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The question: Is squash a vegetable or a starch? I was told it was off limits because it's high carb.

The answer: Squash is a vegetable and, in my opinion, it's a vegetable you shouldn't declare off limits. Yes, it's true that winter squashes such as acorn, butternut, buttercup, hubbard and pumpkin are starchy vegetables and, as such, they contain more carbohydrates than vegetables like leafy greens, cauliflower and bell peppers. (Zucchini and other summer squashes are non-starchy vegetables and are low in carbohydrate.)

One-half cup of cooked butternut squash, for example, has 11 grams of carbohydrate and 41 calories while the same sized serving of cooked broccoli has 5.6 grams of carbohydrate and 27 calories. But those extra carbs shouldn't stop you from eating winter squash. For starters, an extra 5.5 grams of carbohydrate isn't much – it's the carb equivalent of 1/8 cup of cooked pasta (1 cup of cooked pasta has 44 grams of carbohydrate).

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In terms of nutrition, winter squash is a far cry from refined starchy foods (the type of carbohydrate foods you should limit). Unlike white bread and other refined flour products, winter squash is a good source of potassium and fibre. What's more, some types are packed with beta- and alpha-carotene, antioxidants thought to help prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer. Higher intakes of alpha-carotene have also been linked to a lower risk of dying from upper digestive tract cancers, type 2 diabetes and chronic lower respiratory disease.

There's no official recommended intake for beta-carotene (or alpha-carotene for that matter) but experts contend that consuming 3 to 6 milligrams per day will maintain blood levels of beta-carotene in a range that's associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases. You'll meet that recommendation by eating just one-half cup of cooked pumpkin (5.1 milligrams beta carotene) or one-half cup of cooked butternut squash (4.7 mg).

You'll get more beta-carotene from vegetables if you eat them lightly cooked rather than raw. Including a little oil in your meal – only a teaspoon worth – will also increase the amount of beta-carotene that's available for your body to absorb.

If you're watching carbs in order to lose weight, there's no need to avoid eating squash. In fact, if you swap squash for other starchy foods like rice and pasta you'll save calories and carbs. For instance, if you substitute spaghetti squash for pasta, you'll save 140 calories and 23 grams of carb per cup – and get double the fibre and six times the potassium.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel'sDirect (www.lesliebeck.com).

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