Few countries have left a bigger mark on our hearts than Japan. And when it comes to the Land of the Rising Sun, few cities are more vegan-friendly than Okinawa.
Okinawa is comprised of more than 150 islands sprinkled off the southern coast of the Japan. There, tropical island life is good. Life expectancy is high, chronic disease is low, and roughly 5 out of every 10,000 residents lives to be over 100 years old (Blue Zones, pg. 68).
There are many reasons Okinawans live such long and healthy lives. One of them is diet, and our favorite Okinawan All-Star is the Shiitake mushroom.
Shiitake mushrooms: Whole food vs. supplement?
First thing’s first: We prefer cooking with organic Shiitake mushrooms. Cultivation and processing are complicated when it comes to mushroom supplements, and cutting corners can lead to toxic results. So, we prefer to get the good stuff straight from the ground.
When we do buy mushroom supplements, we always buy from Host Defense (no affiliation). Founder Paul Stamets is the guy when it comes to fun-gi (see what we did there?) But don’t take our word for it. Do some research if you want to go the supplement route and be sure to choose a reputable brand.
5 reasons Shiitake mushrooms are great for vegans
If you’re vegan and you aren’t eating Shiitakes, here are 5 reasons to hop aboard the mushroom train. Our favorite is #1—did you know Shiitake mushrooms have amino acids that make them a good substitute for meat? Read on!
1. Shiitake mushrooms are an ‘essential’ meat substitute.
No, you do not need to eat meat, chicken, or fish to get “enough” protein. You do, however, need to eat the right kinds of plants. Or in this case, fungi.
A quick primer on why you need protein: Proteins are made of amino acids, and your body needs aminos for a lot of reasons (like maintaining muscle tissue and creating a healthy balance of feel-good neurochemicals). Eight aminos are called “essential amino acids”, because our bodies cannot produce them. We need to get them from food.
Okay, back to Shiitakes. These plant-powerhouses have 18 total amino acids, 7 of which are essential. Talk about beyond meat!
2. Shiitake mushrooms round out grain-based diets.
Shiitakes are high in leucine and lysine, two essential amino acids that are especially hard to come by when you eat a grain-based diet (yes, even brown rice). The easiest way to bridge the gap is to add some mushrooms to a stir fry. If stir fry isn’t your thing, you could also buy dried Shiitake mushrooms and add them to your favorite salad or grain bowl.
3. Shiitake mushrooms may improve your heart health.
According to the CDC, more than 640,000 people die every year of heart disease. It is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges Westerners face as they age. The crazy part? An estimated 80% of heart disease cases are totally preventable, according to the American Heart Association.
Shiitake mushrooms have 3 unique compounds that can aid in the fight against heart disease. They are eritadenine, sterols, and beta glucans. Each has been found to lower “bad” cholesterol and, consequently, reduce blood pressure.
4. Shiitake mushrooms reduce inflammation and improve immunity.
If there’s one thing coronavirus has taught us, it’s that we should pay more attention to our immune systems. Yes, washing our hands and wearing masks can help. But having a strong immune system is equally important.
In one study, 54 men and women found that consuming Shiitake mushrooms daily improves immune system function. Improvements were seen in at least 2 important domains. First, participants showed an increase in sIgA, a marker for improved gut immunity. Second, they showed a decrease in systemic inflammation as measured by several common inflammation markers, like CRP.
5. Shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that may prevent cancer.
Carbs tend to get a bad rap, but that’s not the case when it comes to Shiitakes. A single serving has just 11 grams of carbohydrates, 2 of which are fiber. The high fiber content might play a role in managing cholesterol levels, as noted in #3 above.
Beyond fiber, the quality of the remaining carbohydrates is extraordinary.
According to one study, the antitumor polysaccharides (carbohydrates) in Shiitake mushrooms have great potential for cancer prevention. Here’s another study that says the same. And that brings us full circle—back to Japan—where that same type of mushroom-derived polysaccharide (called lentinan) is used alongside chemotherapy during cancer treatment.