Why Mushrooms Must Be Part Of Your Diet

Written by Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi on Wed, 16 November 2022


Fungi are found everywhere and are the most versatile but mysterious living beings. They are neither plants nor animals. Fungi have their separate kingdom and mushrooms are its glamorous flagbearers. Fungi lack chlorophyll and cannot synthesize their food like plants. They have been breaking down the organic matter of our planet for millions of years.

It is estimated that there are a million and a half species of fungus, though a majority of them remain unknown or unidentified. Most fungi take the form of fine, cottony, cylindrical fibers, called hyphae which ramify throughout the ground or any surface to gather nutrition. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies. Mushrooms are pumped upwards with water, pop out of the soil surface (or any surface), and release spores. In simple words, mushrooms are the fungal device to spread their offspring and multiply.

Mushrooms are known to survive the extreme world. Following the asteroid impact, our planet underwent great extinction. During that period, fungi inherited our world. The first thing to grow from the soil after the atomic bomb annihilated Hiroshima was, reportedly, a matsutake mushroom. In Chernobyl, after the nuclear accident, resilient fungi started growing on the reactor walls. Reportedly, they were harnessing radiation as a source of energy, as plants utilize sunlight.

Some people show hesitation in appreciating the peculiar taste or meaty texture of mushrooms. Their resemblance to both plants and animals is a matter of concern for purists. But these humble and resourceful mushrooms feeding on organic matter and hyper-responsive to their environment, should not be seen merely as nature's vehicles of decay.

Why are mushrooms good for you?

  • Mushrooms are widely valued for their nutritional and medicinal properties and are an active area of research nowadays. An often under-appreciated food, mushrooms have been eaten in different regions of the world as well as used as traditional medicine. The Greeks and Chinese have been using mushrooms in medicine since ancient times.
  • Mushrooms contain a substance called ergosterol, similar to cholesterol. Ergosterol can be transformed into vitamin D with exposure to ultraviolet light. Fungi and mushrooms benefit our immune system and health.
  • Mushrooms have a rich supply of chemicals that can protect us from viral and bacterial infections. Traditional and folk medicine practitioners vouch for the healing and cleansing properties of mushrooms.

The world of mushroom is vast and enormously diverse and a huge untapped potential for new pharmaceutical products remain to be explored in these mushrooms.

Read more about a healthy diet and holistic health in 'stay smart stay immune'.

Health benefits of mushrooms

All varieties of mushrooms are low in calories and fat and contain modest amounts of polysaccharides, fiber, and various nutrients7. Mushrooms are notable for containing much more protein and vitamin B12 than other fresh plants and animals2. Mushrooms are also a good source of vitamin B (B2, B3, folate, B5), vitamin D, and important macro and micronutrients such as phosphorus, selenium, copper, and potassium.

Five mushrooms with potential health benefits

1. Shiitake

The second most commonly produced mushrooms in the world, Shiitake are widely distributed across Asian regions including China and Japan8. Dried or fresh shiitakes, both forms are very effective and have a typical meaty texture and rich flavors. These mushrooms are a good source of nutrients including lentinan, gentamicin, eritadenine, lending, lectin, and lysine.

Lentinan (β-1,3-glucan) is known to benefit the immune system and has anti-cancer effects. These mushrooms also contain eritadenine, a substance that can facilitate cholesterol absorption from plasma promote fat storage in the liver, and lower the amount circulating in the blood.

Thus, Shiitake mushrooms can lower blood pressure and free cholesterol in the blood. Shiitakes also have antiviral and anticancer effects. Shiitake mushrooms are known for their remarkable health benefits. Their medicinal value can be utilized in the treatment of heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, microbial infections, and cancer.

2. Cordyceps

For hundreds of years, Cordyceps has been used in Tibetan medicine and traditional Chinese medicine in tonics to treat conditions such as respiratory diseases, liver or renal problems, high blood sugar levels, and tumors.

Cordyceps are known to enhance performance as they increase energy levels and endurance. In the last few decades, the consumption of this mushroom and its supplements has increased owing to its multitude of health and immunity benefits. Cordyceps store a plethora of compounds with medicinal properties including nucleosides, sterols flavonoids, cyclic peptides, phenolic, alkaloids, cordycepin, and cordycepic acid.

Cordyceps can be taken as liquid extracts or in capsule forms and are known to serve as a promising remedy for fatigue and weakness, altitude sickness, old age body aches, and giving the patient a boost of energy. Regular intake of these mushrooms may reduce the incidence of infections, colds, and seasonal flu.

3. Wood ear

Cultivated worldwide, mushrooms are treasures of nutritional and medicinal properties. These mushrooms contain high protein levels and provide health benefits in diseases such as cancer, viral and bacterial infections, high sugar and high cholesterol levels, inflammation, and heart disorders.

4. Maitake

This Japanese mushroom is not only edible but is delicious and healthy. In Japanese, 'mai' means dance, and 'take' means mushroom11. Maitake is quite common in the United States and Canada, known as sheep's head, king of mushrooms, hen-of-the-woods, and cloud mushroom as it grows in large clusters and bears a striking resemblance to the fluffy tail of a hen or clouds. It's peculiar sweet, umami taste makes it a suitable food flavoring agent. Maitake is regarded as a healthy food because it is a good source of protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), and minerals, with low-fat content and caloric value. It is known for its therapeutic benefits in cancer, diabetes, infections, hypertension, and immune benefits. Some of these health effects have been associated with the regulation of the human gut microbiota.

5. Reishi

These are polypore mushrooms that generally grow on wood and are not used in cooking as they are hard and bitter. Dried, ground mushrooms can be used in tea.

Reishi is primarily distributed in China, India, Japan, and other Asian countries and has potential medicinal properties such as anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycemic, anti-HIV, anti-ulcer, anti-osteoporotic, and immunity-enhancing effects.

Reishi tablets, liquid extracts, or capsules are commercially available with their recommended dosage.

How to eat mushrooms

Wild or cultivated, never eat any mushrooms raw. Always cook mushrooms thoroughly by boiling, sautéing, roasting, or grilling. Mushrooms have a tough cell wall that is broken down during cooking and aids in digestion.

Mushrooms will never disappoint you: grill them whole; stir-fry them in exotic sauces and herbs; or slowly boil them into nutritious soups and stews. Here are some ways to make mushrooms part of your diet.

  • Sautéed quickly over high heat, exotic stir-fried mushrooms from Kenya make delectable appetizers.
  • Simmer finely chopped mushrooms over low heat for 15-20 minutes and mix garlic, chili, soy sauce, and pepper to prepare a hearty Cambodian dip as a side dish. This vegetarian dip is rich, creamy, spicy with intense flavors and coarse texture.
  • You can't get enough health benefits than the Nigerian ogbono soup, a scrumptious thick stew made with ogbono seeds, fish, meat, and vegetables. Add mushrooms and ugu leaves to further enhance its flavor, texture, nutrients, and health benefits.

Delicious, toxic, magical, intoxicating, mysterious, and medicinal. Not only do they shape our world but mushrooms also teach us how to live in it.

Go, find your mushroom and savor it to stay happy and healthy.


Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi

Blessing Ifunanya Maduelosi is a pharmacist by profession; her health credentials include a BPharm (Bachelor of Pharmacy). Blessing is a resident of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria.

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