It’s understandable that many who are changing to a vegan or more plant-based diet struggle with missing the flavor and texture of meat. Are there any healthy and affordable alternatives, especially for that summer holiday burger BBQ, or when all your carnivore friends are broiling a steak? Nature has provided the answer that not only fills the bill as far as taste, but is much, much, more nutritious than animal flesh. They are also an exception to the rule of eating the more brightly colored fruits and vegetables. The “they” I’m referring to are mushrooms; that’s right, a fungus. I am aware that I’m addressing people that range all the way from ethical vegans to loosie-goosie flexitarians, so I will leave how you prepare them, whether you heat them or eat them raw, up to your personal preference.
Some of the scientific literature reports that there are approximately 10,000 known species of mushrooms, but some experts estimate that the number is actually closer to 150,000. Of the almost 100 million pounds consumed each year in the U.S., over 90% are Portabello and Crimini, which are members of the button mushroom family. There are a relatively small number of mushrooms that are toxic to humans, but still be careful if you are into hunting for them in the wild.
Mushrooms are fat free, cholesterol free, gluten free, a good source of fiber, and low in calories and sodium. They are an excellent source of the B vitamins and are virtually the only source of natural vitamin D in the grocery store produce section. They supply quality protein, important enzymes, and organic minerals like copper, zinc and potassium. Mushrooms are one of the best sources of the mineral selenium, as well as ergothioneine, which are potent antioxidants that can sometimes be difficult to find for those on a pure plant-based diet.
So what does this all mean? How can making mushrooms part of your regular diet be of benefit to you? First of all, mushrooms help protect you because they are strongly antibacterial and anti-viral. Many of our traditional antibiotics actually come from fungi. I will admit that their reported anti-fungal quality, like combating Candida, seems a bit weird since they are one. Certain types of mushrooms have a tonic effect, fortifying your immune system, with even reported improvement in certain cancers.
Mushrooms are helpful in weight management in that are very filling and nutritious yet stingy on the calories. This is particularly true when they are substituted for red meat. Because they increase energy production within the cell, mushrooms have become a popular food for athletes desiring an increase in strength and endurance.
Mushrooms are heart healthy because they improve blood flow, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce platelet clumping, and fight plaque build-up in the arteries. These same characteristics help minimize stroke damage. The strong anti-inflammatory qualities help protect your kidneys and liver, mitigate the pain of arthritis, and even have had brought relief to those suffering from asthma.
One last interesting factoid: mushrooms are more closely related in DNA to us humans than they are to plants. Think that one over next time you’re eating a Portabello.