Do you find yourself losing steam by your mid-morning meeting? Can’t seem to drag yourself from the couch in the evening? Or are you feeling dull, sluggish, and drained, day in and day out? Warning: you could be in the middle of an energy crisis – and we’re not talking about oil.
Eating For Energy
You don’t need a degree in biochemistry to understand that what you eat has an effect on your energy. In a nutshell, food is human fuel, and energy comes directly from the calories (a unit of energy) in food. We need this energy to stay alive – we need it to breathe, to move, and even to pump blood. And just as filling your car with the wrong type of gas will lead to engine failure, filling your body with the wrong kinds of food will leave your body tired and diminish its performance.
“According to Ayurveda – the world’s most ancient system of preventive healthcare that aims to integrate the body, mind, and spirit – prospective energy is produced by the proper and healthy digestion of the right foods,” says Dr. Partap Chauhan, director of the Jiva Ayurveda Center for Incurable Diseases. The good news is you probably don’t have to drastically change the way you eat to increase your energy. Most likely you’re already eating many of the healthy foods best-suited for energy. It’s really just a matter of eating the right foods, at the right time, in the right combinations. Here’s how:
- Balance: Always balance meals and snacks with the right combination of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Aim to derive 45 – 65 percent of your calories from complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and veggies; 20 – 35 percent from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils; and 10 – 35 percent from such lean protein sources as low-fat cheese and lean meat, fish, or poultry. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, protein gives you staying power, and healthful fats provide satisfaction and help you feel full.
- Go whole: Unlike refined or processed grains, fiber-rich whole grains provide a steady energy supply to keep you going at full throttle. They’re also chock-full of healthy vitamins and minerals, and researchers have found they lower your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and constipation. And while all whole grains are good grains, Ayurveda considers rye, quinoa, amaranth, and millet to be the most energizing of all. Look for breads, cereal, crackers, etc., that contain 100 percent whole grains. Keep in mind that packages won’t identify flours as refined. If the label does not say “100% Whole” check the ingredient list for refined culprits like white flour (usually listed as bleached or unbleached enriched wheat flour), semolina or durum flour, and rice flour.
- Go fresh: Fresh vegetables and fruits not only contain living energy but are nutritional powerhouses brimming with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and disease-fighting phytochemicals that may protect against cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
- Break the fast: By skipping breakfast you’re not only depriving your body of much-needed calories (you’ve likely just gone 8 to 10 hours without food!), but you’re also setting yourself up to eat the wrong foods later in the day when you reach for anything to dull your hunger pangs. Eat a balanced breakfast within an hour of waking up to provide your body with the calories it needs, and to keep yourself from getting on the daily energy roller-coaster.
- Eat small meals: Too much food is just as dangerous for your energy as too little food. When you send a huge meal into your stomach, your body makes digestion a priority. The result? You feel sluggish, uncomfortable, and tired. An easy fix is to divide large meals into mini-meals or snacks. In fact, experts favor adding a morning and afternoon snack to your daily meal schedule, and downsizing your other three meals to boost energy, as snacking can help you avoid an energy crash by keeping your blood sugar steady (see Snack Attack).
- Think dense: Maximize your energy with nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients, but are relatively low in calories. For example, a small cookie and an orange have about the same number of calories, but the orange also contains vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. For the best energy results, aim for maximum nutrition with the fewest calories.
- Hydrate: Dehydration can sap your energy. In fact, fatigue and weakness are the all too common symptoms of mild dehydration. A healthy body can’t be an energized machine if it’s not a well-hydrated machine, so always remember to hydrate – this means approximately 9 cups a day of water for women, and 12 1/2 cups for men.
- Take a mulitvitamin: Hands-down, food, not pills, is the best way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs to work at its peak. However, eating a perfectly well-balanced and healthy diet (including at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as well as whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meat, poultry, or fish) on a day-to-day basis is not always possible, and taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement is a sensible insurance policy to help you fill in the nutrition gaps.
Just as there are foods that can help give you that extra “oomph,” there are also foods that can drag you down. Ironically, the very foods we often count on for a quick energy fix – candy bars, soda, power bars, and coffee – are the very foods to avoid if you want long-lasting energy. Eating these kinds of unhealthy foods might amp you up for an hour or so, but that’s only because they cause your blood sugar levels to quickly peak. However, these levels will quickly drop, leaving you with worse cravings and more tired and lethargic than before. Yikes. And that’s not all. “Eating a Power Bar or drinking a cup of coffee can provide instant energy but regular use of these produces ama (or toxins) inside the body that causes lethargy and dullness,” says Partap.
Other energy-drainers include fast foods (whether canned, frozen, or packaged) and processed food laced with preservatives, chemicals, and additives. While complete abstinence from these energy zappers might seem a little extreme, simply moderating their intake will help put the pep back in your step.
Here are some simple solutions that provide long-lasting energy when you need a pick-me-up.
- Before a meeting: In-between meal options that contain complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and a little healthy fat, not only help your body stay fueled, they’ll also help you stay focused during your power-point presentation. Crackers and low fat cheese, cereal and milk, baked chips and salsa, or peanut butter and apple slices are all good options.
- On a long hike or bike ride: Hikers and bikers need concentrated energy they can carry in small portable forms. Trail mix (dried fruit and nuts) is an ideal choice that provides a good combo of calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
- Before a workout: For the best workout results you should eat well throughout the day so that your body is well nourished. And be sure to have a small, carbohydrate-rich snack about 30 minutes before you exercise. A piece of fresh fruit is a great way to give your body a pre-workout boost.
- After a workout: Studies show that 15 – 60 minutes after a workout is the optimal time for a small snack with lots of carbohydrates (to replace depleted glycogen stores) and a little protein (to repair muscle). A few slices of turkey on a whole-wheat bagel, yogurt with a piece of fruit, or half a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread would do the trick.
- While traveling: Finding a balanced meal on the road can be next to impossible, so it’s a good idea for travelers to carry meal-replacement bars. Just be careful of the glorified candy bars that are chock-full of sugar. Instead, look for bars that contain at least a few grams of fiber, low in sugar, and high in protein.