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Unlocking the Power of Mitochondria: The Mito Food Plan for Optimal Energy and Health

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Unlocking the Power of Mitochondria: The Mito Food Plan for Optimal Energy and Health

Most of us are probably interested in living longer, but we also want to feel great as we age. Currently, 60% of American adults live with at least one chronic disease, so what’s the key to aging well? The answer may lie in our mitochondria.

Mitochondria, universally referred to as the cell's powerhouses, are subcellular organelles that play an important role in how we create energy, also called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Among other tasks, ATP powers our cells to communicate with each other, help our muscles contract, create new DNA and RNA, and allow our brains to function well.

But the process of making ATP itself can damage mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and the mitochondria are also vulnerable to damage from our inflammatory lifestyles. When the mitochondria can’t repair themselves effectively, poor aging, neurological diseases, cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity may develop.  

Making the mitochondria a priority is one way to delay or even prevent the diseases of aging. Since inflammatory foods and excessive food intake may contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction, changing what and when you eat is a good start. The MITO Food Plan from the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) uses therapeutic foods and lifestyle strategies to support healthy mitochondrial function, especially in people with brain disorders, chronic pain, and fatigue. In this article, we’ll share what you need to know about the MITO Food Plan, including what it is, who can most benefit, and how it’s implemented.

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What is The MITO Food Plan?

The MITO Food Plan is a way of eating that may promote optimal mitochondrial function, restoring a sense of vitality and encouraging healthy aging. This meal plan is anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic, gluten-free, low in grains, and moderate in high-quality fats, which may lower inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.

Oxidative stress contributes to chronic systemic inflammation, a known driver of chronic disease. The creation of ATP itself, via a process known as oxidative phosphorylation, generates reactive oxygen species (ROS) that contribute to higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. In addition, external factors like diet and lifestyle also significantly impact these levels, which could spell trouble for the mitochondria.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the genome of the mitochondria, can recognize inflammatory signals, which is thought to make it more vulnerable to damage from inflammation. While mitochondria are present in all cells, specific high-energy tissues like the muscle, liver, kidney, and brain house more mitochondria than other tissues of the body. The inability of mtDNA to repair itself from inflammation-induced damage in these tissues may be one of the reasons we see the development of conditions like obesity, neurological diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

To combat this process, the MITO Food Plan encourages the use of nutrient-dense foods. But it also considers when to eat, how much to eat, and how to cook your food to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. All of these factors together may give your mitochondria a better ability to repair themselves.

Who Could Benefit from The MITO Food Plan?

As we age, mitochondrial function naturally begins to decline, so the MITO Food Plan is a good option for anyone hoping to age well. But according to IFM, the MITO Food Plan may also be used therapeutically for people who would like to specifically target brain function, pain levels, and fatigue.

Brain Function

Oxidative stress and inflammation may play a role in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders and cognitive decline. High levels of ROS, inflammatory markers, and mitochondrial membrane dysfunction have been found in people with depression. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease also seem to have a number of mitochondrial alterations. The MITO Food Plan may encourage good brain function by improving the mitochondria and increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that protects brain cells.

Chronic Pain

People with mitochondrial dysfunction often experience chronic neuropathic pain related to oxidative stress and inflammation. But muscle wasting (sarcopenia) may also be a common feature in those with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Adequate dietary protein intake is one important way to preserve muscle mass which contains a high concentration of mitochondria, but it also serves as the precursor to neurotransmitters that modulate pain. The MITO Food Plan may improve pain by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation with anti-inflammatory foods, but it also ensures adequate protein for muscle tissue growth and repair, and healthy neurotransmitter production.

Chronic Fatigue

Feeling chronically tired may be a byproduct of poor mitochondrial function. Since the mitochondria play a central role in energy production, sluggish mitochondria, or mitochondria that aren’t able to repair themselves adequately, can’t efficiently turn the food you eat into usable energy. In addition to promoting healthier mitochondria, the MITO Food Plan eliminates high glycemic foods to balance blood sugar, which may significantly improve energy levels.

What Foods Are Allowed on The MITO Food Plan?

The MITO Food Plan includes foods known to support mitochondrial function, but it’s also designed to improve blood sugar control and inflammation levels in the body. The MITO Food Plan emphasizes therapeutic foods for energy, protective antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and high-quality fats. It also reduces overall carbohydrate intake, with the recommendation to choose only limited amounts of gluten-free grains. Let’s take a look at the food groups that make up the bulk of this meal plan and why.

Protein

High blood glucose levels can trigger an immune system response, ultimately increasing inflammation. Meals that contain adequate protein may help to control blood sugar levels and also help to stimulate muscle mitochondrial protein synthesis, which is vital for maintaining great metabolic health as you age.

The MITO Food Plan recommends high-quality protein with every meal. Free-range, grass-fed, organically grown meats and non-GMO plant proteins, and wild-caught fish are preferred. Particularly therapeutic options include wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod, elk, venison, lamb, beef, and bison. But eggs, poultry, and cheese are also good sources of protein that can be included.  

Plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes, mushrooms, and various protein powders can be good substitutes if you don't eat animal products. But legumes and beans are high in carbohydrates, which can affect blood sugar and insulin levels, so the MITO Food Plan restricts these to one serving per day.

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats help to lower inflammation in the body and they may improve the function of the mitochondria in the brain. The fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are particularly important for the developing brain, but they may also prevent or help to treat inflammation-related brain disorders like major depressive disorder and cognitive decline. Interestingly, patients with a lower omega-3 index, a marker of EPA and DHA levels in the blood, may have a higher risk of cognitive dysfunction and neuropsychiatric disorders.
In addition, a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet helps the body shift away from using carbohydrates (glucose) for fuel to using fat (ketones), which may be a healthier option for brain mitochondria. Ketones are an efficient way to make ATP, so they may be protective against neurodegeneration.

The MITO Food Plan encourages minimally refined, cold-pressed, organic, non-GMO fats. So, you can include avocado, coconut milk, olives, and cooking oils like avocado, coconut, ghee, grass-fed butter, MCT, and olive.

In addition to added fats, nuts, and seeds are sources of healthy fat and phytonutrients to support mitochondrial health. Include almonds, chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and their various nut butters. Egg yolks and cold-water fish from the protein category also provide brain-supportive fat.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables, rich in phytonutrients, can lower inflammation in the body, which may improve mitochondrial function. The MITO Food Plan recommends eating 8-12 servings (1 serving equals one cup cooked or one-half cup raw) of fruits and vegetables each day to obtain the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients your body needs to support mitochondrial health.  

Focus mostly on non-starchy vegetables and add in therapeutic options like arugula, asparagus, Bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, chives, Daikon radish, fermented vegetables, garlic, greens of all kinds, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, onions, scallions, sea vegetables, shallots, spinach, and watercress.  

Fruit servings should be unsweetened and consumed with a meal instead of alone to minimize the effect on blood sugar. Therapeutic fruit options include apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, mango, pomegranate, raspberries, and strawberries.

What Are The Rules For The MITO Food Plan?

In addition to bringing in nutrient-dense, whole foods and focusing on blood glucose regulation and inflammation, the MITO Food Plan addresses a few additional considerations.

Limit Grains and Dairy

While foods that contain dairy and gluten-free grains may be included in small amounts on the MITO Food Plan, they aren’t emphasized and are not necessary to include daily. Higher amounts of carbohydrates from gluten-free grains may affect blood sugar levels and don’t allow for ketones to be used for fuel. The MITO Food Plan recommends limiting the daily intake of carbohydrates to 60 grams for those aiming for ketosis.

In addition, dairy products may promote inflammation in some people. If you’re using this meal plan to therapeutically treat a brain issue, chronic pain, or fatigue, it’s probably best to minimize these.

Intermittent Fasting and Calorie Restriction

Intermittent fasting (IF) is one therapy with many potential health benefits. Essentially, IF involves avoiding food intake for hours or days while remaining hydrated. IF encourages metabolic flexibility (switching from glucose to ketones for fuel), which may improve mitochondrial function to support great brain health and healthy aging. It’s also a method of calorie restriction, which may increase BDNF levels, have favorable effects on the mitochondria, and slow the aging process. IF and calorie restriction can be accomplished in many different ways. One of the easiest may be a simple daily 12-hour overnight fast, but you can also choose to limit your food intake to 600 calories for one day each week or just cut your normal daily calorie intake by 20-30%.

Food Quality

The MITO food plan also encourages using high-quality foods to limit exposure to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (which may damage the mitochondria) and grain-fed animals (which may have lower omega-3 fatty acid content). Look for local, free-range, grass-fed, and organic options whenever possible.

Food Preparation

Certain food preparation methods, like grilling and high-heat cooking, create advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that can increase oxidative stress and negatively impact your mitochondria. Opt for cooking methods that use moisture with low heat, like poaching, steaming, and stewing. When you do choose high-heat methods, try to add fresh greens or a salad to your meal to help offset some of the inflammatory effects.

Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize the MITO Food Plan for Patients

Functional medicine labs can help personalize the MITO Food Plan. Here are some potential labs to order.

Fatty Acid Status

Since healthy fats are vital for mitochondrial function, knowing a patient’s fatty acid status can help assess disease risk and personalize the MITO Food Plan.

Oxidative Stress

The Advanced Oxidative Stress test gives providers an idea of how much oxidative stress is in the body and how effectively antioxidant enzymes are removing it. This test measures various glutathione markers, as well as 8-OHdG, which is a marker that goes up when there’s damage to the mitochondria. Practitioners can use this test to evaluate current levels of oxidative stress and then develop a personalized nutrition and lifestyle plan to optimize patient results.

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Summary

Aging well means caring for your mitochondria, which are the body's major energy generators. Creating energy is oxidatively stressful, but our inflammatory lifestyles compound this stress making it tough for mitochondrial DNA to repair itself. When the mitochondria are sluggish, diseases of aging, chronic pain, and fatigue can result.

One of the most important ways to prioritize your mitochondria is by changing what, when, and how much you eat. The MITO Food Plan, which is anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic, gluten-free, low-grain, and moderate in healthy fats, reduces oxidative stress and inflammation to support healthy mitochondrial function. In addition to bringing in therapeutic foods, the MITO Food Plan encourages intermittent fasting and calorie restriction, with recommendations for improving food quality and food preparation. Since the MITO Food Plan offers a spectrum of choices, it’s important to work with an integrative provider who can tailor the plan for maximum benefit.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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