They can be easy to miss when running through forest trails. You’re so focused on the roots and rocks in your path or the views around you that you don’t see the golden chanterelle peeking out from under a leaf or the black morel at the base of a tree. But a growing group of outdoorsy types are wandering the woods to seek out those valuable (not to mention tasty) morsels to add to their dishes. Mushroom foraging has recently increased in areas such as the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, and Colorado (see: 400,000-plus #mushroomhunting Insta posts). A niche hobby, sure, but there is something to be said for upping the amount of mushrooms in your diet, especially as a runner.
While mushrooms are typically grouped with veggies, they’re actually in the fungi kingdom, and they share nutrient qualities with plants and animals, says Amy Goodson, RD. The total known species number in the tens of thousands, but only a small percentage are edible and flavorful. The list is long when it comes to reasons to work the earthy, spongy food into your meals. At the top of that list? Mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses.
Packed with fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins, mushrooms are fat-free, low-sodium, low-calorie, and cholesterol-free. Interestingly, they also contain vitamins D and B-12, which are typically only found in animal products, Goodson says. “It would be difficult to reach your nutrient needs of these vitamins from mushrooms alone, but they can add to your intake,” she says.
Nutrients found in mushrooms can aid in energy production (B vitamins and polysaccharides), support the immune system (beta-glucans), and fight inflammation (the antioxidant selenium).
When it comes to increasing a runner’s performance and reducing or recovering from the oxidative stress of running, the research is thin, says Wendy Bazilian, doctor of public health and a nutritionist based in San Diego. “There is long anecdotal use and history of use of certain mushrooms for potentially supporting increased energy and lowering fatigue, helping with performance and more,” she says. “There are plenty of reasons to include them in your diet whether the research is there or not.”
The research that has been done, Bazilian says, has centered on the effects of oyster mushrooms and cordyceps (a medicinal or functional mushroom, primarily available as a supplement) on humans and on animals. The evidence suggests that the polysaccharides in cordyceps may potentially decrease fatigue and increase stamina and endurance. Other studies suggest that the beta-glucans in oyster mushrooms may help prevent or reduce exercise-induced natural killer cell activity.
What’s more, “mushrooms don’t get stuck in some of the dietary issues or being ‘off the menu’ for a lot of chosen dietary patterns,” Bazilian says. They work for those who are following keto, Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, pescatarian, and omnivore diets.
“They make a plant-based diet more delicious and variety-filled,” she says. “They provide umami, the savory ‘yum’ taste you typically get from meat, Parmesan cheese, and other foods. But mushrooms provide that plus so much more.”
Even for meat eaters, they make a great inclusion. They not only add nutrients, but they can also reduce some of the foods everyone should be more mindful about, says Bazilian: meat consumption and sodium intake. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Food Science explored the flavor-enhancing properties of mushrooms. The study found that a 50/50 mixture of ground meat and mushrooms could reduce sodium intake by 25 percent. It also greatly enhances the flavor by doubling the impact of umami. This meat “stretching” strategy is not only helpful in reducing fat and calorie intake, but it’s also friendly on your wallet.
Mushrooms can be prepared multiple ways, from sautéing and roasting to grilling and broiling. Their nutritional benefits and versatility in the kitchen should make them a staple in every runner’s diet. “They’re low calorie, high in the ‘good’ stuff, low in the negatives, and generally available and well-liked,” Bazilian says. “They really don’t have a lot of hang-ups.”
Only purchase the wild varieties from a trusted retailer or seller (ask to see a seller’s credentials, usually a state-issued card, at a farmers market). If you want to see what the mushroom hunting trend is all about, visit the North American Mycological Association to find a local mycology club. Mushroom experts, or mycologists, can give you hunting tips and help you distinguish edible species from poisonous ones.
Your Grocery Guide to Mushrooms
Thankfully, you don’t have to forage to find delicious mushrooms on the regular. Use the notes below to help you make your way through the produce section.
No matter the variety, look for firm, smooth mushrooms that are dry but not dried out. Store them in the original store packaging or a paper bag (not plastic) up to one week in the refrigerator. Right before using, brush off any dirt or debris with your hand or a damp paper towel, rinse briefly under running water, then pat dry.
“Baby bellas” have a firm texture and a deep, earthy flavor that pairs well with wild game and beef. Its full-bodied flavor shines in veggies dishes.
HOW TO EAT: Stuff with spinach and cheese for a bite-size treat. Sauté with veggies to add to a frittata or omelet.
With tiny white caps and long stems, these mild-flavored mushrooms can enhance any meal.
HOW TO EAT: Top sandwiches with raw enoki for added crunch. Stir into miso soup.
Boasting a delicate flavor and tender texture, these cook quickly; a good option for busy weeknights.
HOW TO EAT: Cook into primavera-style pastas. Mix into stir-fries with chicken and veggies.
Palm-sized portabella have a hearty, meat-like flavor and texture, making them a staple in plant-based diets. Their texture can stand up to grilling, broiling, or roasting.
HOW TO EAT: Replace the buns on a burger or use as burger “meat.” Stuff with either a quinoa-veggie mixture or rotisserie chicken, Brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes.
With hearty texture and strong woodsy and umami flavors, shiitake add a meaty component to a variety of dishes and pair especially well with Asian flavors.
HOW TO EAT: Mix with grains and stuff into bell peppers. Add to a ginger-garlic noodle soup.
This classic-looking shroom has a mild taste that intensifies slightly when cooked. It blends with other flavors, so dishes aren’t overpowered by it. An ideal pick for mushroom newbies.
HOW TO EAT: Chop up to put a new spin on avocado toast or traditional egg salad. Skewer on the grill with veggies alternated with chicken or pork.