Why Eat More Mushrooms? Doctors Say They Boost Immunity, Fight Cancer
Crossed mushrooms off your list? Not a good idea, as they’re loaded with good-for-you benefits.
Mushrooms... you either love them or hate them. And hate them many of us do, according to a recent survey, which found that mushrooms were the most common hated vegetable by consumers in every state.
Can’t say we blame the naysayers. Mushrooms don’t exactly have texture or appearance going for them. Yet before you fling these little fungi back into the forests, know this: Mushrooms are loaded with uniquely powerful plant compounds you can’t get from other plants, and they’re part of human evolution. “Our ancestors were regularly foraging and living on mushrooms,” says Paul Schulick, master herbalist in Dummerston, Ver. “If you’re not eating them, or if you’re only eating white button mushrooms, you’re missing out on a key part of our evolutionary requirements.”
Granted, you’re not going to die if you don’t eat mushrooms, although Michael Greger, M.D., author of How Not to Die and found of NutritionFacts.org, might disagree, given that mushrooms are part of his list of foods you should eat daily, aptly called the Daily Dozen. So, too, might Joel Fuhrman, M.D., bestsellingauthor of Eat to Live, and creator of the Nutritarian diet, who has a list of foods you should eat every day called G-BOMBS. You can probably guess what the M is for. All of this means mushrooms deserve a place in your diet.
Fortunately, food companies are making that easier than ever, as foods with mushrooms—think energy bars, mushroom coffee and adaptogenic tonics – are more prevalent than ever. But if you want the true benefits of mushrooms, you’ll eat the real deal.
The 8 Health Benefits of Mushrooms
1. Mushrooms support weight loss and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.
High-fiber diets have been linked with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and improved blood sugar control for people who already have the disease, says Katie Cavuto, M.S., R.D., a dietitian in Philadelphia and executive chef for Saladworks. Plus, by increasing your intake of low-density, fiber-rich foods like vegetables and mushrooms, you’ll feel full and satisfied with fewer calories. “I like to think of this as the half-the-plate rule, with the goal of filling half of your plate with vegetables and mushrooms at most meals,” she adds.
3. Mushrooms can help fight cancer.
Mushrooms contain several cancer-fighting compounds such as a type of fiber called beta-glucan, which has a unique advantage in preventing cancer. “It’s known to starve cancer by cutting off its blood supply, a process known as antiangiogenesis,” eplains William W. Li, M.D., an internationally renowned physician, scientist and author of The New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease. That may be one reason a large study from Penn State College of Medicine found that higher consumption of mushrooms is associated with a 33 percent lower risk of cancer.
Mushrooms appear most powerful against lung, prostate, and breast cancers, Cavuto says. “While more research is needed and in the works, the nutrients found in mushrooms have been shown to suppress growth and invasiveness of breast cancer cells,” she says, adding that mushrooms may even help prevent recurrence of hormone-dependent breast cancers. And it doesn’t take much to lower breast cancer risk: Just about one button mushroom a day was linked to a 64 percent decrease in the risk of breast cancer.
3. Mushrooms help strengthen your immune system.
It makes sense that mushrooms have been having their day since the pandemic began: They help support the immune system. Credit their antioxidants to start. “Mushrooms are a powerhouse when it comes to their antioxidant content,” Cavuto says. Antioxidants like selenium support immune function and help protect body cells from disease-causing damage. Mushrooms are also a rich source of vitamin D, which is critical for the immune system.
“Numerous studies show that people who are deficient in vitamin D are at higher risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19,” Li says. All mushrooms contain vitamin D – some may even increase their vitamin D levels when exposed to sunlight or UV-light -- and according to the Mushroom Council, mushrooms are the “only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle.”
4. Mushrooms can give you energy.
Mushrooms contain B vitamins, which are natural energy boosters. “They help provide energy by aiding in the digestion and absorption of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates,” Cavuto says. For plant-based eaters, mushrooms are a great source of vitamin B12, since other sources are red meat, poultry, milk, eggs, fish and shellfish–off the menu for vegans and vegetarians. Vitamin B12, essential for every cell in the body, is found in varying amounts in different types of mushrooms, which provide an array of B vitamins with every serving.
5. They help promote brain and heart health.
Two of the most important organs in your body get a boost when you eat mushrooms. Start with brain health. According to a study from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, eating 1.5 cups of mushrooms a day might reduce your risk of cognitive decline. [LINK: https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad180959] Your heart will also benefit, thanks to that beta-glucan. “Gut bacteria digest beta-glucan and produce metabolites called short-chain fatty acids that lower blood cholesterol,” Li says. That can, in turn, help prevent the build-up of atherosclerotic plaques, which narrow blood vessels and interfere with circulation. Beta-glucan also has anti-inflammatory properties that protect the walls of blood vessels from being damaged.
6. Your gut will love you more.
Your good gut bacteria love feeding on fiber, and the more fiber you give them, the better. Enter the beta-glucan in mushrooms. “Beta-glucan helps nurture healthy gut bacteria which then produces other substances in the gut like short-chain fatty acids that lower inflammation, improve metabolism and help lower blood cholesterol,” Li says.
7. You may live longer.
If you’re looking for a leg-up on longevity, add mushrooms to your salad or pasta. Individuals who ate more mushrooms had a lower risk of death than those who didn’t eat mushrooms, according to a review study published in Nutrition Journal. Just swapping one serving of mushrooms for one serving of red or processed meat every day was associated with a lower risk of death. Researchers point to specific antioxidants in mushrooms, namely ergothioneine and glutathione.
8. Mushrooms are an earth-friendly food.
When it comes to eating for the planet, the data is mounting that plant-based diets are the answer, and while almost all plants come with a sustainability story, mushrooms have their own. In a study conducted for the Mushroom Council, researchers found that producing a pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water. Compare that to the roughly 1,800 gallons of water needed to produce one pound of beef.
How to add mushrooms to your diet.
Convinced to give mushrooms a go? If you can’t get over the texture, chop them finely and blend them into a mix of grains, beans and veggies and eat as is or use as a filling for stuffed peppers, Cavuto says. Want to further reduce your meat intake? Consider swapping half the meat in a burger for mushrooms, which have a meaty texture and umami flavor.
Just make sure you eat a variety of mushrooms, Schulick says. Most mushroom eaters typically only eat white buttons, which means you may miss out on some of the health benefits of the other mushrooms like Lion’s mane, chanterelle, Chaga, shiitake, reishi, Oyster, cremini, and Portobello, to name a few.
Bottom Line: The more mushrooms you eat the healthier you'll be. And don’t forget to eat the stems, too. “While the cap of the mushroom tastes great and contains healthy beta-glucan, the stem has almost twice as much beta-glucan,” Li says, adding that many recipes, especially in traditional cuisines, use stems and caps.