The World's Healthiest Foods are health-promoting foods that can change your life.

Try the exciting new lunch recipe from Day 4 of our upcoming 7-Day Meal Plan.

The George Mateljan Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation with no commercial interests or
advertising. Our mission is to help you eat and cook the healthiest way for optimal health.
How Healthy Nutrition Builds Health, Starting With the Cells (Graphics)

Introduction: The 'What,' 'How' and 'Why' of Optimizing Our Health through Nutrition

We are in the midst of a revolution in the way we understand nutrition and health. Nutrition began as a study of what we need to survive in the most basic sense. Early research in nutrition focused on determining the minimum amount of a nutrient necessary in the diet to prevent the manifestation of an outwardly visible malfunction or obvious disease.

Today, with advanced technology and the ability to see within the body -- and even within cells themselves -- we are able to follow how nutrients really function. More importantly, this new insight helps us to understand why having too little of these important dietary components can lead to low energy levels, early aging, and even disease. We can also see why the foods we decide to eat today affect our health not just today, but many years later in our lives.

What is a cell?

Cells are the fundamental units of life ' the bricks from which all your tissues and organs are made ' and are the smallest components considered to be living organisms in your body. Your cells are constantly communicating with each other, responding to your environment and to the signals they receive from what you touch and how you move. If your cells cannot operate efficiently, the functioning of your tissues and organs, which are built of your cells, will become compromised, and you can experience a diminishment of physical functioning and the onset of a host of health conditions and diseases. So, by keeping your cells well nourished, you are keeping yourself well nourished.

Of the many important roles your cells play in your life everyday, keeping your DNA safe from damage and providing energy for everything you do are two of the most important. Your DNA is stored within your cell in the nucleus, and your cell has many ways to keep it safe; however, research has shown that a poor diet -- one low in antioxidants and other important phytonutrients -- and environmental exposure to toxins, like pesticides, can cause your DNA to become damaged. This damage (called a mutation) can affect the ability of your cells to produce energy, can cause your cells to die early resulting in compromised tissue or inflammation, and can even show up years later as cancer. We will discuss how you can use the world's healthiest foods to protect your DNA from damage and support healthy aging, energy and function throughout your life.

The average adult has around 30 trillion cells in his or her body, and every day thousands of new cells are replicated from old ones. New cells are made to replace the old cells that become worn-out or damaged. Providing the raw materials for the creation of these new cells from the nutrients you get in your food is one way that nutrition plays an important role in sustaining your cellular, and therefore your overall health. In addition, certain nutrients also protect your cells from damage, and nutrients in foods support your body's energy production machinery.

While cells of different tissues or organs may vary from one another in shape, size or attributes, they each contain similar components that perform specific tasks. Let's take a look inside one of your cells and see what the nutrients really do.


What nutrients are important for the health of my cells, and what do they do?

To more clearly illustrate how nutrition benefits health at a cellular level, let's take a look at the function of three of your cell's components ' (1) the cellular membrane, (2) the nucleus, and (3) the mitochondria ' and see how nutrition influences their structure, functioning, and integrity. This will enable you to better appreciate how various nutrients in your diet can help promote the health of your cells, and therefore the health of your overall being.

Cellular Nutrition

Why are healthy foods so good for my cells?

As you can see by the previous discussions, supporting healthy cells involves a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as other dietary components. Providing all these nutrients to your cells means eating whole foods since they contain the fullest complement of these nutrients. One of the most comprehensive food sources for nutrients that support healthy cells is whole grains.

A whole grain, such as a wheat grain, contains three main parts: the germ, or sprouting part of the grain; the endosperm, which contains the starch (calories) to support the young sprout during its early stages; and the bran, which is the protective layer encasing the sprout and its endosperm. In a whole grain food, all three parts of the grain are present; in a refined food product, like white bread, the germ and bran are removed, and only the endosperm is used. Grain

Each of the parts of the grain has different purposes, and therefore a different complement of nutrients. The germ, is rich in micronutrients to support the young sprout. It contains a high level of the vitamin E family of micronutrients, the tocopherols, and several B-vitamins. A representation of the amount of macronutrients and B-vitamins in a grain of wheat is shown below:

Amount of kernel (size) 14.5% 2.5% 83%
Vitamin B1 (thiamin)33%64%3%
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)42%26%32%
Vitamin B3 (niacin)86%2%12%
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)50%7%43%
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)73%21%6%

The endosperm, although it is the largest part of the grain, contains the fewest micronutrients for its size because its purpose is simply to provide starch (sugar) calories for the young sprout. The protective bran contains a host of micronutrients to protect the young sprout from damage by sun, which can cause free radical formation, as well as other environmental damage. These same compounds protect our cells from damage, which is one reason why the bran is such a healthy food source for us. The bran also contains over 60% of the minerals in grains, including magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, copper and manganese, all of which are necessary to support healthy cells. It's easy to see why whole grains comprehensively protect and support healthy cells, whereas processed grain products, such as white bread and cereals made from refined grains, provide little protection from damage.

Your cells need a full spectrum of vitamins, especially the B-vitamins, to support energy production and keep the level of offshoot free radicals at a minimum. Your cells also need healthy fats (like the omega-3 fatty acids) and a good source of proteins to support healthy, protective membranes. And, your cells need a high intake of antioxidants, like the vitamin E family compounds found in the germ of whole grains, vitamin C found in citrus foods, and the carotenoids from vegetables to protect against free radical damage to your DNA, which can cause mutations. A range of other phytonutrients can also act as antioxidants and help protect your cells and DNA from free radicals; these include anthocyanidins from fruits like grapes and strawberries, and catechins found in green tea and fruits like grapes.

Without this range of nutrients and phytonutrients, the membranes in your cells can become brittle, develop holes (become leaky), not be able to function properly, and not be protective for your cell's DNA and energy producing machinery. Once unprotected, your DNA can develop mutations which can cause the cell to be unable to function, or even to become malignant (cancerous). Damage to your energy producing machinery can decrease energy production and lead to an increase in generation of free radicals, causing more damage and destroying your cell's ability to function entirely.

Nutrition and the cellular membrane

The envelope that encapsulates the cell is referred to as the cellular membrane. The cell membrane serves as the structural boundary that encloses each of your cells and keeps their internal machinery (like the energy producing reactions) safe, so they can function properly. It also serves as a semi-permeable filter through which nutrients can enter and wastes can be excreted, and it allows your cells to communicate with each other, enabling the orchestration of all of your body's physiological functions.

Fats constitute the boundaries of your cells

You cellular membrane is primarily composed of fats. It's like a droplet of oil within your water-based bloodstream and tissue fluids. The fats, being non-water soluble, form a barrier that gives your cells their boundaries and structure. The main function of the fats in your cell's membrane is to create shape and structural stability. Many of the fats that compose the membrane are known as phospholipids, which are a combination of fatty acids, a carbon backbone to which they are attached called glyercol, and phosphate.

Proteins in your cell membranes are important for many cell functions

Proteins are also a major component of your cells. Outside of your cells, proteins constitute bone and soft tissue and help these structures to maintain their shape. Because they can be made into many different shapes and sizes, and they also constitute digestive enzymes, the antibodies in your blood, and serve many other functions. Proteins have many functions inside your cells as well. They perform all of the enzyme functions for energy production; they provide for repair of DNA when it is damaged; and, together with fats, they maintain the integrity of your cell's membrane. Proteins are located in your cell membrane, within the cell itself, and around your cells.

The proteins that compose the cell membrane serve a variety of important purposes, such as communication between your cells, and providing sites of attachment, so your cells can connect with the structures around and stay where they should. For example, bone cells attach to the bone matrix through proteins on their cell membranes, and liver cells stay in the liver by attaching to the liver tissue (matrix) through specific attachment proteins in their cell membranes. Cancer cells often have changes in these attachment proteins on their membranes, altering their ability to 'stick' or stay where they should, which allows them instead to move around the body. So, the proteins in your cell membrane are important not just for the functioning within the individual cell, but also for the health of your whole body.

Your cells must constantly communicate with each other, taking in nutrients from your bloodstream, and excreting wastes. Your cells do this by having proteins that respond to signals from your body stuck into each their membranes. These proteins acts as channels that can be opened or closed when your cell gets a signal to do so, or as information transporters, like a telegraph line across your membrane, to communicate what's going on outside or inside neighboring cells. This communication is vital for your ability to function as a whole body with all your cells working together.

As an example, think about when you eat a meal. The sugar (glucose) is released and taken into your body through the digestion process, during which it enters your bloodstream. Your body responds to the glucose in your blood by secreting insulin from your pancreas into your bloodstream. When the insulin gets to one of your cells that needs glucose, it attaches to a protein (receptor) on the cell's surface, which then activates, or opens, a gate in the cell to let the glucose enter that cell. This glucose is then either used by the cell to produce energy or is stored for future energy production.

Nutrients in the Food You Eat Can Promote Healthy Cell Membranes

Research has shown the nutrients you take in through your food can have a major influence on the health of your cells' membranes. In particular, the fats you eat have a direct effect on your cells because they become your cell membranes. Unsaturated fats, like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts, are needed for your cell membranes to have the correct shape and ability to communicate. When you eat saturated fats, or trans-fatty acids, these fats also become part of your cell membranes, but they are more rigid and don't function like unsaturated fats. Research studies of cells in a culture dish, in which they can be seen under a microscope, show that saturated and trans-fats in the cell membrane make the cells less able to communicate and respond to signals; it's like the cell membranes become brittle.

Eating healthy levels of unsaturated fats, especially the omega-3 fatty acids, and avoiding trans-fats and saturated fats is one way to support healthy cell membranes. Two other dietary compounds, which are also components of your cell membranes and support healthy cell functioning, are inositol and choline. Inositol, which helps transport signals across the membranes of your cells, is found in the bran of grains, like wheat bran or brown rice. Studies have shown an association between higher intakes of inositol and lower risk of cancers, like colon cancer, which may be due to inositol's role in supporting healthy cell membranes. Choline is necessary to make the phospholipids, the form of lipid in your cell membranes, and serves many other functions in your body. Choline is present in high amounts in the yolk of eggs.

Cereals, grains, vegetables and fruits also contain many molecules that help protect the fats in your cell membranes from damage. These protective nutrients include the vitamin E family of molecules, called the tocopherols, which are found in highest levels in the oils in grains, e.g., wheat germ oil; carotenoids like beta-carotene in carrots, and lycopene in tomatoes; vitamin C from citrus fruits. And, because your cells frequently use proteins as messenger molecules in their communications, the quality of the protein you eat is also important in supporting healthy cell membranes.

Nutrition and your DNA

The cell membrane surrounding your cells is not the only lipid membrane in your body. Within each of your cells is a smaller spherical nuclear membrane within which your DNA is encased. In this way, your cell separates the DNA from the rest of your cell's activities, like energy production and the generation (synthesis) of proteins, which are performed in the cytoplasm. The nucleus maintains your genetic integrity and serves as the storehouse of your most personal information, the blueprint from which all of your body's proteins, those that make up your tissues, organs and chemical messengers, are designed ' your DNA.

DNA is composed of nucleotides that are made of nitrogen-containing compounds attached to sugar molecules and phosphate. They are arranged in strands in a helix formation, unwinding to create a small intermediate messenger molecule, called RNA, which transports the information from the DNA, through the nuclear membrane, to the cytoplasm where it can be read. From the instructions provided by RNA, new proteins are synthesized. Specific areas of DNA that provide the code for individual proteins are known as genes, and genes are arranged in structures called chromosomes.

Your DNA never leaves the nucleus, and therefore the nuclear membrane is very important in protecting your DNA. Unfortunately, your DNA can easily become damaged by a host of different factors. Damaging toxins, especially ones that are lipid (fat) soluble, as are many pesticides, can get across both the cell membrane and the nuclear membrane. When they do, they can attach to the DNA, causing it to lose its shape or to break a strand. Damage can also occur from compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS), a type of free radical, which are toxic by-products of altered or unhealthy energy production within your cell. DNA damage of this type is called a mutation. Mutations can lead to altering the cell's programming, sometimes in ways that convert a healthy cell to a cancerous cell.

It is vital to protect the integrity of your DNA. When their helix strands break and their structure becomes compromised, not only are you unable to make the correct types and amounts of proteins necessary for the proper functioning of your body, but these mutations can lead to cancer. Supporting healthy membranes by eating foods that provide unsaturated fats and avoiding those with saturated and trans-fatty acids is one way to protect your DNA. Eating organically grown foods is another way to protect your DNA since by eating organic, you minimize your exposure to pesticide residues in food. Minimizing the use of pesticides not only agriculturally, but also on our lawns and flowerbeds, and supporting businesses that do not use toxic environmental compounds is another way to protect your DNA from damage.

Maintaining adequate dietary levels of protein, inositol, choline, the antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins E and C, and the carotenoids is also important for the health of your DNA, as well as for supporting healthy energy production by decreasing the amount of damaging free radicals inside your cells (discussed below). Nutritional support for healthy DNA also includes adequate dietary intake of folate and vitamin B12, since these micronutrients are involved with DNA replication and repair. Folate is found in high levels in green vegetables, grains and eggs, and vitamin B12 can be obtained from eggs, dairy, meat and fish.

Nutrition and energy production: the mitochondria

The cell membrane encloses your cells like your skin encloses your body and, in the same way that your body has tissues and organs within it to support your overall function, each of your cells has its own miniaturized version of tissues and organs. The miniaturized organs are called organelles, and they carry out much of the day-to-day functions in your cell. Some of the most important organelles in your cells are the energy-producing powerhouses, called the mitochondria.

The mitochondria are the place where your cells produce the energy they need from the nutrients in the food you eat. Each of your cells has several hundred to over two thousand mitochondria inside of them, depending on their need for energy. For instance, heart cells and the cells in your skeletal muscle, which have very high energy demands to support the constant movements within your body, have up to 40% of their space taken up by mitochondria. All together, your body has over one quadrillion mitochondria that are constantly producing energy.


How Mitochondria produce energy

Mitochondria use oxygen and the nutrients from the food you eat to produce energy. Most of the energy produced by your mitochondria comes from breakdown of glucose or fat from your diet. Since the mitochondria produce the energy used by other parts of your cells and throughout your body, they must have some way to transport this energy. They do this using a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP is like an energy currency in your body: it can be produced in one part of the cell and transported to another place where it is 'spent' for energy.

ATP transports energy through a high-energy phosphate that is removed at the site where its energy is used. When ATP gives up, or 'spends,' its energy, such as when your muscles need energy for movement, this high-energy phosphate is stripped off the ATP, and it becomes adenosine diphosphate, or ADP. ADP is then transported back to your mitochondria, where it can have another high-energy phosphate put on it to form ATP again, and therefore -- like an energy shuttle moving the energy back and forth ' it is used and reused to transport energy.

On an average day in which you are not doing anything particularly strenuous, you will use the equivalent of roughly half of what you weigh in ATP, about 40 kilograms. Approximately 90% of the oxygen you breathe will be used by your mitochondria to produce this energy. Since the ATP is recycled to ADP and then converted back to ATP to transport more energy, you don't gain or lose weight in this energy generation process. The production of energy uses a multitude of nutrients, as well as many other molecules from food. Let's take a closer look at the chemical reactions involved in energy production and where these nutrients function during the production of ATP.

What nutrients do mitochondria need?

The attachment of the high-energy phosphate to ADP to form ATP is a complex process -- not surprising, since energy is the basis for everything that happens in your body and is what drives life at its most basic level. Mitochondria are like cells within your cells; they have a membrane made of fats and proteins like your cell's membrane. In contrast to your cells' outer membrane, however, each mitochondrion has two membranes, an inner and an outer membrane. Its inner membrane is composed of up to 75% protein, much more than any other membrane in your cell. These proteins are part of the electron transport chain (ETC) and are the key players in generating ATP.

The food you eat must first be prepared for the ETC. To do that, your body takes the glucose or fat molecule and breaks it down to smaller units of two carbons. These two-carbon units are then stripped of some of the energy units, called electrons, and broken down to carbon dioxide, which is transported out of the mitochondria as a waste product. A small amount of energy is generated during this process, which is called the Kreb's cycle. The main role of the Kreb's cycle, however, is to strip electrons from the glucose and fats for energy production through the ETC, which will generate the most energy. The Kreb's cycle uses a multitude of vitamins and minerals, in particular the B-vitamins, vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6; and, this is one reason the B-vitamins are considered the energy vitamins.

Your mitochondria uses molecules made from vitamins B2 and B3 to transfer the electrons from the Kreb's cycle to the ETC, since electrons left unprotected are damaging to your cell's components. The ETC moves, or passes these electrons down through a chain of proteins, almost like an electron river in which the proteins are the river banks. The electrons are deposited at the end of the protein chain on the inside of the double membrane in the mitochondria, which creates an electron gradient, like a dam reservoir at the end of a river. The ETC uses five enzyme complexes in its membrane to create this electron reservoir, and also burns oxygen as part of this process. At the end of the ETC is the energy dam, or gate that, when opened, allows the electrons to flow through and, like a dam, transfers the energy to create ATP. Included in the middle of the ETC is the nutrient Coenzyme Q10, which is extremely important in the electron transport and membrane protection. The ETC is also composed of proteins that require iron and sulfur, nutrients you must also obtain from the foods you eat. Iron is present in whole grains, and good food sources of sulfur are the cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli.

Maintaining the structural integrity of your mitochondria is inherently important to your overall health and well-being. If tissues and organs, especially those that have higher energy requirements like the muscle, heart and brain, do not receive adequate supplies of energy, they cannot function properly. Consequently, mitochondrial dysfunction is considered one of the major underlying factors in unhealthy aging and fatigue. Mitochondrial dysfunction is also a major factor in many chronic degenerative diseases, such as congestive heart failure, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson's disease. Along with the inability to produce energy, when damaged, mitochondria can also produce damaging by-products, such as reactive oxygen species, a type of free radical species that can destroy DNA, protein, and fats, promoting further damage.

Nutritional support for healthy energy production includes supporting healthy membranes. In addition, since B-vitamins are so important, adequate intake of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5 and B6 is extremely important to support energy metabolism. Good sources of these vitamins include whole grains, since the B vitamins are concentrated in the bran of grains. Whole grains are an excellent source of the entire complement of energy-related B-vitamins. Wheat germ is one of the highest sources of tocopherols, the family of vitamin E micronutrients, and brown rice contains oryzanol and ferulic acid, known to be effective antioxidants and health-promoting compounds.

Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)

We depend on our oxygen-rich world for survival. Mitochondrial energy production requires oxygen to convert fuel molecules to carbon dioxide. Paradoxically, oxygen is such a powerful reactant that it can disrupt cellular function and impair metabolism through the production of reactive oxygen molecules known as Reactive Oxygen Species. Research shows that these molecules cause cumulative oxidative damage which is associated with many degenerative conditions, including cancer, atherosclerosis, cataracts, inflammation and autoimmune disease, lung disease, neurologic disorders, aging, and cell death. Proper nutrition plays a critical role in neutralizing them damaging chemicals and protecting cellular health.


What are damaging Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) such as Free Radicals?

While it's not surprising that something as important as the generation of energy requires so many nutrients, it is a little surprising that the production of energy can also result in the offshoot production of dangerous molecules with potential to damage your cells. During the production of energy, about 2% of oxygen escapes in the form of reactive oxygen species (ROS) called free radicals. Free radicals are oxidants, which are very reactive molecules that bind to and break DNA chains, directly causing mutations. They can also bind to and destroy proteins and fats in cell membranes. Under normal conditions, in which you are in good health, have low toxin exposure, and are eating a nutritious diet, your cells can protect against these ROS free radicals. With poor nutrition, or in the presence of toxins that inhibit or damage the ETC causing inadequate energy production, the amount of ROS free radicals generated in your cells exceeds the cells' ability to protect themselves against damage.

When these damaging by-products are not kept in check, such as when key nutrients are missing from your diet, they can bind and destroy DNA, proteins, and the fats in your cell's membranes. Over the past four decades, research has been continually showing that these damaging free radical by-products of energy production cause many of the fundamental alterations seen in aging and in chronic degenerative disease. Excess free radicals results in increased risk not only of premature aging and chronic degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, but also of cancer. Research has also shown the diet can significantly influence how much damage is produced by free radicals.

Research has shown that diet can support healthy cellular energy production, DNA and membranes, and when the diet is deficient, these structures and functions become compromised. Pollution and other toxins also result in increasing free radicals in your body, which can further damage your cells' membranes and cause mutations in your cell's DNA. Furthermore, excess free radicals can also inhibit and even destroy the energy production machinery in the mitochondria, resulting in fatigue and a higher risk of chronic diseases. Poor nutrition, such as low intakes of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids and high intake of saturated fats may result in brittle, broken (leaky) cell membranes that can't function appropriately. Research studies have shown an association between a higher level of DNA mutations and low levels of protective antioxidants. Therefore, inadequate intake of protective antioxidants in food, such as catechins and anthocyanidins in green tea and fruits; vitamin C in citrus foods; vitamin E in grain germs, whole grain oils, and legumes, and carotenoids may result in a higher level of DNA mutation, predisposing you to conditions like cancer.

How does my cell protect against damaging Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) such as Free Radicals?

The protective mechanisms in your cell include enzymes that disable the free radicals, such as superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase. These enzymes require nutrients like the minerals manganese, selenium, and copper, which are present in whole grains. Glutathione is a very important molecule that can destroy free radicals, and it can be obtained directly from the diet, or can be made in your body from nutrients in the diet like the amino acid glycine, and the sulfur-containing amino acid cysteine, which are present in a variety of foods, such as broccoli, garlic and cauliflower. The enzymes involved in energy metabolism also require minerals, like iron, magnesium, copper, selenium, and manganese, which can be obtained from whole foods and vegetables.

Antioxidants are dietary compounds that directly bind to and destroy (quench) free radicals that are oxidants. Much research has shown that green tea is protective against many types of cancer, and the active ingredients in green tea that play this protective role are the catechins, which are antioxidants. Research supports that these food ingredients protect against cancer and other damage in the cell by their antioxidant activities. Vegetables and fruits contain a number of compounds like this, called flavonoids, which can act directly as antioxidants and quench the ROS free radicals. This is thought to be why higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risk of a host of diseases, including cancers and many chronic degenerative diseases. Among their protective actions, micronutrients like vitamin C, the tocopherols (which include vitamin E), and the carotenoids (including beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene) function as antioxidants to protect your cells from damage.

What Can I Do to Support Healthy Cellular Nutrition?

Food provides your cells with the nutrients that serve as their building blocks and protect your cell's important functions like energy production. By understanding how food and nutrients affect the health of your cells, you not only know what foods are beneficial, but how and why a diet that features nutrient-rich, whole and organically grown foods can promote your optimal health.

  • Eat foods that nutritionally support your cell's membranes. Dietary proteins, after being broken down into amino acids and then resynthesized into new proteins, replace protein-containing components in the cellular membrane that have become worn out. Certain amino acids are also used to manufacture the signaling chemicals, such as hormones, that are integral to cell-to-cell communication. Good dietary sources of protein include fish, (preferably wild-caught, cold water fish, since they are also an excellent source of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids), organic eggs, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and vegetables.

    A significant percentage of the essential fatty acids in phospholipids is comprised of omega-3 essential fatty acids. For example, over 35% of phospholipids in the brain and 60% in the eye's photoreceptors feature the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Therefore, providing the body with adequate levels of these important nutrients can help to ensure proper membrane structure. Good dietary sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids include fish, in particular wild-caught tuna and salmon.

    Inositol is a component of membrane phospholipids that are involved in various functions including cellular signaling. Increases in dietary inositol and choline have been found to significantly influence the concentration of membrane phospholipids and support healthy membranes. Good dietary sources of inositol include whole grains; choline is also present in high amounts in egg yolks.

  • Provide your body with foods rich in antioxidants. The vitamin E family, the tocopherols, contains powerful antioxidants that are able to protect both the lipid and protein components in your cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals and other oxidative compounds. Research has suggested that through their powerful antioxidant activity, the tocopherols may be able to protect DNA from the damage caused by oxidative stress. Recent research has focused upon vitamin E's ability to shield DNA from the damage caused by free radicals generated by cigarette smoking. Smokers with higher levels of chromosomal damage have been found to have lower levels of circulating vitamin E. The antioxidant vitamin E can also protect the mitochondria from the effects of the free radicals produced during ATP manufacture. In addition, supplemental vitamin E seems to support tissue retention of supplemental coenzyme Q10, a critical nutrient for energy production. Good dietary sources of the vitamin E family include wheat germ and wheat germ oil, as well as oils from other grains and legumes, like soy oil.

    Vitamin C is critical to cellular membrane health since it plays an integral role in recycling vitamin E back to its active form. Intracellular vitamin C has been found to protect the DNA of many cells, including white blood cells and the eye's lens, from oxidative damage caused by free radicals and ultraviolet radiation. By regenerating vitamin E back to its active form, vitamin C also plays a role in supporting genetic integrity and as discussed above, in protecting the mitochondria from potential damage by reactive oxygen species, like free radicals. Excellent dietary sources of vitamin C include papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and kale.

    Research on animals suggests that lipoic acid supplementation increases mitochondrial membrane function and metabolic activity and reduces the potential for oxidative damage. In addition, lipoic acid functions directly as an antioxidant and serves as a cofactor for maintaining the active states of coenzyme Q10 and vitamin E, both of which are important to the integrity of the mitochondria. Dietary sources of lipoic acid include potatoes, carrots, beets and and kohlrabi. Although not recommended since it is also loaded with cholesterol, red meat also contains alpha-lipoic acid.

    The amino acid cysteine is a precursor for glutathione peroxidase, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the mitochondria from oxidative damage. The mineral selenium serves to activate the formation of this important antioxidant. Dietary sources of cysteine include legumes, whole grains, and sesame seeds. Excellent dietary sources of selenium include mushrooms, shrimp, and salmon.

  • Provide key nutrients for mitochondrial support and energy production. Vitamin B3 (Niacin), serves as a precursor to NAD+, a compound that is important in the electron transport for energy production, and inhibits DNA strands from rupturing. Supplementation of nicotinic acid (a form of niacin) has been found to reduce DNA damage in human white blood cells. Excellent sources of B3 include tuna, chicken, turkey, and crimini mushrooms. Very good sources include salmon, asparagus, tomatoes, bell peppers, and lamb.

    Coenzyme Q10 serves as both a component of the ETC as well as a mitochondrial antioxidant. Supplementation of Coenzyme Q10 in humans and animals has been shown to beneficially affect the efficiency of mitochondrial energy production and to protect mitochondrial DNA from free radical damage. Good dietary sources of Coenzyme Q10 include oils from nuts, fish and meat.

  • Support healthy DNA. Folic acid is critical to our genetic integrity since a deficiency of this nutrient can cause the incorporation of an incorrect nucleotide into DNA that will cause the strand to break. In addition, folic acid plays an important role in the process of methylation, which is necessary for proper genetic expression. In addition to folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are also involved in methylation reactions that are critical for maintaining proper genetic expression. Deficiencies of these vitamins are related to increased homocysteine levels that have been found to have a negative effect on cellular methylation. Excellent dietary sources of folate include lentils, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, beets, romaine lettuce, bok choy, and cauliflower. Excellent dietary sources of B6 include tuna, spinach, cabbage, bok choy, bell peppers, turnip greens, garlic, and cauliflower. Excellent dietary sources of B12 include sardines, salmon, tuna, cod, lamb, scallops, shrimp, and beef.

    Many of the enzymes that are involved in the repair and replication of DNA have zinc as a component. Zinc supplementation has been found to prevent radiation-induced DNA strand breakage. Very good sources of zinc include beef, spinach, asparagus, shiitake mushrroms, and crimini mushrooms, calf's liver, spinach, and mushrooms.

  • Reduce intake of foods to which you are allergic or intolerant. Certain people have allergenic and hypersensitivity reactions to specific foods. These reactions, which involve an array of different immune system messengers, can disrupt the communication process both within and between cells. For people who are sensitive to certain foods, following a low-allergen diet may be beneficial to cellular health.

  • Eat organically grown foods when you can! Eating organically grown foods can help protect cellular membranes since certain agricultural chemicals may damage the structure and function of the cellular membrane. The insecticide endosulfan and the herbicide paraquat have been shown to oxidize lipid molecules and therefore can damage the phospholipid components of the cellular membrane. In animal studies, pesticides such as chlorpyrifos, endrin and fenthion have been shown to over stimulate enzymes involved in chemical signaling, causing an imbalance that has been linked to conditions in which inflammation is a significant contributing factor, such as atherosclerosis and psoriasis.

    Eating organically grown foods also minimizes the degradation of DNA and may help to better sustain health. Recent test tube and animal research suggests that certain agricultural chemicals used in the conventional method of growing food may have the ability to cause genetic mutations that can lead to the development of cancer. One example is the chemical pentachlorophenol (PCP), which has been found to be able to cause DNA fragmentation in animals.

    Several of these agricultural chemicals used in the conventional growing of foods have also been shown to have a negative effect upon mitochondrial function. These chemicals include paraquat, parathion, dinoseb and 2,4-D, all of which have been found to affect the mitochondria and cellular energy production in a variety of ways including increasing membrane permeability (which exposes the mitochondria to damaging free radicals), and inhibiting the protein that creates ATP.

  • Eat additive-free foods. Some of the food additives that are legally allowed in food processing in the United States have been identified as potentially able to damage genetic material. These include benzoyl peroxide, sodium bisulfite, butylated hydrotoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroanisole (BHA).

Printer friendly version

Send this page to a friend...


Find Out What Foods You Should Eat This Week

Also find out about the recipe, nutrient and hot topic of the week on our home page.


Everything you want to know about healthy eating and cooking from our new book.
2nd Edition
Order this Incredible 2nd Edition at the same low price of $39.95 and also get 2 FREE gifts valued at $51.95. Read more

Newsletter SignUp

Your Email:

Healthy Eating
Healthy Cooking
Nutrients from Food
Website Articles
Privacy Policy and Visitor Agreement
For education only, consult a healthcare practitioner for any health problems.

We're Number 1
in the World!

35 million visitors per year.
The World's Healthiest Foods website is a leading source of information and expert on the Healthiest Way of Eating and Cooking. It's one of the most visited website on the internet when it comes to "Healthiest Foods" and "Healthiest Recipes" and comes up #1 on a Google search for these phrases.

Over 100 Quick &
Easy Recipes

Our Recipe Assistant will help you find the recipe that suits your personal needs. The majority of recipes we offer can be both prepared and cooked in 20 minutes or less from start to finish; a whole meal can be prepared in 30 minutes. A number of them can also be prepared ahead of time and enjoyed later.

World's Healthiest
is expanded

What's in our new book:
  • 180 more pages
  • Smart Menu
  • Nutrient-Rich Cooking
  • 300 New Recipes
  • New Nutrient Articles and Profiles
  • New Photos and Design
privacy policy and visitor agreement | who we are | site map | what's new
For education only, consult a healthcare practitioner for any health problems.
© 2001-2017 The George Mateljan Foundation, All Rights Reserved