Mushrooms are in the spotlight for their delicious, umami, meaty taste, and many supposed health benefits!
You probably think mushrooms are a plant, but you would be wrong. Unlike plants, mushrooms don’t have chlorophyll and don’t make their energy from the sun. Mushrooms are actually more closely related to animals, but they aren’t animals of course. They belong to their own separate category: fungi. Fungi get their nutrients by breaking down organic matter or forming symbiotic relationships with other organisms. How interesting is that?
Mushrooms are having a moment right now. As plant-based diets and eating for health become trendier, mushrooms are in the spotlight for their delicious, umami, meaty taste, and their many supposed health benefits. In truth, they are a very nutritious food worth adding to your regular veggie rotation. Here are a few ways they can support health, and some ways to add them to your meals too.
Gut Health: I’m always talking about fiber, the indigestible part of plants that feed our good gut bacteria. Like other plant foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, mushrooms have a good amount of fiber that help us keep our digestion moving and running smoothly. Gut health is also important for a good mood (my favorite), immune health, and possibly even brain function, weight management, and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Mushrooms like enoki, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms are good choices if you’re looking for fiber.
Immune Health and Anti-Cancer Properties: Beyond the gut, mushrooms are also good for your immune system because they contain beta-glucans, a type of carbohydrate shown to help stimulate immune function. Beta-glucans in mushrooms can help activate white blood cells, which are important for fighting off infections and diseases. They might also inhibit the growth of cancer cells, and might help reduce risk of certain types. Look for mushrooms like shiitake or maitake, or chaga and reishi often found in powdered forms. These can be effective but be sure to choose a good quality supplement. Heart Health and Lowering Cholesterol: Again thanks to fiber, eating mushrooms can also help lower your cholesterol levels. And the beta-glucans are also shown to help reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. This can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Mushrooms also contain a good amount of potassium, which has a role in regulating blood pressure.
Brain Function: Mushrooms can also benefit brain function because they contain nutrients like B vitamins and antioxidants. These nutrients may help improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Several species of mushrooms, including lion's mane and reishi, have been shown to have potential benefits for memory and learning. Some species of mushrooms, including cordyceps and maitake, have been shown to have potential benefits for mood regulation too. More research is on the way!
Vitamin D: It seems that a big majority of people are deficient in vitamin D, but there are very few food sources. The best source is still the sun, and deficiency likely comes from a lack of sun exposure as our societies revolve around the indoors. Our bodies make vitamin D from UV exposure, and interestingly, so do mushrooms. You can actually expose your mushrooms to UV light from the sun for a few hours before cooking them to boost their vitamin D content, and boost your immune system, bone health, and possibly reduce your risk of other chronic diseases as well.
How to eat more mushrooms:
There are tons of different types to try and experiment with. Mushrooms are known for their meaty, umami flavor. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Add them to your breakfast: Add them to scrambled eggs, omelets, on whole wheat toast, or to balance your plate with rice and meat.
Make soup: Reminds me so much of my childhood! Sauté mushrooms with garlic and onions, then add broth and simmer until the flavors blend. Or add a little cream and blend.
Make a mushroom burger: Use whole portobello mushrooms as a meat substitute in burgers, or make a patty. Add some other sources of protein as well, like beans or whole grains to get the amount you need.
Add them to a stir-fry: Sauté sliced mushrooms with other vegetables and a protein source like tofu for a quick and healthy stir-fry.
Top your pizza with mushrooms: Add sliced mushrooms to your favorite pizza with other toppings like onions, peppers, and arugula
Add to a pasta: Sauté sliced mushrooms with garlic and onions, then toss with a whole wheat pasta, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
Add them to a salad: Slice and add them to a mixed green salad with goat cheese, walnuts, and a balsamic vinaigrette.
Roast them: probably my favorite way to make them delicious, you can even stuff them with some chopped nuts and other veggies, and easily make a really fancy looking dish
Make a sauce: Sauté sliced mushrooms with garlic and onions, then blend with cream or Parmesan cheese, and herbs to make a delicious and versatile sauce. Serve over pasta, chicken, or vegetables.
Chella Po, MS, RD is a New York City-trained US registered dietitian who can be found on Instagram as @betterbeing.ph. She uses science to back up her professional advice for clients seeking to create a sustainable, healthy diet without counting calories, restrictive plans, or stress! Contact her for a free discovery call today.