruits and vegetables throughout the day is an effective strategy for controlling calories and hunger. In one 2007 study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that increasing fruit and vegetable intake and decreasing fat intake lowered calorie intake, controlled hunger and promoted weight loss.

Boost immunity this season

Plenty of research suggests that your immune system can be a bit fragile after hard exercise, and winter squash can give your immune system a boost throughout the day. At 145 percent of the daily value per cup, it is conveniently loaded with immune-boosting beta-carotene which is converted to the potent vitamin A, beating out all other vegetables. Vitamin A keeps the mucous membranes in your mouth and nose resistant to infection, posing a first line of defense. One cup of winter squash also provides 30 percent of the daily value of vitamin C, another potent antioxidant. Both of these nutrients help you combat winter respiratory infections and the free-radicals produced during exercise, keeping you healthy, in the gym, and your workouts flowing into spring.

Repair and rebuild 
Winter squash is also a great recovery food. In addition to an immune boost, its high water content can help you rehydrate after exercise. One cup provides up to 900 milligrams of potassium, about twice that found in a banana, an important electrolyte lost in sweat.  These colorful gourds are also ample in nutrients involved in energy metabolism including manganese at 22-percent of the daily value and modest doses of B vitamins. Winter squash even provides a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids which help combat inflammation in the body.

Winter Squash 101

  • Choose varieties that are firm, heavy for their size, and that have dull, not glossy rinds.
  • Store in a cool place away from light (not in the fridge).
  • Once it is cut, cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for one to two days.
  • Freeze in sizes used in individual recipes.
  • To soften the skin for cutting and peeling, pierce with a fork in several locations and microwave for 60 seconds.
  • To prepare for cooking or recipe preparation, wash winter squash and cut in half. Remove the seeds and fibrous material in the cavity.
  • Depending on the recipe, winter squash can be cooked peeled or unpeeled.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour in a quarter inch of water.
  • If pressed for time, buy precut pieces and microwave until tender.

Turkey and Butternut Squash Soup

Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4

2 teaspoons canola oil
3 leeks, rinsed, chopped and trimmed
2 small red bell peppers, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups reduced sodium vegetable broth
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into one-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
1 pound of turkey breast cutlets, cut into small bit sized strips
Juice from one lime
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Cut squash in half, discard seeds, peel and cut into cubes. Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add leeks and bell peppers, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often until the vegetables soften. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the broth, rosemary, cumin and squash; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook until vegetables are tender. Add turkey and return to a simmer until the turkey is cooked, about 5 minutes. Add lime juice and crushed red pepper.
Calories: 235, Total Fat: 4.5g, Saturated Fat: 0.8g, Trans Fat: 0g, Cholesterol: 51mg, Sodium: 159mg, Total Carbohydrate 20g, Dietary Fiber: 3.4g, Sugars: 6.9g , Protein: 29g, Iron: 2.7, Omega-3 Fats: 0.4mg

Monique Ryan, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN is the leading endurance sports nutritionist. Her nearly 30 years of professional experience working with Olympic (consultant to USAT and USA Cycling), elite and age-group endurance athletes and professional sports teams make her one of the most experienced and qualified sports nutritionists in the U.S. Ryan is founder of Chicago based Personal Nutrition Designs, LLC and the best-selling author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes (3rd edition, VeloPress) and three other sports nutrition books. PND, LLC provides detailed nutrition plans for triathletes across North America competing in all race distances, with programs at Ryan is a Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist and a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.