Our planet is inhabited by a mysterious life form that is neither plant nor animal. Through the ages, some cultures have feared it, others have worshiped it. Recently, scientists have discovered its central role in maintaining ecosystems, making it an object of veneration.
Mushrooms are an often under-appreciated component of nutrition. But, they are a source of an astonishing variety of nutrients that are essential to good health. Can adding mushrooms to your diet improve your well-being? In short, yes.
Nutrients in Mushrooms
Fungi are under constant attack from viruses, bacteria, microscopic predators such as amoeba, and macroscopic ones such as insects. To fight back, they’ve evolved highly sophisticated biochemical defense systems. The chemicals it produces for its survival are the basis for the mushroom’s nutritional and medicinal properties.
Are Mushrooms Food, Medicine, or Both?
The border between food and medicine can be fuzzy and if often a source of debate. Let’s explore a list of nutrients first, before we glance at some of a fungi’s non-nutritional chemical arsenal. We’ll wrap up with a look at some of the known health benefits of eating mushrooms.
Macronutrients in Mushrooms
Fresh mushrooms, which are about 90% water by weight, are a low-calorie food. The dry component can vary widely among species but is generally low in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat, and cholesterol-free. When compared to plants, commonly cultivated mushrooms are a richer source of protein and essential amino acids. This makes mushrooms an excellent alternative for people who wish to avoid animal products. Mushrooms aren’t often thought of as a high fiber food, but fungal cell walls contain a soluble fiber by the name of Beta-glucan (also found in oats and barley) which, as we’ll soon see, has a range of health benefits.
Macronutrients in 100 grams of fresh mushrooms:
Minerals and Trace Elements
Mushrooms are a good source of Potassium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Copper, Zinc, and Selenium.
Minerals and trace elements in 100 grams of fresh mushrooms:
Mushrooms are a source of water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Remarkably, they are the only non-animal food source with a substantial amount of Vitamin D in a single serving. Most of it is in the form of Vitamin D2 which is slightly less potent than the Vitamin D3 found in oily fish such as trout and salmon.
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Mushrooms need sunlight (as humans do) to synthesize Vitamin D, but many store-bought mushrooms are grown in darkness. To raise the Vitamin D level of your mushrooms, store them in a well-lit area, and eat them before their best-by date – Vitamin D levels in mushrooms decrease as they get old. Some people place their mushrooms under a UV lamp, but a countertop next to a window with direct sunlight works just fine.
Vitamin content in 100 grams of fresh mushrooms:
Mushrooms Are a Rich Source of Antioxidants
Mushrooms are veritable antioxidant factories. They produce a variety of substances that help protect our bodies from the assault of free radicals and reactive oxygen species, thus protecting our tissues from the ravages of chronic inflammation. Antioxidants found in mushrooms include phenolic compounds, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), polysaccharides such as Beta-glucan, tocopherols, beta-carotene, lycopene, and ergosterol (Vitamin D2).
Health Benefits of Eating Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been used as medicine for thousands of years.Many modern pharmaceuticals are derived from fungi including antibiotics, immune suppressors such as cyclosporine, the statin class of cholesterol medications, not to mention psychoactive drugs which are now being studied as potential treatments for anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Whether simply adding whole mushrooms to your diet can lead to health benefits is a different question. Let’s review the evidence for some of the most common mushroom-related claims.
Are Mushrooms Good for Heart Health?
Mushrooms are a good source of potassium, a nutrient that has been shown to reduce blood pressure as well as the risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and myocardial infarction. The combination of potassium and magnesium, while limiting sodium intake, can produce an even greater reduction in blood pressure. But a prospective study in which thousands of participants submitted dietary questionnaires over a period of years found no difference in the frequency of cardiovascular events between participants who ate more than 5 servings of mushrooms per week versus those who ate less than one serving per week.
Perhaps, self-report of mushroom consumption is not the best approach to this question. The participants of this survey did not specify what type of mushroom they ate and as you already know, there is wide variation between species of mushrooms. Are there types of mushrooms that are particularly good at preventing heart disease? A systematic literature review found that consumption of oyster mushrooms may be beneficial to heart health by lowering blood pressure and improving glucose and lipid metabolism.
Another line of research focuses on the role of polyphenols found in mushrooms, but also fruits and vegetables as well as drinks like tea, coffee, cocoa, and certain traditional herbal medicines. Dietary polyphenols have been found to reduce atherosclerotic heart disease and the risk of stroke by dampening inflammation in the lining of blood vessels.
For the moment, the most we can say is that certain species of mushrooms have a beneficial effect on heart health though the effect size may not be strong enough to be captured in studies that look at dramatic events, such as the number of heart attacks over a limited period of time, as their measured outcome. More high-quality studies on human subjects are needed to resolve the issue.
Are Mushrooms Good for Your Brain?
Preserving optimal brain health has become a leading goal of a complete approach to wellness. When it comes to brain health, and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, the mushroom that has stimulated the most excitement is lion’s mane (Hericium Erinaceus).
Polysaccharide molecules obtained from lion’s mane, such as Beta-glucan, have been shown to protect nerve cells from the attack of amyloid plaques which cause Alzheimer’s in vitro. Several early studies on human participants have shown improvement in cognitive scores after ingestion of a lion’s mane extract over a period of weeks. A double-blind randomized study of 50 to 80-year-old men and women with mild cognitive impairment showed that taking lion’s mane extract by mouth resulted in significant improvements in cognitive performance as measured by a standardized test. No adverse effects were noted in any of the participants.
Lion’s mane also contains neurotrophic factors such as Nerve Growth Factor, which stimulates growth and regeneration of brain cells and peripheral nerve cells.
Can Mushrooms Help You Live Longer?
A meta-analysis of five studies involving more than 600,000 individuals concluded that mushroom consumption resulted in a reduced risk for all-cause mortality.
Mushrooms are the only dietary source of a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory amino acid by the name of L-ergothioneine (ERGO for short). The amount of ERGO in the typical American diet is much lower than that of several European countries. This may explain why countries with high consumption of ERGO, such as France, Ireland, and Italy, have a higher life expectancy than the United States, prompting some scientists to dub ERGO a “longevity vitamin”.
Mushrooms can reduce blood glucose and cholesterol.
Mushrooms reduce blood glucose and cholesterol in diabetic patients. The Beta-glucan in fungi cell walls reduce post-meal sugar and insulin spikes and may be useful in the prevention and treatment of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when three of the following five markers fall in suboptimal ranges: waist measurement, fasting glucose, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. When you have metabolic syndrome, you have a higher risk of developing chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and stroke.
Read more about metabolic syndrome here.
5 Tips for Eating More Mushrooms (Even if You Don’t Like Them)
- Mushrooms can be used as a condiment for many foods. They can be added to salads, pizzas, rice, and sandwiches, and can be incorporated into sauces.
- Mushrooms can also be featured as a main course. Thinly sliced chicken-of-the-woods can be battered and lightly breaded to prepare a delicious vegan version of chicken fried steak.
- Mushrooms can be steeped into teas. If you don’t like the texture of mushrooms, you can still enjoy their benefits by drinking them. You can find recipes online for steeping mushroom teas.
- Mushrooms can be used to make coffee. Some companies—like MUD/WTR— sell a caffeine-free instant coffee made from several species of mushrooms. Just add hot water and sweeten as you wish.
- Mushrooms can be used in smoothies. Other companies—like Om—offer products that help you prepare mushroom smoothies as a meal replacement or an energy boost.
The most important advice when it comes to eating mushrooms is to only eat mushrooms purchased from a store or a reputable grower.
PSA: Do not eat foraged mushrooms unless they were picked by someone with expertise in fungi identification. Some mushrooms are toxic, but you likely already knew that.
Do mushrooms have protein?
Yes, mushrooms do have protein! In fact, one cup of chopped mushrooms has about 2.5 grams of protein. For comparison, a slice of bread has about 3 grams of protein.
Are mushrooms keto?
Yes, mushrooms are keto-friendly. However, some mushrooms are higher in carbs than others. For instance, white mushrooms only have about 1 gram of net carbs per cup, but shiitake mushrooms have almost 3 grams of net carbs per cup. For reference, most people on keto only eat 20g to 50g of carbs per day.
Do mushrooms have Vitamin D?
Yes, mushrooms do have vitamin D. Mushrooms are the only non-fortified, non-animal food source of vitamin D.
Are mushrooms vegetables?
Mushrooms are not vegetables. They're part of the fungus kingdom, which includes mold and yeast. But their classification is a bit more complicated than that. You'll find mushrooms classified as vegetables mostly because of their nutritional value.
Mushrooms Are Nature’s Multitasker
Mushrooms are a nutritional jack-of-all-trades. For vegans, mushrooms can be an important source of protein and nutrients otherwise only found in animal sources. For meat-eaters, they are a rich source of antioxidants that may be swapped out for one or more of the 5 recommended daily servings of vegetables.
They are low in calories, low in fat and are a good source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber. In fact, mushrooms may be the most versatile food in the grocery aisle, biologically distinct and nutritionally unique. In the past, mushrooms have been neglected from the typical American diet but, thanks to their many health benefits, are now enjoying an unprecedented resurgence.
Eating more mushrooms may be one of the simplest ways to improve the quality of your diet.
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