Mushrooms are a fungus, but that hasn’t deterred most Americans from adding them to meals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats approximately three pounds of mushrooms a year. And now there’s even more reason to work mushrooms into your diet.
Mushrooms bring a savory flavor to meals without adding much fat, calories or sodium. But the health benefits don’t stop there. Researchers continue to uncover how mushrooms can ward off chronic disease and improve your everyday health. Read on to discover seven ways that mushrooms can benefit your health:
1. Decrease the risk of cancer
A review of 17 cancer studies from 1966 to 2020 shows that eating just 18 grams of mushrooms (equal to about a 1/8-cup or two medium mushrooms) a day may lower your risk of cancer by as much as 45%. Mushrooms are a powerful source of ergothioneine, an amino acid and antioxidant that prevents or slows cellular damage.
Some mushroom varieties (such as shiitake, oyster, maitake and king oyster) have higher amounts of ergothioneine. But researchers found that incorporating any variety of mushrooms into your daily diet will lower your risk of cancer.
2. Lower sodium intake
Sodium and high blood pressure often go hand in hand. Sodium causes the body to retain excess fluid, which can increase blood pressure. To decrease your sodium intake, consider adding mushrooms to your meals.
Mushrooms are naturally low in sodium – an entire cup of white button mushrooms has just five milligrams of sodium. They offer savory flavor that reduces the need for added salt to keep your blood pressure low. A study from the Culinary Institute of American and UC Davis shows that swapping half of the meat for mushrooms in a traditional ground beef recipe can maintain flavor while reducing sodium intake by 25%.
3. Promote lower cholesterol
Mushrooms make an excellent substitute for red meat while minimizing calories, fat and cholesterol. Research shows that shiitake mushrooms, in particular, help to keep cholesterol levels low. They contain compounds that inhibit the production of cholesterol, block cholesterol from being absorbed and lower the overall amount of cholesterol in your blood.
4. Protect brain health
Researchers continue to study the effects of eating mushrooms on mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI causes memory and language difficulties and is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
In a study in Singapore, participants who ate more than two cups of mushrooms a week had a 50% lower risk of developing MCI. Even those who ate only one cup saw some benefit. The mushrooms eaten by participants included golden, oyster, shiitake and white button mushrooms.
5. Provide a source of vitamin D
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium to maintain and build strong bones. Many people rely on supplements or sunshine to get vitamin D, but if you’re looking to get this nutrient through your diet, mushrooms may be the answer. They are the only type of produce that is a source of vitamin D.
Like humans, certain mushrooms exposed to UV light or sunlight can increase their vitamin D amounts. White button, portabella and cremini mushrooms provide the most vitamin D after exposure to UV light or sunlight. To get the recommended daily amount, slice three mushrooms (or one portabella), expose them to sunlight for at least 15 minutes and enjoy. Eating a little more than one cup of maitake mushrooms achieves the same goal without the need for sun exposure.
6. Stimulate a healthier gut
The microbiome in your gut is home to organisms and bacteria that play a large role in your health and mood. One way to keep your gut healthy is to stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in that space with the use of prebiotics, such as mushrooms.
Research shows that mushroom polysaccharides, their most abundant carbohydrate, stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. While many foods break down with stomach acid, the polysaccharides found in mushrooms pass through the stomach unchanged and can reach the colon to encourage bacteria growth there.
7. Support a healthy immune system
Mushrooms contain macronutrients that support a healthy immune system. According to the Mushroom Council, your immune system will benefit from mushrooms whose nutrients include:
Selenium, which helps your body make antioxidant enzymes to prevent cell damage. Choose cremini or portabella mushrooms for the most benefit.
Vitamin D, which assists with cell growth, boosts immune function and reduces inflammation. Maitake mushrooms offer an easy way to add vitamin D to your diet.
Vitamin B6, which helps your body form red blood cells, proteins and DNA. Shiitake mushrooms are the best choice for vitamin B6.