Start your day with a donut and you’ll probably feel sluggish before noon. Leave your half-finished lunch to run to a meeting and you may be nodding off before it ends. You’ve eaten, yes—but you haven’t eaten for energy.
Your body is much like a high-performance vehicle—it needs premium fuel (or a proper balance of nutrients) to perform its best and help you keep your pep throughout the day. And like a car, you’ll hit empty if you go too long before “gassing up.” Food provides you with calories, of course—what you need for energy at the most basic level. But it also influences a deciding factor in how energetic you feel: your blood sugar.
Blood Sugar and Energy
Blood sugar (glucose) fuels your organs and muscles. The hormone insulin gets it where it needs to go, when it needs to be there. Regular meals and a proper combination of carbohydrates, protein and a bit of fat in your diet help keep the delicate balance of the two in check, helping your body function optimally and you feel your most vital.
However, if you go too long before eating or rely too heavily on carbs (particularly simple ones, such as white bread, white potatoes, white rice and refined flour foods, like cookies), your blood sugar skyrockets. Insulin floods your bloodstream in an attempt to bring levels back to normal, which only causes blood sugar to dramatically plummet. Where you once felt ready for anything, these extremes leave you feeling foggy, irritable, sleepy and hungry. Your body craves more of those simple carbohydrates, because it knows they will quickly get your blood sugar back up again. This perpetuates a fast-changing cycle of blood sugar changes—and, thus, frequent energy peaks and valleys.
Energy levels that stay higher, longer, then, are owed in large part to blood sugar that stays relatively even. Achieving that may sound a little complicated, but re-calibrating your eating to put your too-tired days behind you isn’t as hard as you may think:
Create Balanced Meals and Snacks
Remember: Each meal should ideally include some protein and a dose of healthy fat, along with a carbohydrate-rich food. Protein and fat slow digestion and absorption of the carbohydrate, resulting in a steadier blood sugar. High-fiber, whole food carbs are best, since they are digested more slowly than simple ones. Choices that are also low on the Glycemic Index provided added benefit—they raise blood sugar more slowly than their higher counterparts. A perfect energy-boosting meal might be a small piece of salmon over brown rice and a stir-fry medley; grilled chicken, herbed quinoa and roasted vegetables; or a bowl of vegetarian bean chili and a generous side salad with a drizzle of olive oil. Cheese and some whole wheat crackers, or an apple with a smear of almond butter make for great snack choices.
More: Feel Fuller Longer
Don’t Forget Breakfast!
Having a bite to eat in the morning jump-starts your metabolism and provides the fuel your brain needs to function well and stay alert; it also gives your blood sugar (and energy) a lift after hours spent sleeping. To create the nutrient balance we recommend, try pairings like whole grain cereal and low-fat yogurt, or eggs with a side of oatmeal. Not a “breakfast person?” Think outside the box: A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread; a whole wheat tortilla filled with black beans, salsa and low-fat shredded cheese; or even a piece of leftover chicken breast from last night’s dinner are all great breakfast meals (even if they aren’t typical ones). Even organic chocolate milk is a solid option.
Eat Every Three to Four Hours
Blood sugar levels drop to their lowest point about four hours after your last meal—why you may feel like you only have enough energy for a nap if you don’t munch on something between lunch and dinner. Though you may be used to only eating when you’re ravenous, you can stave off mid-day energy slumps by having a healthy snack between meals—even if your stomach isn’t yet rumbling. In addition to the above options, you can try a handful of nuts and some fruit, a small bowl of edamame or some veggies dipped in hummus as “mini-meals.” Doing this will not only keep your blood sugar levels even, but make you less likely to overeat during regular meal times.
Enjoy Healthy Portions
While overeating has the potential to impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight, undereating can zap your energy stores and your metabolism. Make sure that you’re eating enough to satisfy not just your wishes, but your body’s needs. If you’re skipping meals—or eating very little—as a way to rein in your waistline, know that this rarely (if ever) results in long-term weight loss. In fact, it can cause your metabolism to slow down over time and strip you of the energy you’ll need to stick with an effective exercise program. At mealtime, fill your plate using this formula: Half fruits and veggies, a quarter carbohydrate and a quarter protein.
Drink Water Throughout the Day
Water delivers oxygen and nutrients to every cell in your body; it may also play a role in your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. When you become even mildly dehydrated, your body becomes less efficient, making you feel tired and cranky. How much do you need to drink? Six to twelve glasses a day is a good goal, though remember that herbal tea, clear broth and water-based foods like broccoli, carrots, lettuce, oranges and the appropriately-named watermelon also count. Your urine is your best gauge: A clear to pale yellow color means you’re on track, while a darker hue indicates that you need to drink up.
Wellington-Garner, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., C.P.T.