Key takeaways:

    • A diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods may help keep your energy levels high.

    • If an iron deficiency is the cause of your fatigue, eating an iron-rich diet may help.

    • Staying hydrated and limiting refined carbohydrates may contribute to you feeling more energized.

Breathing, sleeping, reading, playing sports, learning a new language — all of these things take energy. But having enough energy to do the things you want isn’t all that common. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America® Poll 2020 about half of the participants reported feeling sleepy from 3 to 7 days per week. Many things could be affecting your energy levels (poor sleeplack of exercisework, diseases like hypothyroidism, just to name a few), but one you might not think about is your diet.

You can help your body run more efficiently by fueling your energy tank with good sources of nutrition and adequate hydration. Here’s how to build a diet that gives you the energy you need.

What’s the link between eating and energy?

Technically, all food provides energy. Carbohydrates, fat, and protein (macronutrients) are broken down by the body and used either as a source of energy or as building blocks for other molecules. Of the three macronutrients, your body primarily focuses on carbohydrates and fat for energy. Cells in your body decide which to burn depending on what the food you’re feeding it is made up of.

Without proper energy from the foods you consume, basic functions such as talking or even breathing would be challenging.

What foods and drinks will give me energy?

A healthy diet is key to sustained energy. Here are some tips and tricks for building an energy-boosting diet.

Nutrient-rich, whole-foods

The advice of eating nutrient-rich, whole foods for your overall well-being may also apply to keeping your energy levels high. For example, a high-fat, low-carb meal or a high-carb, low-fat meal may cause you to be tired. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can provide your body with sustainable energy throughout the day. Try to choose complex carbohydrates (over simple ones) as they release glucose (sugar) into the blood gradually, providing the body with a steady supply of energy. And when opting for starchy carbohydrates, whole-grain options are best, as they are rich in fiber and will keep you full for longer.

The Mediterranean diet includes many of these nutrient-rich, whole foods. And it has been found to decrease fatigue in different populations, such as people with cancerfibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis. A Mediterranean diet has even been shown to increase enduranceThe following are included in the Mediterranean diet:

    • Various vegetables

    • Whole fruits

    • Whole grains

    • Lean proteins

    • Healthy fats like those from nuts and fatty fish

    • Lower fat dairy products

What’s more, some foods have been studied specifically for their energy-boosting properties. Like, did you know beets and bananas may increase exercise endurance? And polyphenols in chocolate may improve fatigue?

An unhealthy and unbalanced diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies, and this can lead to fatigue.

Iron-rich foods

Without enough iron, your body does not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, fueling its many functions. Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anemia and can make you feel weak and extremely tired. Iron deficiency can be prevented with an iron-rich diet in some people. (Pregnant people or people who are losing blood through an ulcer or heavy periods, for example, will need iron supplementation monitored by a healthcare professional). While eating iron-rich foods may not necessarily give you a boost of energy, it can help prevent iron deficiency in some people. Many foods are rich in ironincluding:

    • Tofu

    • Oats

    • Lentils

    • Animal liver

Keep in mind that getting all nutrients from food, not just iron, is important. In addition to eating a healthy balanced diet, taking a multivitamin may decrease the chance of having a nutritional deficiency. Different people’s nutritional needs vary, and your healthcare provider can help you determine what is best for you. Some people, like vegetarians, need to take a vitamin B12 supplement, and since vitamin D deficiency is common, many people may also have to take vitamin D.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 is a great resource to review to see if you are getting enough nutrients in your diet.

Water and water-rich foods

Water makes up most of your body weight and plays an important role in every major organ of the body — you can’t live without it! But it’s easy to take for granted. Even slight dehydration can decrease your body’s ability to function properly. One of the warning signs of dehydration is a drain in your energy levels.

Everyone’s water needs vary and may be customized depending on your size, climate of location, physical activity level, and health status.

However, the National Academy of Medicine recommends about:

    • 3.7 liters (or 125 ounces) water daily for men

    • 2.7 liters (or 91 ounces) water daily for women who are not pregnant or lactating

Remember, not all of this fluid has to be obtained from drinking water. You can also get fluid through food, like fruits and vegetables. In fact, cucumbers, cauliflower, watermelon, strawberries are over 90% water!

What should I avoid?

Not all foods and drinks will give you energy equally. Some foods may leave you feeling sluggish, while some drinks might affect your ability to sleep, leading to fatigue.

Refined carbohydrates

In general, listing items into a “never food” category is unhealthy, and indulging on special occasions will probably not have significant health effects. However, because different kinds of foods are converted to sugar at different rates, some may give you a quick burst of energy but leave you feeling tired shortly after. This is the case with refined carbohydrates, which are usually found in processed foods. These include:

    • Packaged snacks, sweets, and breads

    • Candy

    • Sodas and other sugary drinks

    • Some breakfast cereals

Aside from not offering sustainable energy, these foods have been linked to overweight and obesity, some cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Be cautious with coffee and alcohol

There are some precautions to keep in mind when it comes to caffeinated drinks and alcohol. Coffee, and other caffeinated drinks, can be used for quick pick-me-ups but, if drunk too late in the day, can affect your sleep, causing you to be more tired the next day. If you drink coffee, keep in mind it can stay in your body for up to 12 hours.

As for alcohol, it’s a depressant, meaning it slows your body down. It can also affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. If you do choose to drink, stay within the limits of moderation: two drinks a day for men and one for women. Excess consumption of alcohol can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which can lead to fatigue.

How to eat for energy

We know that what you eat matters, but does how you eat also affect your energy? Here’s what you need to know about eating and drinking habits and how they may affect your energy levels.

Number and timing of meals per day: Does it matter?

There isn’t good research out there that can help make recommendations on the effects of meal timing and frequency on energy levels or overall health. Naturally, if you wait too long between meals to eat, you may start to feel sluggish as your blood sugar drops, but the time it takes for this to happen will differ from person to person depending on factors such as age, sex, weight, overall health and type of diet.

Avoid crash diets

Crash diets, which often include strict calorie restrictions, can not only leave you feeling tired and sluggish but could also be dangerous.

While they may be tempting to try, they are not designed to be kept up successfully for long periods and may lead to more weight gain in the future. Instead, adopt a healthy, nourishing, and energy-boosting diet that you enjoy eating daily.

The bottom line

Energy is sustained from the food we put into our bodies every day. So how can we contribute daily to feeling more energized and healthy? Avoid high sugar, packaged foods. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake. Eat nutrient-rich, whole foods and stay hydrated. Healthier habits provide your body with the valuable nutrients it needs to maintain your energy level over a sustainable period. As always, make sure to see a healthcare provider if you are experiencing fatigue or low energy levels.

Source: ~ Written by Donna Kim MS, RD, CDCES, CNSC | Reviewed by Aunna Pourang, MD ~ Image: Canva Pro

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