Forget politics: Nothing divides Americans quite like mushrooms.
People either love or hate them. But however you feel, it’s hard to escape the influence of these fungi, says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles who is known as “The Plant-Powered Dietitian.”
“Almost every culture has mushrooms in their traditional diet,” she says.
And for good reason. The health benefits of mushrooms are many, Palmer says. They contain special plant compounds – such as beta-glucans, sterols, phenols and terpenoids – that promote good health.
For example, beta-glucans are thought to boost the body’s immune system, while sterols are believed to help block the absorption of cholesterol in the human body.†
Mushrooms also have beneficial microbes, and even have been tied to cancer prevention. In Asia, mushrooms are often used as a cancer treatment in addition to Western medicine, Palmer says.†
Studies have also suggested other benefits of eating mushrooms, including:
- Improved weight management†
- Better blood glucose control†
For now, more research needs to be done to fully understand the potential health benefits of mushrooms, Palmer says. But that doesn’t mean you should wait to enjoy them.
“I think it’s good to include all types of mushrooms in the diet regularly,” she says.
Caution with mushrooms
Lately, eating mushrooms has become trendier. Functional mushroom powders – made from the extracts of wild mushrooms – are used for their health benefits, and can be found in everything from coffee and soup to skin and hair products.
While Palmer applauds the increased interest in mushrooms, she believes such trendiness can become a bad thing when taken to extremes. “With all things, it’s important to do things in moderation,” she says.
For example, people who take mushroom extracts should be careful not to consume too much of them, Palmer says. “We don’t know the risks related to high levels of these concentrates,” she says.
In fact, Palmer believes consuming mushrooms the old-fashioned way likely makes more sense. “I always advise to consume whole foods first,” she says.
Some people love to pick their own fresh mushrooms and add them to dishes. Here also, Palmer advises caution. She says that when you forage for mushrooms, it’s crucial to be able to distinguish safe mushrooms from poisonous varieties.
Learning to love mushrooms
Of course, millions of people remain reluctant to eat mushrooms, despite their health benefits. Some people resist the texture of mushrooms, while the flavor puts off others.
Palmer believes everyone would benefit from trying to include these fungi in their meal plans, however.
“I would like to see people consuming more mushrooms in their diet -- at least a few times per week,” Palmer says.
There are more than 2,000 types of edible mushrooms, including varieties such as:
Palmer encourages you to eat all types of mushrooms, and to try new approaches to cooking them if you have not enjoyed mushrooms in the past.
“Mushrooms are excellent sautéed,” she says. To do so, she recommends adding a bit of olive oil and lemon or white wine, then seasoning to “bring out the wonderful caramelized, earthy favors of mushrooms.”
Palmer says she likes to add mushrooms to lentil patties and veggie burgers, tacos, soups, and bowls. She says simply adding a half-cup to 1 cup of chopped mushrooms in a recipe can bring out the flavor in a dish, and boost its health qualities.
Once you find the right preparation method, don’t be surprised if you find yourself becoming a mushroom enthusiast.
“They are packed with umami, that wonderful savory flavor that can make plant-based dishes so delicious and satisfying,” Palmer says.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.