When I saw the New York magazine headline "Pumpkin Is the New Bacon," I have to admit, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Really?” But after reading the article, I get it. Pumpkin is popping up in dishes across the country.
One research firm noted a 38 percent jump in "pumpkin presence" on menus since 2010, and another discovered a whopping 400 percent increase in pumpkin drinks in the past five years. Sometimes it shows up in unexpected ways, like pumpkin tacos. But too often, it’s folded into decadent dishes such as pumpkin fritters.
On its own, roasted pumpkin, and even unsweetened pumpkin puree, are nutritional all-stars, loaded with immune-boosting vitamin A and filling fiber. And it's relatively low in calories—one cup mashed clocks in at less than 50.
But when it’s wrapped in layers of butter, refined carbs, and sugar, or simply a flavoring rather than the real deal, the benefits are pretty much null and void, and the calories rack up fast. Here are five of the worst offenders, with the three most egregious nutrition facts for each:
Panera Bread Pumpkin Bagel
Carbs: 74 g
Sugar: 24 g
Starting your day with as many carbs as five slices of toast is a sure-fire way to crash mid-morning. And this is before smearing anything on top—add reduced-fat cream cheese, and you're downing as many calories as five packets of plain instant oatmeal.
Starbucks Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffin
Carbs: 71 g
Sugar: 47 g
Sugar is the first ingredient in this baby, qualifying it as more of a dessert than a breakfast or snack. And the pumpkin? It's listed under the "contains 2% or less" category. No surprise then that it has about the same number of calories as five sugar cookies and only 2 grams of fiber.
Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin White Chocolate Iced Latte (large, whole milk)
Carbs: 72 g
With three different flavored syrups—white chocolate, pumpkin spice, and caramel—you're sipping up the equivalent of 18 packets of sugar if you order this drink. Even a small with skim milk has as much of the sweet stuff as nine and a half glazed chocolate cake Munchkins.
Dairy Queen Pumpkin Pie Blizzard Treat (large)
Carbs: 150 g
Sugar: 114 g
You would have to eat three generous slices of actual pumpkin pie to consume the same amount of carbs as this frozen Goliath. Opt for a mini-sized Blizzard, and you're still taking in around the same number of calories as one slice of pie with two tablespoons of heavy whipping cream (the real stuff, not the aerosol type).
Cheesecake Factory Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake
Saturated fat: 31 g
Carbs: 95 g
This dessert packs more calories and carbs than an entire pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. And you know how guilty you feel when you down one of those.
For a healthy way to celebrate the season, whip up a pumpkin smoothie: In a blender combine 1/2 cup canned pumpkin, 1/4 cup rolled oats, 1 cup organic skim milk or a non-dairy alternative, 2 tablespoons almond butter, a handful of ice, and a generous dose of pumpkin pie spice (if you need a little sweetener, add a touch of organic maple syrup).
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.