You chug down your coffee first thing in the morning, and you’re good for a while. You’ll eat your lunch around noon, and maybe you’ll grab another cup around then, too.
But then you hit it: the 3 p.m. wall.
Some will blame their sluggishness on the short days, others on their constant need for caffeine, but in actuality their diet may be to blame. Consumption of adequate protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and, most importantly, water, is essential for remaining alert throughout the day. In addition, processed foods, sugar and caffeine may be hindering your ability to get things done.
“People have the tendency to reach for quick-energy foods, but consuming them will often lead to an energy high before they crash,” said Ann Suls, a registered dietitian who owns Nutrition 4 U in Bedford and has more than 20 years of experience in the field. Some foods that we may think are healthy (such as power bars) may in fact be slowing us down, as many of them are primarily composed of sugar. Thus the immediate sugar high, followed by a sugar down.
Which, inevitably, is when it seems to be time for another coffee or sugar boost.
The key thing is to keep your energy steady throughout the day, Suls said. Foods full of carbohydrates, fiber and protein will fulfill energy needs and keep you from crashing. Eating every three to four hours will also keep blood sugar on an even keel.
Instead of coffee and so-called energy bars, reach for a snack with protein, about 150 to 200 calories, and pack meals with helpful nutrients. There is no need to avoid a certain group (fat, carbs, protein, etc.). What’s important is ensuring that your picks are whole foods with high nutrient content.
A hard-boiled egg, cottage cheese coupled with fruit, dried fruit, trail mix, a lettuce wrap, vegetables with hummus, or an apple with a Nutter Butter are all good choices for a quick fix, Suls said. Instead of a sugary “energy bar” or a caffeine burst, grab a healthy food from one of any of the food groups.
Avocado, nuts, flax seed, sesame seed, almonds, pumpkin seeds, nut butters, walnuts and foods rich in vitamin E are great snacks for energy throughout your day.
Protein should be eaten at each meal, Suls said, but these particular sources provide better brain energy: wild salmon, yellow fish tuna, free-range eggs (the “ultimate protein,” according to Suls), kidney beans, chick peas, egg whites, and organic chicken and turkey. Suls highly recommends edamame for vegans, as it is less processed than soy or tofu.
As far as grains, she recommends lentils and steel-cut oatmeal in particular, as well as brown rice, black beans, sweet potatoes and quinoa. These provide fiber and help with cholesterol management.
Fruits and vegetables, of course, are at the top of the list. For energy, Suls emphasized the green and leafy vegetables and those from the cabbage family — think spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Fruits are always good to have, but different fruits do different things. Oranges, apples and bananas are great for quick energy and are often utilized in sports nutrition. Fruits rich in antioxidants, such as berries (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries), appear to aid in memory, as do other deep red and deep purple fruits.
Suls said that one cup of coffee per day is fine, but she is more inclined to recommend a cup of green tea. It too can provide a caffeine boost, but it is rich in antioxidants. Green tea will boost your metabolism, Suls said.
Someone who is extremely active may look at daily nutrition differently from one who is less active.
“There are different ways to look at energy; it depends on what energy source you’re looking into,” Suls said.
Jenna A. Bell, nutrition blogger for runkeeper.com and co-author of Energy to Burn, said that it’s less about food and more about nutrients.
“If you are active, you will use more carbohydrates during your activity, and therefore you will benefit from consuming more carbohydrate-rich foods. Additionally, if you’re consistently active, your protein needs increase. Choose lean meats, nonfat dairy, soy protein, eggs and nuts,” Bell said.
Water may be your greatest ally in remaining energetic.
“Lots of people think they’re tired and fatigued, but really they’re low on fluids. Lots of times you’re not tired or hungry as much as you think. Water really gives us energy in terms of our body and how it functions,” Suls said. How to tell if you’re dehydrated? Bell says you can tell by checking urine color — shoot for a “light lemon, not a Mountain Dew.”
Vitamin deficiency also can affect your energy level. Deficiency in vitamin D may cause sluggishness or even depression during the wintertime, Suls said. And in January, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D. It’s a controversial topic, as too much sunlight can increase risk for skin cancer.
“Lots of people don’t know they’re low. Vitamin D deficiency can cause depressive mood, muscle/joint fatigue, and vitamin D deficiency shows to be a risk factor for certain types of cancer,” Suls said. It’s rare that people will get their daily 15 minutes of sunlight during the wintertime, and even if they do, their winter coats may be in the way. Milk is a great source of vitamin D, but a lot of people aren’t milk drinkers. Supplements are available, but Suls recommends getting vitamin D levels measured and talking with your doctor before taking any action.