Good for your gut: UMass Amherst Research examines the benefits of eating more mushrooms

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The next time you order pizza or whip up a creamy risotto, go ahead and load up on the mushrooms.

Adding more edible mushrooms to your diet may be one way to counter the health risks associated with the Western-style diet (WSD), which is often high in fatty foods and added sugars.

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Zhenhua Liu, associate professor at UMass Amherst

The benefits of mushroom consumption are the focus of new research led by Zhenhua Liu, a nutritionist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who was awarded a grant $300,000 over two years from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

With fatty and sugary foods contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and a host of other chronic health conditions in the United States and Europe, Liu will study whether incorporating mushrooms in Western-style diets may improve gut health and provide a preventive buffer against disease.

Diet and lifestyle are modifiable factors that play a critical role in public health, Liu says. His laboratory studies how these factors and their genetic variants related to metabolism interact to influence the development of chronic diseases. He will collaborate with fellow nutrition faculty member Soonkyu Chung, associate professor, and Matthew Moore, assistant professor of food science. Chung’s research focuses on identifying metabolic targets to prevent or treat obesity and insulin resistance. Moore specializes in food microbiology and virology.

“Gut dysfunction is believed to be one of the underlying mechanisms that contributes so significantly to the development of WSD-related diseases,” Liu notes. In previous research, scientists found that a rarely studied bacterium, Turicibacter, is almost completely depleted by high-fat diet-induced obesity, but not by genetic obesity.

Enter the common oyster mushroom. Found in much of the world, sun-dried oyster mushrooms have a unique food composition rich in multiple nutrients lacking in the Western diet, such as dietary fiber and vitamin D. “It is a perfect supplement as a natural whole food to improve the quality of Western-style diets,” says Liu, “with the added benefit of improving our overall gut health.”

Liu’s study will examine the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which these fungi improve gut health. Specifically, the UMass Amherst team will examine the fungus’ interaction with Turicibacter in western-style diet-related gut dysfunction and the effect it may have on gut microbiome remodeling.

“We hope this study will provide a mechanistic understanding of the role of Turicibacter in dietary obesity and gut health,” Liu said. “It will also provide important information about mushrooms as a whole food approach to improving WSD quality and gut health.”

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