Each day, you are given multiple opportunities to treat your mitochondria well. Providing them with what they need, while cutting out what harms them, can boost both mitochondrial quality and quantity, turning you into a fat-burning, energetic, quick-thinking machine. More importantly, you may age gracefully, avoiding the chronic diseases that we are beginning to realize are deeply connected to mitochondrial dysfunction.
1. Cut out foods that harm your mitochondria
Eat too much sugar, or the high glycemic foods that are quickly metabolized into carbohydrates (such as grains), and your mitochondria cannot work fast enough to turn the sugar into energy. We may store it instead as fat, leading to an increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), liver inflammation, and damage to the mitochondria within pancreatic beta-islet cells.
Furthermore, generating ATP from carbohydrates creates more ROS than burning fatty acids for fuel.(1) This means that consumption of grains, even gluten-free grains, results in carbohydrate-driven ATP production, leading to ROS production. The quickest way to decrease ROS production, protect your mitochondria, and start to turn into a fat-burner rather than a carb-burner? Cut out sugar, and all grains, even the gluten-free breads, pastas, pizza crusts, and cookies.
While you’re at it, nix monosodium glutamate (MSG), omega-6 rich vegetable oils (such as corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil), and alcohol; all have been linked to mitochondrial damage (hyperlink to article IV). Remove all these foods and you have created space for food that will fuel your mitochondria.
2. Choose the Best Fuel for Your Mitochondria
What’s the best way to protect our mitochondria from damage? By choosing foods that contain potent phytonutrients (also known as polyphenols). The richest sources of phytonutrients are plants: dark, leafy greens; deep blue, purple, and red berries; sulfur-rich plants such as onions, garlics, leeks, cauliflower, and cabbage; colored vegetables such as squash, pumpkin, radish; spices and fresh herbs. Two of the greatest foods in the world (according to me) are rich in polyphenols: coffee and dark chocolate.
The easiest way to incorporate phytonutrients into your meal is to fill your plate three-quarters full with plants, from a wide variety of sources. A good rule of thumb:
- 3/4 of your plate: 1-2 cups leafy greens (cooked or raw), 1/2 cup sulfur-rich, and 1/2 cup of colored vegetables
- 1/4 of your plate: protein + fat
- Top the entire plate with fresh herbs, and/or cook your veggies and meat in spices
3. Burn Cleaner
The consumption of healthy fats, rather than carbohydrates, can help the mitochondria to burn ‘cleaner’, producing less ROS than when high amounts of carbohydrates are consumed. However, as we’ve discussed, the mitochondria are protected from damage through the consumption of phytonutrients; a dairy and meat-focused diet, while low in carbohydrates, does not provide the phytonutrients our mitochondria need. Emphasize both phytonutrients and healthy fats – such as coconut oil, avocado, avocado oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds – to generate ATP efficiently and reduce ROS production.
4. Ketosis is the Mostest
Ahhh, ketosis – the dietary trend that took off in 2019, leading to grass-fed butter and collagen powder shortages (seriously!). Touted as primarily a weight-loss diet, a ketogenic diet actually can be thought of as a mitochondria diet, due to its ability to utilize ketones for energy, leading to reduced oxygen usage and less oxidative stress. Ketone bodies also produce more ATP than glucose. By cutting down carbohydrates dramatically – most plans recommend 50g net carbs/day- we can move into a state of ketosis, in which we utilize ketone bodies for energy (once we’ve made it through the dreaded ‘keto flu’, that is).
The longer we are in ketosis, the more efficient we become at burning ketone bodies. But getting into ketosis, and staying there for lengthy stretches of time, requires discipline, and organization. Typically we need to track our macronutrients for a while to gain an understanding of how many carbohydrates certain foods contain. To stay within the recommended carbohydrate allowance, sugar, grains, and root vegetables must go, along with alcohol and fruits. For some, this leads to increased energy, clarity, weight loss, and better blood sugar control. However, for others, it can result in gallbladder issues, constipation, fatigue, and hormonal imbalances.
It is difficult to know how you will respond without experimenting, and testing to ensure you are in ketosis.
No matter how you respond, research is indicating that we may benefit from cycling in and out of ketosis over time, leading to insulin regulation while creating the metabolic flexibility to burn either fat or carbohydrates for energy.(2) Long story short – if you get into ketosis, you don’t have to live there, but it might feel so good that you want to!
5. Don’t eat… for a while
A great way to get into fat-burning mode for short cycles is to not eat at all – for a short time! This is one of the principles behind ‘intermittent fasting’, a fancy term that refers to windows of time in which we don’t eat. Commonly, this looks like fasting for 12-16 hours, shortening our eating window to 12 or 8 hours. Short periods of fasting promotes burning fat for fuel, reduces mitochondrial ROS production, increases the formation of new mitochondria, and promotes mitophagy – the culling of old, dysfunctional mitochondria.(3,4,5) Intermittent fasting has even been shown to reduce mitochondria damage related to aging.(6)
Autophagy, a form of cellular cleaning that helps to clear out debris that accumulates over time, is prevented by eating. This is because food consumption, in particular the calories and protein associated, triggers the release of mTOR, a chemical that inhibits autophagy. Both a ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting inhibit mTOR; inhibition of mTOR has been linked to longevity, decreased inflammation, and increased autophagy.(7)
To be clear – fasting isn’t forever. The goal of intermittent fasting is to both decrease caloric intake while also decreasing the amount of eating time within a day – resulting in a fasting window and an eating window – 12/12, or 16/8, for example. And just like ketosis, we don’t all respond to fasting the same way.
I have had many patients, (mostly men), respond to fasting very well; alternatively, I have had a variety of patients (mostly women), respond poorly to fasting, experiencing headaches, moodiness, low blood sugar, or fatigue.
This is usually an indicator that we need to test out different eating/fasting combos (for example, 12/12 if 16/8 hasn’t gone well), or that we need to pull back and focus on using phytonutrients and healthy fats to promote burning fat for fuel; additionally, further attention may need to be paid towards hormone balancing before intermittent fasting is explored again.
6. Choose Organic
No matter whether you’ve gone grain and sugar-free, are emphasizing healthy fats, or are following a fully ketogenic diet, one fact holds true: pesticides do a number on our mitochondria (Part 4). In order to keep them out of your diet, choose organic produce whenever possible, and look for high-quality protein options such as wild fish, grass-fed beef and lamb, wild game meat, and organic free-range poultry.
Subtle decreases in hydration are detrimental to the mitochondria – they require hydrogen in order to make energy, and water, H2O, is the best way to get it. Unfortunately, forgetting to drink water all day and then drinking a couple liters in the evening is not the best way to do it; we benefit from a steady intake of filtered water throughout the day. We also need a healthy electrical charge across the membrane of our cells to pull both water and nutrients into the cell.(8)
This can be addressed by incorporating electrolytes into our water, or by drinking coconut water. Inevitably, we wonder – how much water should we be drinking? For most of us, a single serving of electrolytes in 8 ounces of water is a sufficient amount of electrolytes per day; but this number may fluctuate based on certain health conditions, time spent in ketosis, and level of activity and sweating. Additionally, aim to drink 8 ounces of water every 60-90 minutes; this number may also fluctuate depending on activity, sweating, and outdoor temperature.
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