Kjersten Nett, R.D., L.D.
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Mushrooms can be found in so many dishes, from omelets to stir-fries, that they're often overlooked. But mushrooms not only are versatile, they also provide a variety of health benefits ranging from brain health to cancer prevention. They're naturally low in sodium and fat, two things that can affect heart health by raising blood pressure.
There are more health-related reasons for eating these almost-magical fungi, including:
- Cancer prevention
Researchers have found that incorporating any variety of mushrooms into your daily diet will lower your risk of cancer by as much as 45%. How many mushrooms do you need to eat? The recommended amount is as few as two medium per day.
- Brain health
Mushrooms also are a natural source of fiber, which promotes gut health by feeding the "good" bacteria in the intestines. These bacteria have been found to make neurotransmitters or chemicals that send messages between nerves. These neurotransmitters promote mood stability, concentration, brain health and mental well-being. One mushroom that's been getting a lot of attention when it comes to brain health is lion's mane, identified by its long, white, fluffy top. Early research shows the lion's mane's potential to protect against neurological damage and promote the growth of nerve tissue, which is important for those with Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.
- Vitamin D increase
Mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, whether from sunlight or a UV lamp, contain vitamin D, a vital nutrient that can be hard to come by in nature. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, strengthening bones and teeth. Appropriate vitamin D levels also are linked to preventing dementia, Type 2 diabetes and risk of premature death.
- Micronutrients source
These tiny amounts of nutrients support a healthy immune system. Mushrooms are one of the best sources of selenium, which helps your body make antioxidants that can reduce cell damage.
- B vitamins source
Mushrooms are a good source of vitamins B2, B3, B5 and B9, also known as folate. B vitamins are essential for cell growth and formation. This means that your hair, skin and nails could become more healthy, as well as your brain and heart.
- Calcium and potassium increase
A recent study by Mayo Clinic showed that adding more calcium and potassium to your diet may prevent kidney stones from forming and recurring.
How to use mushrooms in meals
The mushroom you may be most familiar with is the common button mushroom. But there are thousands of mushroom varieties in various shapes, sizes and colors. Mushrooms grow in the wild, but safe varieties may be hard to identify, so it's best to stick to the farm-grown varieties found at your supermarket.
Taste and texture vary from one type of mushroom to the next. Button or cremini mushrooms are milder in flavor and have a softer texture than shiitake mushrooms, which are chewier and have an earthier flavor. While canned and fresh mushrooms have health benefits, fresh mushrooms have a different texture.
One distinctive characteristic of mushrooms is they provide umami to dishes. Umami often is considered the fifth basic taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. This brothy, savory taste makes it a good meat alternative. Try replacing one-quarter to one-half of the meat in a recipe with chopped mushrooms. Add mushrooms to dishes across a world of cuisines, including soups, salads, casseroles and pastas.
Before using them raw or prepping to cook, clean mushrooms under gently running water to rinse away any dirt, or brush with a damp paper towel.
If you need a little inspiration as you explore the health benefits and versatility of mushrooms, give these recipes from Mayo Clinic a try.