Mitochondria is a very hot topic in the scientific literature right now. Not that long ago, we would have merely described mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell. Yes, that’s still an accurate description but mitochondria do so much more than provide cellular energy!

Because we now know that mitochondria perform many essential functions beyond energy production, it’s becoming clear that they positively influence most areas of cell biology and medicine. (1) The excitement surrounding mitochondria’s impact on health is illustrated by the burgeoning mitochondria research now available in the scientific literature.

woman cooking in kitchen

Healthy eating habits that help support the mitochondrial function play an important role in healthy aging.

Role of mitochondria

Mitochondria are involved in multiple important pathways and processes that intimately influence health and disease including: (2)

  • Antioxidant defense
  • Apoptosis
  • Bioenergetics
  • Biosynthetics
  • Redox status

What do mitochondria do? The role of mitochondria is to help regulate immunity, inflammation, and brain function on a deep cellular level. They contribute to the growth, differentiation, and death of cells throughout the body, and that’s why mitochondrial dysfunction is associated with most age-related disorders, as well as common chronic illnesses. (3)

For obvious reasons, employing diet, lifestyle, and dietary supplement strategies to help support mitochondrial function is paramount. In part one of this series, we’ll address the importance of optimal nutrition to mitochondrial function.

Mitochondrial diet

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” So are your mitochondria. When you feed your body, you are feeding your cellular mitochondria. It’s no surprise then that the power of your mitochondria is only as good as the health-promoting power of your diet.

Mitochondrial dysfunction diet

When it comes to food and mitochondria, the key is to prevent or even reverse mitochondrial dysfunction. Two dietary measures may help keep mitochondria functioning at peak capacity: fasting and caloric restriction.

According to a 2013 review, caloric restriction (CR) decreases mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) and increases mitochondrial biogenesis. (4) Another 2013 review concluded, “A plausible aging prevention strategy could be based on an approach that includes moderate CR, physical activity, and CR mimetic supplementation, which seem to be the best way to maintain mitochondrial activity.” (5) More about physical activity and supplementation in parts two and three of this series.

woman logging her food as she is eating

Intermittent fasting (IF) that allows you to keep track of the food that you eat is growing in popularity due to its ability to support mitochondria.

An alternative to CR is intermittent fasting (IF), which has also become popular in the scientific literature because it confers many benefits, including important support to mitochondria. Most of the research on IF and mitochondrial function has been done on animals. For example, a 2018 study showed that fasting helped protect mitochondria and helped mitochondria maintain efficient respiration while improving blood glucose and lipid profiles. (6) This is consistent with a 2012 animal study that showed IF resulted in a decline in oxidative molecular damage and an increase in mitochondrial function. (7)

As it relates to mitochondrial function, the research on CR is stronger than IF; however, both show promise in supporting and protecting mitochondria. (8)

Mitochondrial ketogenic diet

Similar to IF, a lot of research regarding the ketogenic diet and mitochondria is in vivo. The ketogenic diet enhances the ability of mitochondria to control inflammation and oxidative stress. This diet can optimize the way the body uses energy.

According to a 2018 review, “By dramatically shifting energy metabolism towards ketogenesis and fatty acid oxidation, ketogenic diets are likely to have a profound effect on mitochondrial function.” (9)

Mediterranean diet

If restricting calories and fasting is not appealing, you can’t go wrong with the Mediterranean diet, which is often touted as the most health-promoting diet on the planet. While the research specific to mitochondria is limited, the Mediterranean diet is one of the most scientifically studied diets and has been shown to reduce inflammation and enhance immunity while positively influencing lipids and blood pressure. (10)

A 2004 review explained that the healthy dietary fats found in the Mediterranean diet are what help protect mitochondria. (11) This is consistent with other research that shows the Mediterranean diet is an ideal anti-aging diet. In addition to healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet also features other nutrients that have been shown to support mitochondria including CoQ10 and resveratrol. Stay tuned to read more about these and other supportive nutrients in part three of this series on mitochondria!

The bottom line

When it comes to protecting and enhancing mitochondrial function, diet does matter. The best option may be choosing the whole foods, unprocessed approach of the Mediterranean diet. For the more adventurous, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting may be the route to go. Being mindful of nutritional choices makes mitochondria very happy.

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  1. Picard M, Wallace DC, Burelle Y. The rise of mitochondria in medicine. Mitochondrion. 2016;30:105-116.
  2. Herst P, Rowe MR, Carson GM, Berridge MV. Functional mitochondria in health and disease. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 2017;8:296.
  3. Osellame LD, Blacker TS, Duchen MR. Cellular and molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial function. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2012;26(6):711-723.
  4. Gouspillou G, Hepple RT. Facts and controversies in our understanding of how caloric restriction impacts the mitochondrion. Experimental Gerontology. 2013;48(10):1075-84.
  5. Martin-Montalvo A, de Cabo R. Mitochondrial metabolic reprogramming induced by caloric restriction. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2013;19(3):310-320.
  6. Lettieri-Barbato D, Cannata SM, Cassagrande V, et al. Time-controlled fasting prevents aging-like mitochondrial changes induced by persistent dietary fat overload in skeletal muscle. PLOS ONE. 2018;13(5).
  7. Singh R, Lakhanpal D, Kumar S, et al. Late-onset intermittent fasting dietary restriction as a potential intervention to retard age-associated brain function impairments in male rats. Age. 2012;34(4):917-33.
  8. Sergi D, Naumovski N, Heilbronn LK, et al. Mitochondrial (Dys)function and insulin resistance: from pathophysiology molecular mechanisms to the impact of diet. Frontiers in Physiology. 2019;10:532.
  9. Miller VJ, Villamena FA, Volek JS. Nutritional ketosis and mitohormesis: potential implications for mitochondrial function and human health. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2018;2018.
  10. Tuttolomondo A, Simonetta I, Daidone M, et al. Metabolic and vascular effect of the Mediterranean diet. International Journal of Molecular Science. 2019;20(19):4716.
  11. Battino M, Ferreiro MS. Aging and the Mediterranean diet: a review of the role of dietary fats. Public Health Nutrition. 2004;7(7):953-958.