We’ve all been there: it’s mid-afternoon and your energy tanks. You begin dreaming about dinner while avoiding your inbox. Suddenly, a craving hits. You want something sweet or caffeinated. Or both. You head to the pantry and grab a generous handful of chocolate chips. Shortly after, you beeline for the fridge. An iced coffee or energy drink will get you through the rest of the day — or so you think. Fueled with sugar and a glass of caffeine, you head back to your desk. You feel a temporary jolt of energy. Thirty minutes later, your blood sugar takes a steep dive. And so, you head back to the pantry. Rinse, repeat until it’s time for dinner.
How Food Affects Energy
When energy is low, your body signals for a quick boost. This is instinctual. Unfortunately though, the desire to reach for coffee, chips, or something sweet often outweighs the desire to grab something more nutritious and satiating. A pick-me-up, like an energy drink or sweetened beverage, delivers a quick hit of pleasure (in part, due to serotonin — our happy hormone). What starts as a boost ends in a blood sugar drop and energy crash. Most pretzels, candy, and other processed carbs do the same thing.
This subsequent drop in blood sugar actually increases cravings for more of the same foods. The cycle repeats itself, day after day. In essence, it’s important to understand how food affects energy. After all, it can either support or diminish your stamina. And with all of the demands of life in mind, having even-keeled energy throughout the day is key. While it’s normal for energy to rise and fall slightly throughout the day, nutrition can greatly impact this natural ebb and flow.
The importance of Blood Sugar
At the root of it all, is blood sugar regulation. Blood sugar is the master controller. It dictates our hunger, our cravings, and of course — our energy. We tend to feel our best when our blood sugar is balanced. Meaning, it’s not too high (i.e. after a couple of chocolate chip cookies) or too low (i.e. we are starving). Keeping blood sugar in check supports brain health, mood, and energy levels.
When blood sugar looks like high peaks and low valleys in the body, you either feel wired or tired, and very little of the in between. The goal is to find the in between. Our bodies need fuel, especially carbohydrates, but certain carbohydrates can elicit an unwanted blood sugar response. Excessive amounts of carbohydrates, especially those that are refined and loaded with sugar, can cause fatigue. However, stabilizing glucose levels is the secret weapon to controlling and managing energy.
Start Your Day With Protein
When it comes to keeping glucose levels stable, the way you begin your day is essential. Along with stress management and a grounding morning routine, what you put in your body can make a significant impact. Breakfast recipes for energy and focus include protein and fiber-rich smoothies, scrambled eggs (or tofu) with greens and avocado, plain Greek yogurt with ground flax and berries, chia pudding with nut butter, or healthy pancakes made with alternative flours, like almond or coconut.
In essence, quality protein, slowly digested carbohydrates (like low-glycemic fruits and veggies), and healthy fats are the building blocks for an energizing morning. Protein, in particular, supports muscle health, satiety hormones, and insulin sensitivity. A high protein breakfast — compared to a high carbohydrate breakfast — helps the body control glucose, thus allowing for stable energy. Think of energy from protein as a time-release capsule: it steadily keeps you fueled for hours.
Foods That Deplete Energy
Before diving into the best foods for energy, let’s touch on foods that deplete energy. Right off the bat, processed grains (white bread, white pasta, etc.) lack fiber. The fiber-containing outer layer of the grain is removed during processing, which means that the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed more quickly than whole grains. This causes a spike and crash in energy.
Along those lines, breakfast cereals are typically refined carbs with added sugar, spiking insulin levels and simultaneously increasing cravings for more sugar. Many yogurts are also packed with sugar, causing the same energy spike and crash. Furthermore, fried and fast foods can drain your energy. Usually, these foods are high in fat and low in fiber, two contributing factors to slowed digestion and low energy. Lastly, rather than avoid caffeine and alcohol, simply tap into how these beverages make you feel. Wired? Sleepy? Irritable? If that’s the case, try pairing them with a source of healthy fat.
Foods that increase energy
To maintain balanced energy throughout the day, look no further than what’s on your plate. The foundation of building nutritious, energy-boosting snacks and meals starts with whole, unprocessed foods. Think: ingredients that are as close to the farm or the ocean as possible. In most cases, the more processed the food, the more additives it has, the more likely it will cause a surge, then depletion of energy. Satisfying fuel is a combination of high-quality protein, healthy fats, complex carbs, and gut-boosting fiber.
Top 12 Foods For Energy
- Dark Chocolate
- Greek Yogurt
- Green Tea
- Goji Berries
- Sweet Potato
These foods are naturally gluten-free, many are vegetarian (or vegan), and most are in their whole, unprocessed state.
Avocados are loaded with fiber and healthy fats, avocados promote optimal blood glucose levels. Their healthy fats can be stored in the body for future energy use.
Beets contain carbs, fiber, and natural sugar for stable energy. They also contain nitrates, which help improve blood flow, allowing for increased oxygen delivery to tissues. This, in turn, may increase energy levels.
Dark chocolate, like berries, contains powerful antioxidants to increase blood flow throughout the body. This can potentially reduce mental fatigue and improving mood. Furthermore, chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which can boost energy levels.
Eggs have nearly 18% of your daily value of vitamin B2, otherwise known as riboflavin. Riboflavin helps the body convert food into fuel, which is used to produce energy. Eggs are also very satisfying, due to their ratio of healthy fats to protein.
Greek yogurt is rich in simple sugars, lactose and galactose. When broken down, these sugars provide immediate energy. Greek yogurt is also packed with protein, helping slow the digestion of lactose and galactose, thereby providing a steady release of energy.
Green tea contains caffeine, but it also contains a compound called L-theanine. L-theanine moderates the effects of caffeine, producing a steadier boost of energy and alertness. Green tea is also known for its antioxidants, aiding in flushing toxins from the body and potentially improving insulin resistance.
Goji berries are often referred to as a superfood, and for good reason. The phytochemicals in goji berries provide essential fiber, immune support, and cell development. Furthermore, they are linked to improved energy and mood.
Kale, and other leafy greens, are high in many nutrients. Particularly, iron. Iron deficiency is linked to fatigue, so adding leafy greens to your plate can improve iron stores, thus improving alertness.
Walnuts, with their carbs and fiber, are a plant-based powerhouse. High in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, walnuts can increase energy by decreasing inflammation and increasing antioxidant levels.
Salmon, especially wild-caught salmon, provides a host of benefits. For example, it can potentially lower the risk of heart disease, support brain health, and build strong bones. This source of protein is plentiful in all B vitamins, which help metabolize energy. Its omega-3 content also helps lower inflammation.
Sweet potatoes are high in fiber and complex carbs, helping you feeling fuller, longer. With their natural sugars, they boost energy and aid in alertness. They’re also rich in vitamin C, beta carotene, and other essential energy nutrients.