We are all aware of the benefits of getting enough sleep and taking exercise to boost energy levels, but what some of us don’t realize is the value of eating the right foods for energy, and ensuring we make the right choices. Fueling for energy is vital because our lives are so busy that we can forget to make time for the right nutrition, but it plays such a huge role in keeping us going through the day. Skipping meals and reaching for sugary snacks is the exact opposite of what we should be doing to fuel correctly.
The importance of feeling energized
Feeling energized brings so many other positive effects – we feel alert, happy, engaged, and interested in the things we choose to do, and we do them with intention and focus. We have the energy to be able to dedicate our whole selves to those things. When we aren’t fueled correctly, we feel lethargic and fatigued, we are yawning and reaching for caffeine to perk us up.
The digestion of food
As you know there are 3 macro-nutrients, which form the main sources of energy for the body – protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Proteins and fats digest more slowly than carbohydrates do, and this is very important to know, to be able to make the right choices around food and thereby energy levels.
Carbs are broken down into Complex and Simple Carbohydrates. We don’t need to go into composition, but the key sources for each are different and important to be aware of.
Examples of simple carbs are sugars found in fruits, milk, refined sugar, and refined flour products.
Complex carbs or fibre are whole grains, vegetables, and legumes.
If you understand which foods do and don’t keep you satisfied and keep your blood sugar stable, you will be able to focus on fueling with the right foods, which will keep you energized and your moods even-keeled for longer.
After you consume carbs, they are broken down in the body and converted into glucose (blood sugar), which is metabolized by the body to produce energy.
Simple carbs are digested quickly, which is why you feel an immediate hit when you eat something sugary, providing fast energy but not lasting very long, as it is followed by a sudden energy dip.
If you were to pair a ‘healthy’ simple carbohydrate, like fruits with a complex carbohydrate/fibre, for example, overnight oats with berries, it will be slower to digest and provide more energy over a longer period, supporting insulin levels.
Blood sugar is an important consideration for health because when it is consistently out of whack (or homeostasis) it can cause insulin resistance and further health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.
Dysregulated blood sugar causes symptoms such as dizziness, foggy brain, headaches, mood swings, anger and irritability, sudden dips in energy and many more.
At homeostasis, there is 1 teaspoon of sugar or glucose in our blood. So, when we eat carbs, they digest and convert into glucose, and insulin (hormone) is secreted to get sugar out of the blood and into the body cells to bring it back into homeostasis, to the correct level (1 teaspoon) again.
I’m sure you can then gather that the amount of glucose in our blood rises depending on the quantity of carbs we digest, as well as whether we pair it with protein, fats, or fibre, which can slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. This combination has a big effect on energy levels and how long they last.
As we know digestion is important to enable the body to absorb all the nutrients from the food, and proteins are what our enzymes are made of. Enzymes help us break down and digest food, so you can see now why protein is critical in our daily diet. Proteins also aid blood flow, which in turn, helps the nutrients get where they need to go, especially the nutrients that are supportive of energy production like B vitamins and magnesium.
Ensuring you have a source of protein in every meal is therefore important.
Decades of dietary advice around eating low-fat foods have sent incorrect messages about the importance of consuming good quality fats. Our body needs them! Why? Fats nourish our brain and body cells, and fats also help us to produce hormones (chemical messengers) and to balance our blood sugar levels. We also use fats as an energy source (longer lasting), it helps with insulation and protection and supports brain and nerve health.
Balancing our plate
As you can see, finding the right balance of the 3 macro-nutrients in meals is the best way to manage blood sugar levels and therefore energy levels too.
Finding what works for you and your energy levels will differ from someone else and so it is a good idea to start with a baseline, and then assess how you feel after meals.
A good starting point for your meal is the following:
● 1-2 palm sizes of protein (fish, meat, soy, oat bran, beans, lentils, nuts, quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds)
● 1-2 cupped hands of complex carbs (whole grains, legumes, or starchy vegetables like sweet potato, white potato, butternut squash)
● 1-2 fist-sized portions of non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, leeks, peppers, tomato, cauliflower, mushrooms, carrots, baby corn)
● 1-2 thumbs (or tablespoons) of fat (olives, olive oil, avocado, avocado oil, coconut, wild-caught fish, organic grass-fed meat)
You could try this approach for a couple of weeks. Do you feel energized or sluggish? If it is the latter, go ahead and make changes.
Don’t skip meals because this will only make you feel hungry and crave carbs and you may find you are reaching for the wrong foods.
The importance of nutrients for energy
There are certain vitamins and minerals that also play a vital role in creating energy production from food, and thereby our energy levels, in the body.
Not many people know that B vitamins are pretty much required by all our body cells to metabolize energy from the food digested from carbs, proteins, and fats. These vitamins allow us to use food as fuel in a better way.
Good sources are whole grains, beans, lentils, leafy green vegetables, meat, and eggs.
Magnesium, iron, potassium, copper, phosphorus
These minerals are also very important for supporting energy production. All of these are present in a lot of different foods, and therefore it is very important to “eat the rainbow” because this forces a variety of foods into your diet.
Good sources are nuts, seeds, leafy greens, meat and seafood, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes – they overlap with the B vitamins list, so that makes life easier!
If you have variety in your diet, you will naturally be supporting energy production.
The importance of hydration
We have said digestion is a vital process in ensuring the release of nutrients from food, and for that to happen smoothly, we need to make sure we are hydrated. Our bodies are 70% water, and we need to ensure we keep it in balance. When we are hydrated, our body can deliver all the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and hormones where they need to go.
I know it isn’t easy but try to get into a habit of drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning – you will notice how much it boosts your metabolism. Drink throughout the day, aiming for 2-3 litres of still water (excluding any additional hydration for exercise).
Top 5 ways to eat for energy
1. Balance your plate with the right proportions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates/fibre (use the diagram above as an initial guide)
2. Write down how you feel during and after meals to see if the proportions work best for you and your energy levels; adjust where needed
3. Ensure you ‘eat the rainbow’ getting plenty of colourful fruits and veggies onto your plate – variety = vitamins and minerals
4. Combine carbs with proteins and fats, to ensure blood sugar levels aren’t spiking, and you feel fuller for longer
5. Hydrate first thing in the morning and throughout the day
Feeling energized is a combination of many things but fueling often gets overlooked. Sleep, exercise, and the right nutrition are a formula for success if you want to feel energized.
Finding the right balance on our plates with the right macro-nutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates/fibre) during each meal will ensure you have the energy levels to cope with a busy and hectic schedule. Combining foods, to slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream avoids blood sugar dysregulation, and keeps you feeling fuller for longer, without mood swings. Ensuring you ‘eat the rainbow’ with as many varieties of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes as possible, will ensure you are getting enough of the vitamins (B) and minerals (magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorus, potassium) that create energy from food.
Hydrating first thing in the morning, and throughout the day will keep the body at homeostasis and support digestion, so all the nutrients get to where they are needed in the body.
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