The pumpkin obsession in America is really just a thinly-veiled attempt for big food companies to sell us “seasonality” in the form of the same sugary foods with a little pumpkin-spice flavoring added to the mix. It’s a marketing gimmick. And it works. Most of those pumpkin-flavored things are just that… pumpkin FLAVORED. They have no “pumpkin” in them.
Those marketing masters are onto something though. People want to eat seasonally. Our bodies are designed to crave variety, to respond to external stimuli, to change, to adapt, to sink into patterns and then break them. In the bodybuilding world, we have our own version of seasonality: bulking and cutting seasons.
So here’s the real question – can we live in both worlds? Is it possible for us to buy into the pumpkin craze and stay on target for our goals? Is it possible for bulking season and seasonal eating to go hand-in-hand without just diving headfirst into a Pumpkin Spice Latte and swimming in a pool of piping-hot sucrose?
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding YES… just not the way coffee shops and food companies would have you do it. First - Pumpkin itself has a lot of things going for it nutritionally. Plus, a few health food companies have hopped on the seasonal bandwagon, providing pumpkin-flavored options that are both cheat-worthy and macro friendly. Just beware which ones you grab. Not all “protein bars” are made equal.
Depending on whether you’re on the tried-and-true fall bulking schedule or cutting down after a few too many margaritas by the pool this summer, pumpkin is an incredibly versatile food than can serve either goal, depending on what part you eat.
PUMPKIN (the squash): The flesh of the pumpkin itself, while similar in flavor to sweet potato (a bulking staple), actually has only ¼ the calories. It’s a great quick fix for cutting, when you’re coming down off a bulk, reducing caloric intake, but trying not to suffer too much from the hunger pangs of pure volume reduction. It really helps fill the gap left by sweet potatoes or yams. You can roast it up the same way, let it get nice and sweet in the oven, with just a little bit of salt, then mash it up or eat it in chunks like butternut squash. It’s delicious, and full of fiber to help you stay feeling full.
PUMPKIN SEEDS: These guys are miracle workers for bulking. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds typically has around 180-200 calories, about half of which are healthy fat calories, which makes them especially great calorie sources for guys who have trouble putting on size. They’ve got a moderate amount of protein (about 9-10g) and only around 6 carbs, 2 of which are fiber.
The real magic in pumpkin seeds: they’re a great source of leucine to help protein synthesis and boost testosterone levels.
BARS: A lot of the seasonal stuff out there is very carb or sugar heavy. Obviously, go ahead and carb up if that’s part of your nutrition plan and it’s helping get you where you need to be. But don’t just grab a pumpkin-flavored protein bar and assume you’re staying on track. One of the leading brands has 45g of carbs, many of which are sugars. If you want a lower carb option, try the Quest Pumpkin Pie bar, it’s 21g of protein, plenty of fiber, and only 4 net carbs.
PRO TIP: Pumpkin seeds are great raw (on salads or just as a snack), but they’re also delicious roasted with a little sea salt or Old Bay seasoning.
For the pumpkin flesh, just don’t roast one of those big orange ones you usually see used for jack-o-lanterns. Stick with kabocha or pie pumpkins for eating. Better texture, better flavor… just better.