Our mitochondria within our cells are the keys to our body’s energy so you might want to consider a mitochondria diet if your energy tank is running low.
This mitochondria diet is a livable and healthy meal plan, not a crash diet. Affectionately called a mito food plan as well, I include a free food list PDF for you to download too.
Why are we so low in energy? Cellular energy in our bodies can be lacking even despite eating plenty of food. We need to learn to fuel well, not just fuel. First, let’s take a look at what the mitochondria do and then explore foods and supplements that may help support healthy mitochondria.
Table of Contents
What are Mitochondria?
Simply stated, the mitochondria in our cells produce energy for our bodies. This energy is called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
Certain cell types in our body require a LOT of energy, so they will contain a lot of mitochondria.
Some cells can have over 1000 mitochondria per cell. These include:
- Heart cells
- Liver cells
- Muscle cells
Why does this matter? These cell types have high energy needs, and they need to be busy making large amounts of energy all of the time.
Mitochondria production helps to keep you lean, energetic, focused, and youthful.
The mitochondria are a very good thing.
In addition to making ATP, the mitochondria contribute to hormonal signaling in the body.
Interesting fact: our mitochondrial DNA is not our own; it is from bacterial origins [R]. No one knows for sure why this is true. From a functional medicine view, it seems to me that it is because it helped us survive, and beneficial bacteria continue to help us survive today.
Producing energy is a very oxygen-dependent process, so as you can imagine, producing energy puts a lot of oxidative stress on our cells.
This can result in free radicals if we don’t supply enough healthy foods and nutrients, including antioxidants.
Mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to disease and poor health. Research suggests that many chronic diseases and premature aging are rooted in mitochondrial dysfunction. These diseases include heart diseases, diabetes, dementia, chronic fatigue, and even rare neurologic conditions like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis [R].
One of my true heroes, Dr. Terry Wahls, coined the phrase Minding Your Mitochondria and wrote The Wahls Protocol. This book is a true inspiration for anyone suffering from chronic illness. You can find it here.
Related post: Best L-Carnitine Supplements + Powerful Benefits
Who has Mitochondrial Dysfunction?
Most Americans fall way short of the nutrients required to keep the mitochondria happy and functioning well.
Why does this happen?
It’s nice to have a donut. And cake later because there is a birthday at work. So you do. Hungry for a burger and soda? Sure.
The next day you have a muffin and a sugary frappe. Maybe some potato chips.
Sadly, these treats become everyday foods for so many of us.
Stack up the nutrients that you will fall short in, and it will be a mile high. The mitochondria begin to lack the ability to efficiently spin out energy [R]. Basically, mitochondrial health suffers.
This is because junk foods may slow down and damage the mitochondria [R]. Can you gain energy eating junk long-term? Absolutely not.
Then, consider that many medications can rob healthy mitochondria of nutrients and antioxidants like coenzyme Q10 and carnitine. These include cholesterol drugs like statins and mood-stabilizing drugs like valproic acid and Depakote.
Can We Change Our Mitochondria Health?
Energy-burning mitochondria in our cells are important. But, the mitochondria also need to be working well to do their jobs. They need to regenerate, increase in numbers, and repair.
The mitochondria need nutritional “sparks” to perform well.
These sparks are vitamin and mineral nutrients as well as antioxidants. Lack of these nutrients starts to cause mitochondrial dysfunction, or rather, lack of nutrients causes mitochondrial “slowing”.
Our typical processed foods zap us of energy and make the pounds pack on. A mito food plan will restore energy, help balance weight, and vitality!
Many nutrients are critical for mitochondrial health. They make up the structure of the mitochondria, support enzymes, and even help them reproduce and multiply. Here are some examples of how nutrients play a role in energy production and health.
B vitamins: support the structure and function of mitochondria, energy production, and reproduction of mitochondria. These B vitamins include:
- Thiamine (B1) needed for ATP production
- Thiamine-rich foods include organic pork, fish, black beans, and squash
- Riboflavin (B2) supports flavoproteins in the mitochondria like FAD
- Food sources of riboflavin include liver, yogurt, milk, beef, mushrooms, shellfish, and quinoa
- Niacin (B3): NAD+ or NADH supports the Kreb cycle
- Niacin foods include liver, chicken, beef, brown rice, peanuts, and potatoes
- Pantothenic acid (B5) helps enzymes for beta-oxidation.
- Food sources of vitamin B5 are beef liver, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, chicken, avocados
- Pyridoxine (B6) has antioxidant roles and supports protein metabolism.
- Food sources of B6 include garbanzo beans, liver, tuna, chicken, potatoes, turkey, bananas
- Biotin (B7) is important for enzymes that burn fat, like propionyl CoA carboxylase in immune system cells like lymphocytes.
- Biotin-rich foods include beef liver, egg, salmon, pork, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes
- Folate (B9) maintains mitochondrial DNA, makes NADH, and serves as an antioxidant.
- Folate foods include liver, spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts
- Cobalamin (B12) maintains mitochondrial DNA and supports the metabolism of glucose and fat.
- Vitamin B12 foods include clams, beef liver, trout, salmon, beef, milk, cheese
Other Mitochondria Diet Tips and Nutrients
If you can’t tell by now, the mitochondria rely on a lot of nutrients for optimal function. The following are emerging as critical to include in your mitochondria diet as well.
- Vitamin D3– Vitamin D may improve immune cell bioenergetic responses. Low vitamin D status may result in increased oxidative metabolism and inflammatory activation in immune cells.
- Vitamin D sources include sunlight. Sunlight is the most reliable source of vitamin D. Supplements of vitamin D3 are often necessary.
- Vitamin K2-carries electrons and maintains ATP production
- Food sources of vitamin K2 include natto, aged cheeses, supplements often necessary for adequate vitamin K2
- Vitamin C: protects cells from oxidative stress.
- Food sources are citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwi, baked potatoes
- Vitamin E – prevents oxidative stress and restores mitochondrial function while increasing mitochondrial production volume in the brain.
- Food sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, paprika, annatto, and spinach.
- Carnitine (L-carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine) – acts as a fat shuttle across mitochondrial membranes and assists beta-oxidation. Supplementing with L-carnitine may increase beta-oxidation and prevent the progression of non-alcoholic hepatitis, a form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Carnitine may reduce mitochondrial toxins like arsenic as well.
- Carnitine food sources are primarily red meat
- N-acetylcysteine-increases the antioxidant glutathione and reduces mitochondrial damage and death.
- CoenzymeQ10 – CoQ10 carries electrons for oxidative phosphorylation and is a potent antioxidant in almost every cell in the body. CoQ10’s roles in health are so numerous, that you can read my blog about it here.
- Coenzyme Q10 food sources are organ meats like heart and liver. Many people need supplements if their diets or poor, take certain medicines, or people who are older adults.
- Mushrooms-mushrooms like Chaga, cordyceps, and reishi may protect the mitochondria from the damage of free radicals.
- Creatine – may protect mitochondria and support mitochondrial function by activating AMPK and increasing PGC-1α expression.
- Creatine food sources include red meat and fish.
- PQQ– (Pyrroloquinoline quinone) PQQ benefits the mitochondria because helps move electrons in the production of ATP and may help grow new mitochondria. PQQ is a powerful antioxidant that increases NRF as well.
- PQQ food sources are natto, spinach, tea, spinach, and bell peppers.
- Alpha-lipoic acid-serves as an antioxidant that is both fat and water-soluble. This antioxidant function helps protect the mitochondrial membrane and may help remove toxins from the body as well.
- You get small amounts of alpha-lipoic acid in organ meats and vegetables like broccoli sprouts, Brussels sprouts, yams, and spinach. *If you supplement your diet with alpha-lipoic acid, make sure to take thiamine.
- Carotenoids and Polyphenols-scavenge free radicals
- Carotenoid and polyphenol food sources include tomatoes, carrots, peppers, spices, olives, olive oil, apples, onions, grapes, and more.
- Green tea antioxidants-catechins in green tea may reduce toxin damage to the mitochondria.
- Blue spirulina-by activating NRF2, blue spirulina dampens down inflammation in the body.
- Selenium –this antioxidant mineral may increase mitochondrial numbers.
- Selenium foods include Brazil nuts, tuna, and grass-fed beef. Find out more benefits of selenium here.
- Zinc– may increase mitochondrial activity
- Zinc foods include oysters, crab, fish, beef, and sprouted legumes
- Magnesium–helps make enzymes required for ATP production
- Magnesium food sources include spinach, kale, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, bananas, avocados, and dark chocolate. Just make sure to have multiple servings of magnesium-rich foods per day.
- Iron-helps make enzymes for ATP production
- Food sources include beef and chicken liver, red meats, poultry, and fish. Vegetarian iron sources are poorly absorbed so take with vitamin C.
- Important consideration: iron supplements, especially at doses greater than 10 mg per day should always be done under medical supervision. Also, avoid if you have a history of hemochromatosis.
- Food sources include beef and chicken liver, red meats, poultry, and fish. Vegetarian iron sources are poorly absorbed so take with vitamin C.
Mitochondria and Processed Foods
Sweets and junk foods don’t have much or any of these nutrients to support energy production. As you eat junk, the energy production slows way down, causing calories to be stored as fat.
This is definitely more so than if you ate the same calories from vegetables and healthy foods.
A calorie is a calorie?
I don’t buy that and never will.
The most important step you can take to support mitochondrial health is to minimize and eliminate garbage foods in your diet and eat WAY more nutrient-rich foods.
Mitochondrial Diet Plan
A mitochondrial support diet should include a lot of vegetables and proteins such as:
- Green vegetables
- Swiss chard
- Brussels Sprouts
- Colorful vegetables
- Purple cabbage
- Bell peppers
- Fermented foods
- Sprouted legumes
- Sweet potatoes
- Mushrooms, including Reishi, cordyceps, and Chaga
- Fish- for omega-3 fatty acids
- Organic and grass-fed organ meats
- Beef liver
- Chicken liver
- Grass-fed beef
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Spices and herbs
- Seasonal fruits
- Aged cheese
- Seeds, such as chia and sunflower
- Green tea
Mitochondria Diet PDF
Because of this, make sure to keep lots of food on hand. Following a mito food plan is somewhat similar to a keto diet food list, but it is more flexible for seasonal foods and specific health goals. It is not as restrictive as carb foods, in other words.
Intermittent Fasting for Energy
We all intermittently fast over the night. The question is how long we do it. A typical intermittent fast will be for 12-16 hours per day. The end result is similar to calorie restriction. This benefits our mitochondria by reducing inflammatory substances in the body.
It also may help prevent mitochondrial aging.
It is simple: eat less, a lot less, for a few days of the month.
Also, eat within a window of 10-12 hours if possible. Always check with your doctor first.
I prefer to eat foods that are mostly non-starchy vegetables and plant proteins a few days of the month.
In fact, people who eat less periodically often gain energy. They likely are healthier and live longer as shown by recent work with fast-mimicking diets.
You don’t need to do this all of the time, just occasionally give yourself a break from constant feeding.
Healthy Detoxification for Energy
Research shows that toxins disrupt the function of your mitochondria [R]. Toxins are everywhere. Over 80,000 chemicals, most with minimal or no safety testing, are in our environment and homes.
The toxin called bisphenol A is a coating on your grocery receipts everywhere you go. Plastic chemicals are everywhere you go, whether you try to avoid them or not.
Bisphenol A toxin absorbs into your skin. So do many others! An estimated 70% of chemicals soak right up into your body through the skin.
It is best to reduce your exposure to toxins and include foods that naturally help remove the body of toxins as listed above.
Some clean environment tips:
- Avoid drinking from plastic bottles or using plastic containers
- Filter your water
- Filter your air
- Use only all-natural cleaning products
- Avoid chemicals in your washing machine use lemongrass oil and all-natural detergents.
Coffee on Your Mitochondria Diet?
Translation: with coffee, you have more energy-producing units in the body.
Caffeine alone doesn’t likely work as well as coffee or tea for a number of reasons; caffeine-containing products like soda or energy drinks lack co-factor nutrients and rich antioxidants that happen to be rich in coffee.
Coffee also triggers hormonal signaling which tells the body to start burning fat. It has not one, but at least 3 types of stimulants in it, which signal epinephrine, which tells the rest of the body to start burning fat (R).
Most everyone knows about caffeine in coffee, but other stimulants coffee contains are chlorogenic acid and also theobromine, and theophylline.
One caveat: the more obese you are, the less of an effect that coffee has on burning fat. Still, obese people reap the rewards of about a 10% increase in fat-burning potential with coffee (R).
Another caveat: epinephrine can trigger feelings of anxiety and there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Especially when you need to sleep.
Developing a tolerance over time seems to diminish the effects, so intermittent consumption might actually be best.
Are Mushrooms for Energy the New Coffee?
While it’s great to have some coffee in your life, it can cause too many sleep issues and GI upset for many people.
The area of research related to mushrooms for energy and mitochondrial health is really growing. Reishi, or Ganoderma lucidum protects the mitochondria and has a long track record as used in traditional medicines [R].
Another mushroom called cordyceps increases ATP by double in a mouse study [R].
Best Mitochondrial Supplements
While it may seem reasonable to eat foods from the list provided above, you are still at risk of not getting enough antioxidants and nutrients to support healthy mitochondria. Here are some of the most compelling supplements that I can find on the market today.
Coenzyme Q10 For Your Mitochondria Diet
Do you take cholesterol medicines? Are you over 40? Do you eat junk food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you probably are low in coQ10.
CoQ10 is critical for the mitochondrial production of energy. Some of the negative research coming out about cholesterol medications (statins) may be because we aren’t adequately restoring key mitochondrial nutrients like CoQ10. This may also be robbing you of energy.
Processed foods also rob the body of this essential antioxidant.
As we get older, our production of coQ10 also goes down in our bodies, making us susceptible to fatigue.
Diseases linked to the mitochondria, such as Parkinson’s, seem to benefit from coenzyme Q10 supplements too. Coenzyme Q10 supplements reduced fatigue and improved mood in patients who have multiple sclerosis compared to placebo [R].
Vitamins and Minerals
Another mitochondria supplement to consider is an all-natural vitamin and mineral, such as Garden of Life Vitamin Code Men. I like the men’s for myself rather than the women’s because it contains more antioxidants like selenium. The selenium content of our soil is notoriously low. Another good option is Thorne Basic Nutrients 2 a Day.
Make sure to also get adequate vitamin D3 and vitamin K2. Check with your doctor before starting this one if you are on warfarin.
PQQ, as you may recall is a beneficial antioxidant. PQQ benefits may be short-lived because it stays in our body for only about 24 hours. That is why daily supplementation may be beneficial.
While research is early, it poses no known health risks and is found naturally in foods.
Mitochondrial support supplements can also include both PQQ and coenzyme Q10.
N-acetylcysteine is an amino acid supplement that is able to reduce toxins in the body by increasing the antioxidant glutathione in the body. It also may reduce the damage that occurs within the mitochondria due to toxins as well.
Putting it All Together
You can gain body energy and mitochondrial health with any one of the steps I mentioned above. However, you may do better if you incorporate multiple strategies to help your mitochondria regenerate and flourish. As I approach 45, I feel like I have better, more sustained energy than I did at age 25.
The point I’m trying to make is that you always can gain energy and health with some simple strategies. This can include eating mitochondria diet foods and taking supplements to increase mitochondria.
Mitochondrial Diet Summary
- Get more nutrients and nutrient-rich foods.
- Find a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement based on whole foods.
- Consider intermittent fasting a couple of times a month or more.
- Cleanse and restore the body from toxins. Avoid toxic exposures whenever possible.
- Make sure you get enough coenzyme Q10 and mitochondria diet antioxidants.
- Drink coffee, but try to vary the amount from day to day.
- Add medicinal mushrooms into your daily routine.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.
The information in this post is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. It is not meant to replace your health or meal plan unless under the supervision of your medical doctor or healthcare provider.
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