You often hear about so-called “superfoods”, without much mention of what they are actually doing to benefit your health. Certainly, many of the foods that fall into this category do lots of wonderful things for our bodies and minds.
Take, for example, one of the recent nutrition sweethearts: kale. The fiber in kale is the kind that helps to lower cholesterol; the glucosinolates are protective against cancer and help cells to detoxify themselves (ie, get rid of harmful substances); and the multitude of flavonoids have antioxidant and antiinflammatory effects which helps reduce inflammation and other damage to cells. That’s pretty super, right?
While there’s no way to report on all the ways that foods benefit us (because believe me, all real food benefits us in some way or another), it’s often a good idea to remind ourselves of why we are eating all this wholesome, living food.
What is this food doing for and to us? And what options do we have to achieve the health results we desire so that we can eat within our preferences?
Before I get to this specific list of superfoods, first we’re going to have a short (and simple) biology lesson, so that you understand why these foods are indeed super.
Biology lesson: Mitochondria
Within your tiny cells are a bunch of even smaller subunits called organelles (a general classification for teeny tiny parts within the cell itself). One of these organelles that is found in all cells throughout the entire body is the mitochondria (singular: mitochondrion).
The mitochondria are considered the powerhouses of the cell because they produce 95% of the energy within the cell. (As a side note, all cells make their own energy from food particles – like glucose – that are delivered via the bloodstream into the cells. In other words, energy production is done at the cellular level.) As a result, their ability to do their job is closely related to our body’s overall metabolism. In fact, they have their own DNA and can self-replicate whenever there is a need to produce more energy… which is increased metabolism. On the other hand, mutations in their DNA can occur (just like the DNA in the nucleus of the cell) and they can experience “oxidative stress” (a production of too many damaging free radicals compared to what the cell is able to take care of with antioxidants or remove from the cell) if they are not taken care of. If things get really bad (ie, something is off the rails and unrecoverable), they are able to tell the cell to kill itself.
When the mitochondria don’t do what they are supposed to do it is called “mitochondrial dysfunction.” This state of dysfunction has been linked to many diseases and conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, diabetes, muscle weakness, fatigue, and fibromyalgia. And perhaps most terrifying to some people: ageing.
So that was pretty straight forward, right? If not, this is your key takeaway of this biology lesson: if these teeny-tiny energy-producing beasts don’t work efficiently and effectively, you don’t have energy and lots of bad things start happening in the body.
How Certain Foods Support the Mitochondria
The good news is that we can eat foods that help keep our mitochondria functioning correctly! Many of these foods contain natural antioxidants like vitamin E and glutathione. (Antioxidants help prevent the oxidative stress I mentioned before.) After all, creation of free radicals is part of the natural process; we just have to ensure we take care of them before they cause damage. Some mitochondrial supporting foods have omega-3 or other fatty acids that ensure the membrane (ie, skin) of the mitochondria stays intact and functioning correctly – letting good things in and bad things out. Others are rich in phytonutrients that help decrease inflammation throughout the body. And some (like coconut oil) contain the kinds of fat that mitochondria can easily use to make energy so they don’t have to work so hard. (It’s called d-beta-hydroxybutyrate [aka, HBA], in case you were curious!)
The twelve foods highlighted for their positive influence on our mitochondria are:
- Grass-fed beef and buffalo
- Coconut oil
- Wild salmon
- Olive oil
- Green tea (best whole and not just for its EGCG)
If you already include at least some of these foods in your diet, congratulations! You are feeding the teeny-tiny beast known as mitochondria. If you aren’t or only rarely eat these foods, consider including one or more of them in your diet to keep your mitochondria functioning at their best.
If anything isn’t clear, please ask a question in the comments!
— Hall JE, Guyton AC. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology Twelfth Edition. Philadelphia, Saunders Elsevier, 2011.
— Herbst EA, Paglialunga S, Gerling C, et al. Omega-3 Supplementation Alters Mitochondrial Membrane Composition and Respiration Kinetics in Human Skeletal Muscle. J Physiol. 2014;592(Pt 6):1341-52.
— Hughes K. Functional Nutrition: Transforming Patients Through the Therapeutic Use of Food. Presented at Integrative Healthcare Symposium. New York, 2015. (Image is from this presentation.)
— Lin MT, Beal MF. Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Oxidative Stress in Neurodegenerative Diseases. Nature. 2006, 443: 787-795.
— Tieu K, Perier C, Caspersen C, et al. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate Rescues Mitochondrial Respiration and Mitigates Features of Parkinson Disease. J Clin Invest. 2003, 112(6): 892-901.