February 24th, 2010
There is an energy crisis in America—and I am not talking about natural resources. We all want to feel alert, well-rested, and energetic, but for many of us this is more of a dream than reality. As busy and productive people with over-scheduled, stressful lifestyles (sometimes combined with little quality sleep and poor eating habits), it is no wonder so many of us feel drained.
Fatigue breaks us down physically and emotionally and wreaks havoc on the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness, depression, and even chronic conditions like heart disease. But we have the power to change our habits, boost our energy, and feel terrific.
We all know that regular exercise, stress management, and getting at least eight hours of sleep are critical for combating fatigue. It also turns out that our eating habits directly affect our energy levels, and there are ways we can use nutrition to feel more energy throughout the day.
1. Eat predominantly nutrient-dense foods: Optimal energy metabolism (the process that converts food to energy) requires an abundance of vitamins and minerals. Every cell in our body can unlock its energy potential with the proper fuel from food. If we don’t get enough nutrients from foods, we suffer from sub-optimal cellular energy metabolism, making us feel tired and sluggish.
The best way to combat this is to choose foods that have a lot of nutrition per calorie. These include vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, whole grains, and lean animal proteins. Refined breads, fried and fatty foods, sweets and desserts, and processed snack foods give us lots of calories with little nutrition, which is why you’ll feel so much better if you base your diet on minimally processed, whole foods.
2. Seek out foods high in antioxidants: Antioxidants are the body’s scavengers of those damaging chemicals that tax our system and cause fatigue and lead to illness. Being that there are thousands of natural, protective antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, a pill or processed food will never come close to what you’ll get from the whole food.
Furthermore, too much of certain nutrients can be risky – this risk is alleviated when the nutrients come packaged in a whole food, which is naturally balanced with complementary nutrients and thousands of health-supporting compounds. Seek out colorful, juicy fruits like berries and melons, and dark green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, collard greens, and spinach.
3. Focus on omega-3s: Studies show that diets high in omega-3 fats improve mood, memory, and thinking, which are related to focus and energy. Try to get at least one excellent source of omega-3 fats a day: fish, flax seeds, flax oil, hemp seeds, hemp oil, leafy greens (think big salad), or walnuts. Omega-3 supplements such as fish oil can help but they should never replace a healthful diet.
4. Ditch the diet: If your “diet” is synonymous with “deprivation,” you’re doing your body a “disservice.” Skimping on calories ultimately decreases your metabolism as your body tries to conserve all the energy it can. That’s why dieters often feel lethargic. To make matters worse, as metabolism slows, the body burns even fewer calories, leading to a slower rate of weight loss. Then when more calories are inevitably consumed, weight gain is the usual result.
So, to keep your energy levels high and your metabolism revved up, be sure to meet your calorie needs each day. Slow, steady weight loss – achieved with sufficient calories and regular physical activity – is the most effective way to maintain a healthy weight for life. (Ask your nutrition professional how many calories you should be aiming for each day.)
5. Make breakfast a priority: Yes, it’s easy to skip breakfast, and we even may feel virtuous doing so, as it appears to be a way to save calories. But it hurts us in the long run. Studies show that a good breakfast not only gets your metabolism going, but it will help keep you alert and satisfied until lunch. Bonus: healthy breakfast eaters set the stage for a full day of healthy eating.
Swapping out processed foods like donuts, pastries, white bagels, cereal, and waffles for healthier options including fresh fruit, whole grain hot or cold cereal with nuts/seeds, whole grain bread with nut butter, or even last night’s casserole are all good options.
6. Say yes to snacks: Getting a near-steady supply of food energy throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar level and your energy level up. Letting yourself get too hungry causes your blood sugar to crash, leading to feelings of sluggishness and, often, cravings for junk food. But of course it is important to choose your snacks wisely.
A smart snack won’t come from a vending machine or in a 100-calorie pack; in fact, these foods typically don’t provide the mental boost in energy that you’re craving, and you’re often left feeling even more tired than before. Real food is the best source of real energy. Combining complex carbs with protein and fat provides lasting energy, because the fiber, protein, and fat slow the release of sugar into the blood, helping to prevent energy dips and overeating.
Some great snack ideas include a mix of nuts and dried fruit (about one half ounce of each); a container of plain yogurt topped with 2 tablespoons of natural granola; 3 cups of air-popped popcorn tossed with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt; 5 whole grain crackers with 5 baby carrots and a quarter cup hummus; a half cup of berries and an ounce of walnuts, an ounce of baked or whole-grain chips with tomato salsa, or a small apple sliced and dipped in 2 tablespoons of almond butter.
7. Drink for energy: Being properly hydrated is a very easy and effective way to keep your energy high. The body needs water, and lots of it, to function optimally. You can skip the vitamin waters and energy drinks, which unless you’re an endurance athlete, just add unnecessary calories and expense. So keep a fresh and ready source of water by you at all times, and sip at least 1 cup every 2 hours. Tote a reusable bottle with you wherever you go. Bonus: all those extra trips to the restroom help you to move more.
8. Become the designated driver: Since alcohol is a depressant, it can contribute to low energy. Ironically, it can also act as a stimulant several hours later, which can disrupt your sleep cycle and cause fatigue the next day. If you depend on a nightly drink to fall asleep or overindulge over the weekends, you may find that cutting out or down on alcohol improves your energy considerably.
If you wish to indulge occasionally, red wine is a good choice for its antioxidant content. (Disclaimer: individuals taking certain medications, and those suffering from certain forms of anxiety, high blood pressure, or dependence issues should avoid alcohol completely. Ask your doctor.)
9. Use caffeine wisely or not at all: After a cup of coffee, it certainly feels as though you’re getting an energy boost. But it really isn’t true energy—it’s a drug effect. So although you’ll feel a short-term boost, it will backfire when it wears off, because at that point the body realizes it has no real energy source and the result is exhaustion and hunger, typically followed by overeating.
So, caffeine can be used occasionally as a temporary stimulant, such as before a long drive or for alertness for meeting a deadline, but overuse and reliance over the long term can be problematic.
For a gentler lift, try green tea, which provides beneficial antioxidants as well as the amino acid theanine, which helps you stay calm and focused. (Disclaimer: individuals taking certain medications, and those suffering from certain forms of anxiety, high blood pressure, or dependence issues should avoid caffeine completely. Ask your doctor.)
10. Choose power foods: As the 10th nutrition strategy, I’d like to share my list of the top 10 energy foods, most of which you should aim to include in your diet on a weekly basis:
1. Almonds (or other nuts)
3. Watercress (or arrugula, kale, collards, spinach, etc.)
4. Quinoa (or other intact whole grains such as millet, amaranth, brown rice, etc.)
5. Flax seeds (grind them before adding to foods)
6. White beans (or lentils, white beans, black beans, etc.)
7. Dates (or other dried fruit – in moderation)
8. Blackberries (or strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc.)
9. Sea vegetables (nori, dulse, hijiki, etc.)
10. Edamame (young whole soy beans)
By Dina Aronson, MS, RD
Originally posted on Health.com