National Pie Day Done Right
Tomorrow is National Pie Day in America. As delicious as this particular holiday sounds, it is obviously not the healthiest of celebrations. Most store-bought pies are so filled with fat, chemicals, and sugar that there is little if any fresh fruit left in them. If you want to indulge on Pie Day, you are definitely better off choosing your slice wisely and preparing and baking your own pie.
Pumpkin pie filling, for instance, is chock-full of antioxidants that will benefit your body rather than just fill your stomach with empty calories. Pumpkin is very high in alpha-carotene, which has been shown to lower your risk of dying. A 2010 study, conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, found that alpha-carotene may be a more health-promoting form of carotenoid than beta-carotene.1 The researchers analyzed the records of 15,318 adults, 20 years and older, who had been enrolled in the third National Health and Nutrition Survey Follow-Up Study.2
All of the volunteers were given physical examinations and blood tests from 1988 through 1994, then follow-ups took place until 2006 to obtain information on causes of mortality for those who died during this period. The researchers determined that alpha-carotene intake was associated with a lower risk of death. In fact, the higher the level of alpha-carotene found in the blood, the less the likelihood of mortality. Those with the highest levels of alpha-carotene in the study had an astounding 39 percent lower risk of dying than their peers who had a negligible level.
This lower risk of death makes sense, since alpha-carotene is linked to the prevention of cancer cell growth in the brain, liver, and skin. Earlier studies had found no association between synthetic beta-carotene and any of these benefits, so the researchers focused on alpha-carotene. The results found alpha-carotene to be 10 times more effective than beta-carotene in stopping both human neuroblastoma cells and liver cancer cells from spreading. (Yet another reason for getting your vitamins and antioxidants from super foods or whole complex supplements as opposed to isolates--since natural carotenoid complexes almost always contain both beta-carotene and alpha-carotene.)
The primary sources of alpha-carotene are certain fruits and vegetables, seaweeds, single-cell green foods such as spirulina and chlorella, and some nutritional supplements. Some of your best bets if you are looking to up your intake of alpha-carotene are pumpkin, carrots, and almost any orange-hued produce.3 Which brings us back to the pie situation. You might think that getting your alpha-carotene from low-fat pumpkin soup or pumpkin bread might be the smarter, healthier way to achieve your goal. But, in this particular instance, you actually need some fat, which pie can definitely offer, in order for your body to efficiently utilize the alpha-carotene.
Alpha-carotene is only absorbed in the presence of fat. So slicing pumpkin into a salad will be healthy in many ways, but it will only offer a small quantity of alpha-carotene that the body can use. Pumpkin pie filling, on the other hand, offers plenty of alpha-carotene and has the fat necessary to absorb it optimally.
The typical serving of pumpkin pie is one slice, or one-eighth of a nine-inch diameter pie. It averages 323 calories and has 14.63 grams of fat, which means that 41 percent of its calories come from fat.4 That is certainly more than enough to get the alpha-carotene circulating through your system.
However, in order to make sure your pie indulgence is not a complete artery-clogging experience, you can improve your pie's health quotient--and it's flavor as well--by modifying the recipe. Discarding the typical crusts that are full of saturated and trans fats in favor of healthier versions using monounsaturated fats such as canola or grapeseed oil will go a long way. Even better is extra virgin coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature and can be cut into the crust just like deadly shortening. But unlike shortening, coconut oil is packed with MCT's and is extremely healthy despite its high saturated fat content. Oatmeal pie crust is another option and requires less oil than flour based crusts.5 In addition, you can leave out most of the sweeteners to focus on the creamy, delicious pumpkin flavor itself.
So have (a little bit of) your pie, and eat it too. Just remember to choose well when you indulge. Feel free to celebrate Pie Day tomorrow…and go back to less fat and sugar-oriented choices after that. After National Pie Day, your fresh orange vegetables or your supplements can be consumed with a healthier source of fat such as a handful of nuts.
- 1. Li, Chaoyang; et al. "Serum a-Carotene Concentrations and Risk of Death Among US Adults." JAMA Internal Medicine. 28 March 2011. Accessed 13 January 2013. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=226896
- 2. "Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Nhanes III)." United States Environmental Protection Agency. 10 December 2002. Accessed 14 January 2013. http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=2825
- 3. Higdon, Jane. "Carotenoids." Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute. December 2005. Accessed 14 January 2013. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/carotenoids
- 4. "Pumpkin Pie." Fat Secret. Accessed 14 January 2013. http://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/generic/pie-pumpkin
- 5. "Oatmeal Pie Crust." Gnowfglins. 2 Dec 2009. (Accessed 15 Jan 2013.) http://gnowfglins.com/2006/11/21/oatmeal-pie-crust/#