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Author: Tero Isokauppila

We get it — the very idea that carbohydrates can and should be part of a healthy diet is sacrilege in many corners of the health and fitness industry.

Low-carb diets like Atkins and ketogenic diets have exploded in popularity as health “experts” promise that the cause of obesity and disease stem from a diet’s excess of carbohydrates (compared to protein and fat).

At best, that’s a half-truth. It’s true that in addition to extremely sedentary lifestyles, diets that are high in calories and carbs may cause health problems, but it’s not the full story.

The problem is that focusing on the word “carbohydrate” doesn’t provide enough information. Not all carbs are created equal, and some are far more beneficial for health and fat loss than others.

The kind of carbs you consume can have drastically different effects on your health and body composition goals, and recent scientific evidence is pointing to a surprisingly uncommon food as one of the most ideal carbohydrate sources for overall health and fat loss: mushrooms.

We know mushrooms aren’t typically included in the average list of carbohydrate sources, but according to the heavily researched book Healing Mushrooms, an ideal carbohydrate might have been hiding in your grocery store all along. Mushrooms are unusually high in an energy source that’s been linked to benefits that range from a healthier immune system to faster fat loss.

Wait...Aren’t Carbs Unhealthy?

If you move, you should eat carbohydrates. Unless you follow an extremely strict ketogenic diet — which involves getting up to 80 percent of your calories from pure fat, at which point your body starts using fat for fuel — your body requires carbs for energy, whether that involves lifting weights or just walking to the bathroom.

But it’s true that some carbs can have less desirous effects than others.

“Simple carbs, like those found in white sugar, pasta, and refined flour, break down very quickly in the stomach,” says Leyla Shamayeva, MS, RD, a New York City-based dietitian and journalist. “The sugars rush to the bloodstream, causing a quick spike in energy that’s followed by the all-too-familiar crash later on.”

It’s not that there’s no place for simple carbs in a diet. They can be handy before or after intense activity, and the effect on blood sugar can be attenuated if they’re consumed with protein, fat, or fiber. (Or a combination of the three.)

That said, many folks (particularly when we’re talking about candy) consume meals and foods that consist mostly of refined carbs, which in addition to causing significant spikes in blood sugar (which can cause inflammation and increase the risk of diabetes and fat gain) are usually low in nutrition.

The term “empty calories” isn’t usually useful or accurate, but it can help to paint a picture of what a slice of cake or a bowl of ramen can represent: a lot of blood sugar and not many vitamins to go with it.

A Better Way to Eat Carbs

For the average Joe, it’s better to seek carbs elsewhere, and this is where polysaccharides come in. The name means many (poly) sugars (saccharides), and while these complex carbs ultimately get broken down into simple sugars to use for energy, evidence points to polysaccharides contributing to lower levels of blood sugar, which is the opposite of what most people think when they eat carbs.

That’s because polysaccharides -- like what you find in mushrooms -- are loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which take longer to digest and slow the process of increasing blood sugar.

There are dozens of different kinds of polysaccharides in mushrooms and some research has been suggesting there may be antiobesity and antidiabetes properties,” says Shamayeva. “But overall, beta-glucans are one of the most researched polysaccharides and the major bioactive ones in mushrooms. They naturally occur in the cell walls of mushrooms, and they’ve been linked to a very wide variety of benefits.”

In studies performed on mushrooms, the benefits linked to polysaccharides include anti-obesity, anti-diabetic, anti-carcinogenic, anti-microbial, and anti-viral effects.

A lot of attention in particular has been focused on the immune-boosting properties of mushrooms, with some research showing that the polysaccharides, especially beta-glucan, activate leukocytes, cells that combat foreign substances and disease.

 “Beta-glucan was originally shown to stimulate a variety of cells the body uses to defend itself naturally, like macrophages and T-cells,” says Shamayeva. “With more research, it looks like it could be beneficial for those who live with compromised immune systems, like people undergoing chemotherapy.”

One of the most interesting pieces of research was a review of 62 studies on polysaccharides that was published in Nutrition Journal. The studies included rodent and human research, and the authors concluded that, "numerous dietary polysaccharides, particularly glucans, appear to elicit diverse immunomodulatory effects in numerous animal tissues, including the blood, GI tract and spleen.”

What was that about carbohydrates being bad for you?

Mushrooms: The Super Carb

With any food, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Mushrooms are an amazing place to get your carbs, but they have an enormous amount of benefits that are unrelated to the carb content.

“Fortunately, I think mushrooms are now finally being viewed as foods that have nutrients that are good for you as opposed to previously, when I think people felt like mushrooms are just low in calories,” says Mary Jo Feeney MS, RD, FADA, a dietitian and consultant for the United States’ Food and Agriculture Industries. “Of course, they have almost no fat and do help to fill you up with fewer calories. But they’re also an excellent source of biotin, pantothenic acid, selenium, copper, and riboflavin.

We know — those aren’t usually the nutrients that most people think of when they think “nutritious superfood.” But that’s why mushrooms are such an excellent addition to your diet: they provide the nutrients you might not know you need.

Biotin, for example, is also known as Vitamin B-7 and was once known as Vitamin H. It plays a key role in the body, supporting the health and proper function of the skin, nerves, digestive tract, metabolism, and cells. (It’s also been linked to a lower risk of diabetes, though more research needs to be done.)

Panothenic acid is also known as Vitamin B5, and is sometimes prescribed orally for arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, nerve pain, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that plays a key role in metabolism, copper helps you absorb iron and maintain energy levels, and riboflavin has been linked to preventing everything from cervical cancer to migraines.

One of the most interesting nutritional properties of mushrooms is that they provide Vitamin D, a nutrient that humans are usually only exposed to through sunlight. It’s strongly linked to cardiovascular health, bone strength, hormonal regulation, and mood, and since we don’t spend as much time outdoors as we used to (and we typically wear clothes while we’re in sunlight), Vitamin D deficiency has become extremely common — estimates range from half to three quarters of Americans being deficient.

“Many commercial mushrooms are exposed to ultraviolet light to increase their Vitamin D content to a hundred percent of the recommended daily intake,” says Feeney. “Mushrooms raised the conventional way would still have limited Vitamin D, but consumers can actually improve that aspect by putting them in the sun for several minutes, which will increase the vitamin content.”

Is There a “Best” Way to Prepare Mushrooms?

Contrary to popular belief, washing and cooking mushrooms won’t reduce the Vitamin D content.

“If you’re using Vitamin D- enriched mushrooms, a little bit of oil helps the absorption of that particular vitamin,” says Feeney. “But the thing is that people usually stir fry them very quickly anyway, so the way consumers eat mushrooms usually helps retain their nutrients. That’s a benefit too, that you don’t have to cook them very long.”

She does point out that high heat and water is likely to reduce the B-vitamins — biotin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid — however, the minerals are more stable and should be largely retained through any cooking process. But if the loss of B-vitamins is a concern, which may be the case if you avoid animal products, Feeney recommends stir frying or, if you’re using them in a soup or stew, only adding them in the last fifteen minutes of cooking.

“But the B-vitamins are the kinds of vitamins we’re not that deficient in,” she adds. “The U.S. Dietary Guidelines identify potassium, fiber, and vitamin D as nutrients that we need to pay more attention to, and mushrooms help to provide them regardless of how they’re cooked.”

And there are endless ways to prepare them: sautéed in a pasta sauce, dropped in a soup, stuffed and baked, used as a pizza base, blended into burger patties, and more. For a super comprehensive guide to mushroom recipes, check out Healing Mushrooms.

It might sound far fetched, but whether you’re on a low- or high-carb diet, or if you simply want to eat whole, healthy foods, mushrooms have a place on your plate. The carbohydrates they provide are unbelievably nutritious and packed with immunity-boosting polysaccharides that will add the carbs, fiber, and nutrients into your diet that you need.

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